The Constitutional Convention held in May 1787 in Philadelphia was intended to revise the Articles of the Confederation to make the union stronger. The Delegates later abandoned plans to revise and chose to create an entirely new constitution. The main focus was a second founding that would see the creation of a legitimate and effective national system (Lowi et al., 2021). The delegates understood the significance of a strong national government but also wanted to preserve state autonomy. The autonomy of states should also not be promoted to the degree that it hinders states from collaborating or becoming totally free from the federal government. Moreover, they wanted to give political rights to everyone but were also wary of mob rule as evidenced in Shay’s Rebellion (Krutz & Waskiewicz, 2019). In this paper, the issues of contention and the resulting compromises are discussed.
The main point of contention, however, was between small and large states regarding the question of representation. on the one hand, the interests of the large states were contained in the Virginia plan proposed by James Madison. The plan created a system of representation at Congress based on the population of every state or the percentage of income contribution to national government or both. It also proposed two houses comprising of two houses in which representation to the lower house was guaranteed through popular vote. Smaller states opposed this plan since it would favor large states and did not want their interests ignored. Hence, delegates from smaller states such as Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut proposed an alternative plan referred to as the New Jersey plan. The plan called for one assembly with equal representation irrespective of the populace. This issue threatened to crash the whole constitutional enterprises as delegates discussed, tempers rose, and sections schemed. Eventually, they reached compromise called the Great Compromise or Connecticut Compromise (Lowi et al., 2021). The agreement created Congress with two houses. The House of Representatives in which members would be allocated according to the population and the Senate in which each state would have equal vote irrespective of the size. Members in the House were to be elected through popular vote by registered voters in each state for a term of 2 years. Senators were to be appointed by the state legislatures for a term of six years before seeking reelection. Hence, the interests of bigger states were addressed in the lower house and smaller states in the Senate (Lowi et al., 2021). Meanwhile, Congress was granted bigger powers, including the power to tax, regulate trade and commerce, and maintain an army and navy. Most of this authority was lacking in the Articles of Confederation, including that of coining and borrowing money, declaring war, granting patents and copyrights, and creating laws to control naturalization and insolvency. While a legislature could be proposed by either house, it had to be passed by the majority in both chambers before being forwarded to the president for assent (Krutz & Waskiewicz, 2019).
The question of slavery also dominated Constitutional Convention. The main point of contention was the fundamental difference between a slave and non-slaveholding states-Southern planters and New England Merchants. More than 90% of slaves lived in five states of Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, South California, and Virginia, representing 30% of the population. If these slaves were to be counted as part of the state’s population, they would increase the representation of these slaves in Congress. Nonslave holding states demanded that slaves should not be counted in the distribution of congressional seats since they had no rights. They demanded that, if slaves were citizens, they must be treated and counted like other citizens. However, if they were property, other forms of property should also count towards the apportionment of Congress (Lowi et al., 2021). Southerners were too adamant and demanded that if the Northerners did not give in, they would never agree to create a new government. Some southerners including George Mason and James Madison were convinced that slavery was immoral but did not receive much backing from their counterparts who continued to argue for the inclusion of slaves in the allocation of congressional seats despite lacking full citizen rights. After lengthy deliberations, Northerners and Southerners reached an agreement popularly referred to as the Three-Fifth Compromise (Lowi et al., 2021). In this Compromise, the seats in the lower house would be apportioned based on population, with only three-fifths of slaves counted. The slaves were denied voting rights but were counted in the apportionment of the representatives. Some delegates strongly detested slavery, arguing that it went against the values and ideals of the Constitution. However, they agreed to the Three-Fifth Compromise out of expediency and not their moral sense (Lowi et al., 2021). The compromise also had another protection for slavery where Congress was granted the right to tax the import of slaves in exchange for a twenty-year withdrawal of any laws attempting to ban the importation of slaves to the country. This was made to protect the economy of southern states and even though many framers were opposed to slavery, they never made serious attempts to abolish it to maintain the union (Krutz & Waskiewicz, 2019). Hence, the North agreed to allow the slave trade to remain just to preserve the union. However, the issue would later threaten to wreck the union when the disparate interests between the two sides could no longer be reconciled.
Lowi, T., Ginsberg, B., Shepsle, K. & Ansolabehere, S. (2021). American government: power and purpose. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
Krutz, G. & Waskiewicz, S. (2019). American Government 2e. Place of publication not identified: OpenStax.