The fifty-five men who gathered for the Constitutional Convention included some of the most prominent Americans. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, serving as diplomats in Europe, did not take part. But among the delegates were George Washington (whose willingness to lend his prestige to the gathering and to serve as presiding officer was an enormous asset), George Mason (author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights of 1776), and Benjamin Franklin (who had returned to Philadelphia after helping to negotiate the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and was now eighty-one years old). John Adams described the convention as a gathering of men of “ability, weight, and experience.” He might have added, “and wealth.” Few men of ordinary means attended. Although a few, like Alexander Hamilton, had risen from humble origins, most had been born into propertied families. They earned their livings as lawyers, merchants, planters, and large farmers. Nearly all were quite prosperous by the standards of the day.
At a time when fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans attended college, more than half the delegates had college educations. A majority had participated in interstate meetings of the 1760s and 1770s, and twenty-two had served in the army during the Revolution. Their shared social status and political experiences bolstered their common belief in the need to strengthen national authority and curb what one called “the excesses of democracy.” To ensure free and candid debate, the deliberations took place in private. Madison, who believed the outcome would have great consequences for “the cause of liberty throughout the world,” took careful notes. They were not published, however, until 1840, four years after he became the last delegate to pass away.
It quickly became apparent that the delegates agreed on many points. The new Constitution would create a legislature, an executive, and a national judiciary. Congress would have the power to raise money without relying on the states. States would be prohibited from infringing on the rights of property. And the government would represent the people. Hamilton’s proposal for a president and Senate serving life terms, like the king and House of Lords of England, received virtually no support. The “rich and well-born,” Hamilton told the convention, must rule, for the masses “seldom judge or determine right.” Most delegates, however, hoped to find a middle ground between the despotism of monarchy and aristocracy and what they considered the excesses of popular self-government. “We had been too democratic,” observed George Mason, but he warned against the danger of going to “the opposite extreme.” The key to stable, effective republican government was finding a way to balance the competing claims of liberty and power.
A fifty-dollar note issued by the Continental Congress during the War of lndependence. Congress’s inability to raise funds to repay such paper money in gold or silver was a major reason why nationalists desired a stronger federal government.
The Philadelphia State House (now called Independence Hall), where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the Constitutional Convention took place in 1787.
Differences quickly emerged over the proper balance between the federal and state governments and between the interests of large and small states. Early in the proceedings, Madison presented what came to be called the Virginia Plan. It proposed the creation of a two-house legislature with a state’s population determining its representation in each. Smaller states, fearing that populous Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania would dominate the new government, rallied behind the New Jersey Plan. This called for a single-house Congress in which each state cast one vote, as under the Articles of Confederation. In the end, a compromise was reached—a two-house Congress consisting of a Senate in which each state had two members, and a House of Representatives apportioned according to population. Senators would be chosen by state legislatures for six-year terms. They were thus insulated from sudden shifts in public opinion. Representatives were to be elected every two years directly by the people.