King’s Survey: Constituting a Nation

George Washington presides at the Constitutional Convention, 1787

In which we trace the long sweaty road (back) to Philadelphia to reset the government

So, Paolo, ready to play some history?


Excellent. Paolo, you’re George Washington. It’s early 1787 and you’re about three years into your retirement. You’ve been getting lots of visitors to Mount Vernon, and one of them is James Madison. Like you, Madison owns a plantation with lots of slaves. He served briefly in the Virginia militia during the Revolution, but spent most of those years in politics. In 1786, when angry and indebted veterans revolt under the leadership of Daniel Shays in Massachusetts, Madison is serving in Virginia’s House of Delegates. He’s very worried about this whole Shays thing. He fears that it’s the beginning of mob rule, and the only way to stop it is to reorganize the federal government, which has been operating under the clunky Articles of Confederation for the past ten years. But he knows that convincing people to undertake such a risky enterprise is going to be very hard. So he’s coming to you. He figures if you will throw your weight around an effort to reorganize the government, then maybe people will listen. So what say you, Paolo? Do you go to the meeting the Madison is planning, to be held in the nation’s largest city of Philadelphia?

—I guess so. I mean, why not.

Here’s why not: You made a big fuss about retiring three years ago. You went to Annapolis

—Oh yeah! The whole sword thing!

Right, Ethan. The whole turning in your sword thing. George III calling you the greatest man in the world because you walked away from it all. Now suddenly you want to come back? Really, Paolo?

—Well, maybe not.

—Go for it, Paolo!

—Go Paolo!

—Paolo Paolo he’s our man! If he can’t do it no one can!

I wouldn’t rush it, Paolo. I mean, even if people are willing to see you come back into public life, do you really want to stake your reputation on this? I mean, James Madison: he seems like a stand-up guy. And yes, there are problems in the country. But this whole meeting thingMadison is trying to get the each state to send delegates so they can form a new government, and he wants to use you to publicize the whole projectcould turn out to be a flop, or worse. You could come out of it looking foolish, or worse.

—Go for it Paolo!

—Don’t be a wuss!

Paolo, I need an answer.

—OK, I’ll go.

Paolo, are you responding inappropriately to peer pressure here?

—Naa. I think I want to go.

—He’s a patriot! He’s trying to do what’s best for his country.

Easy for you to say, Emily.

—No it isn’t! I fought for the Revolution, too! I want to save my country.

Who knew.

All right, so PaoloI mean George Washingtonis on board. Madison is a good organizer. Most of the states send people (Rhode Island, always the contrarian, sits this one out). These delegates gather in Independence Hallthe same place the Declaration of Independence was debatedfrom May to August of 1787. Their deliberations are on the down low. All the windows are closed. Everybody wears wool. Somebody forgot to turn on the air conditioner.


Actually, Sadie, wool is kind of an air conditioner. When you sweat and it gets saturated, it cools you off.

—Double gross.

Pop quiz: Adam, give me a quote from their secret deliberations.

—I can’t.

Correct. Why?

—Duh: secret deliberations.

Correct again. But Madison kept a diary that was published after his death. He also was apparently the primary author of the document that came out of it. So it’s time to ask: What were the big issues?


Hmm. Too big a question? Let me try and break this down a little. You’ve got twelve states represented there in Philly. There’s Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York. And there’s Delaware, Connecticut, New Jersey. Anything strike you about those two batches?

—They’re all in the middle of the country?

Well, yes. But that’s not what I was really thinking.

—Delaware is really small. Connecticut and New Jersey are, too.

Good, Sadie!

—Yeah, but is Virginia really that big?

Big in what sense?


Well, it’s bigger than it would be later, because it includes what it now West Virginia, which broke off during the Civil War. But yes, Virginia is one of the larger states. So there’s size. What else?


Yes, that’s what really matters. Though geography and population are more correlated than they would be later. But the realities aren’t always or what matters. In 1787, Georgia is considered a small state. But it’s growing rapidly. So it tends to think and act at the convention like a big one. So size matters. Even if it’s also a matter of perception.

You’re all laughing. Oh. Double entendre. Yes, Virginia, size matters.

Let’s move on. So Yin, I’m going to guess you did the reading. How did this large state/small state play out? What was the bone of contention?

It was about who would have more power. Virginia wanted the biggest states to get the most votes. New Jersey said no: each state gets one vote.

Succinctly put. You’re describing the Virginia and New Jersey plans for the legislature. And who won?

—There was a deal. It was called the Connecticut Compromise.

And how did that work?

—There would be a House of Representatives, and membership would be based on how large a state was. And there would be a Senate, where each state was the same.

Excellent. Somebody else: what was another line of division at the Constitution Convention?


Good, Sadie. And what was the nature of that controversy?

—Well, the slave states wanted slaves to count. And the free states didn’t.

Let’s back up a second. In 1776 how many states had slavery?




The correct answer is all of them. All thirteen. Massachusetts was the first to abolish slavery, in 1780, before the Revolution was even over. All the New England states followed. But in a way, that’s not especially important. The real point is that there were some states, notably South Carolina and Georgia, which really depended on slavery as the basis of their economies. Northern states never really did. Slaves up there were typically household servants. But in the South, they were the core of the agricultural labor force. How did that play out in terms of how slaves were counted? Ah, I see you’re once again ready to wade into the fray, Yin.

—The slave states wanted the slaves to count as people when it came to counting up the numbers for Congress. The free states said no.

A little counterintuitive, isn’t it? The southern slaves wanted the slaves to count. But they wanted them to count as white votes. So who won?

—They compromised again. The 3/5 Compromise. Each slave is 3/5ths of a person.

—I don’t get it. Why wasn’t it 50/50?

—Here’s what I don’t get: why didn’t they compromise at all? The North was more powerful than the South.

No, Ethan, it wasn’t. Until the Civil War, most of the nation’s wealth was in the South, not the North. But that wasn’t really the issue. Actually, a lot of people thought that slavery was on the way out in the 1780s. The number of slaves was declining; some observers thought that Negroes were biologically inferior and would gradually die off, the way Indians seemed to be doing. But the biggest problem was that the states with the biggest investment in slavery effectively held the Constitutional Convention hostage. They basically said: our way or the highway. We’ll just leave, and then this whole thing will come crashing down.

—Were they right?

Hard to know for sure. Clearly, they got the better end of the bargain. Though they didn’t get everything.

The large state/small state and slave state/free state were just two examples of the kinds of horse-trading that went on at the Constitutional Convention. In the most general sense, the issue was how much power the U.S. government was going to have, and how that power was going to be distributed. In the most basic sense, the delegates at the Constitution

—How many were there?

Fifty five, though some came and went. Anyway, they agreed there needed to be more central power: that’s why they were there. (Plenty of people were skeptical, even suspicious about this whole thing; they stayed away, hoping the convention would lack credibility as a result.) The delegates wanted to make it easier to raise tax revenue. And facilitate trade. And conduct foreign policy. They wanted, in short, a more perfect union.

—Hmmm. Where have I heard that phrase?

Anyway, we’re going to walk through this document. The seven sections, what they say, from the Commerce Clause to the Electoral College, the Constitutional Amendments. You need to read the document and study it. I’m going to give you a review sheet. For the next few nights, you should review and memorize key facts and concepts. You’ll be test on this on Friday.

—Sounds like fun.

No pain, no gain, Jonah.

Next: Test prep

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