May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
The small states feared for their autonomy; the big ones thought it reasonable that their size and wealth justified doing whatever they saw fit. Matters of trade, law, taxation, slavery, and westward expansion were in dispute or disarray. Foreign powers refused to make treaties with us. Property owners hated the mob. Farmers hated bankers and lawyers. All agreed that the Articles of Confederation were too weak to unite, defend, or run the country—but just strong enough to be a nagging reminder of how unfulfilled were the hopes of a free people who had sacrificed so much in the Revolution a few years before. For George Washington, it appeared that the “political concerns of this country are in a manner suspended from a thread.…”
In May 1787 delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia to do something about all this. The spirit that informed them was one of patience, compromise, and negotiation. It was no measly spirit; there is a kind of heroism in maintaining civility in the face of another man’s passionate self-interest while acknowledging one’s own love of power; to watch one’s dearest principles mix and melt in the cauldron of national expediency.
Over and over again, as the summer weeks passed, it all seemed hopeless. Delegates grew disgusted and went home. Deliberations came to a halt almost daily. But enough members always remained, choosing compromise and more compromise, to keep the thread from breaking.
The result was a document that, without bloodshed, overturned the previous form of government and set the fundamental terms of discussion and action for an entire nation for two centuries. Only once in all our history did the thread break, and it took a Civil War to prove that there is, after all, one issue that is not negotiable for the American people—the union and integrity of the nation itself.
On September 17, the day of the signing, Randolph and Mason of Virginia and Gerry of Massachusetts refused to put their names on the new document. They saw it as a botched job. Mason prophesied that the new government would alternate “between a monarchy and a corrupt oppressive aristocracy.” It is amusing, in hindsight, to conjure up a flustered worthy refusing to be a Founding Father, rejecting a starring role in an event destined to become a myth. But the dissidents simply could not compromise any further. (Randolph, in any case, was dramatically to reverse himself at Virginia’s ratifying convention nine months later.)
Apart from a few geniuses, the Philadelphia convention was a working council of practical men, mostly wise, mostly contentious, and all apprehensive. Their blueprint was for a real, not an ideal, nation. They knew it would last only so long as it served—indeed, it never would have been adopted by the states without the assurance of a final compromise, the Bill of Rights.
When the Constitution was read aloud on the seventeenth, Franklin said he would sign “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
The myth of a convention of demigods who wrote a document that, unchanged, would last forever is appealing. The reality—sketched out in this issue—is better.