The Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Miracle in Philadelphia | Eastern North Carolina Now

If we look back on our grade school education, we remember being taught the very fundamentals of what went on at the Constitutional Convention.

    Publisher's note: This is the second part of a three-part series by Diane Rufino, which celebrates the rich history of the United States of America by examining three essential components of our past:

"Our English History"

"The Constitutional Convention of 1787 - A Miracle in Philadelphia"

"Our Founding Principles - The Beginning of the American 'Experiment' "

    The first installment was a treatment of our English heritage before and after the American Revolution. In the second installment, Mrs. Rufino will delve into one of her most knowledgeable subjects - the United States Constitution.

    Included in the development of this series are these companion pieces: The Magna Carta, The Petition of Right of 1628, The Habeous Corpus Act of 1679, The Declaration of Independence, The English Bill of Rights of 1689, Timeline of Events Leading to the Revolutionary War.

    If we look back on our grade school education, we remember being taught the very fundamentals of what went on at the Constitutional Convention. We remember the key areas of contention between the individual states - how the government should be structured, how the representatives from the states should be apportioned, how the interests of the smaller states and the interests of the larger states can both be equally represented in government, how the states can retain their sovereign power in the face of a centralized, federal government, and what to do about the slaves and the issue of slavery. But so much more was accomplished. The Constitutional Convention and the drafting of the Constitution represented something much more monumental and significant.

    The Constitutional Convention (also known as the Philadelphia Convention) took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its purpose was to address problems in governing the United States of America under the Articles of Confederation following independence from Great Britain. The Convention was originally intended to amend the Articles of Confederation to make it more effective in dealing with issues common to all the states and acting on their behalf. Apparently, the intention of certain delegates, namely James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, was not to amend the Articles but rather to create a new government altogether. The delegates persuaded a very sick and debilitated George Washington to act as the President of the convention and to preside over it after several attempts to organize such a meeting had failed to spark sufficient interest.

    The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included many men who we consider today as our "Founding Fathers." These are the men we credit for giving us our new nation, as so perfectly conceived and designed. A few of our most important Founders were not present at the Convention. Thomas Jefferson, one of our most prolific and well-read Founders, was in France during the Convention, acting as Minister to that country. John Adams was also abroad on official duty for the newly-independent nation, as Minister to Great Britain. Patrick Henry was also absent; he refused to go because he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy." He might have been referring to Alexander Hamilton, who strongly admired the British monarchy. Also absent were John Hancock and Samuel Adams. All the states sent delegates to the Convention, except Rhode Island which refused to send any.

Oliver Ellsworth*
William Samuel Johnson
Roger Sherman

Richard Bassett
Gunning Bedford, Jr.
Jacob Broom
John Dickinson
George Read

Abraham Baldwin
William Few
William Houstoun*
William Pierce*

Daniel Carroll
Luther Martin*
James McHenry
John Francis Mercer*
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer

Elbridge Gerry*
Nathaniel Gorham
Rufus King
Caleb Strong*

New Hampshire:
Nicholas Gilman
John Langdon

New Jersey:
David Brearley
Jonathan Dayton
William Houston*
William Livingston
William Paterson

New York:
Alexander Hamilton
John Lansing, Jr.*
Robert Yates*

North Carolina:
William Blount
William Richardson Davie*
Alexander Martin*
Richard Dobbs Spaight
Hugh Williamson

George Clymer
Thomas Fitzsimons
Benjamin Franklin
Jared Ingersoll
Thomas Mifflin
Gouverneur Morris
Robert Morris
James Wilson

South Carolina:
Pierce Butler
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Pinckney
John Rutledge

John Blair
James Madison
George Mason*
James McClurg*
Edmund Randolph*
George Washington
George Wythe*

    Almost immediately, it was understood that our nation would need to be a republic rather than a true democracy. It would be a nation of laws and not a nation of men. It would be ruled by supreme law and not the mob. In 1780, seven years before the Constitution was drafted, Massachusetts put in its Constitution two very important principles that would be later embraced in the US Constitution - the concept of separation of powers and the rule of law. As it stated in the constitution governing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: "In the government of this commonwealth the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them -- to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men."

    Most people assume that this country is a democracy, but it isn't truly so. It is a republic, or a democratic republic as some call it. Understanding the difference between these two "forms" of government is essential to appreciating the fundamentals involved. A "democracy" operates by the direct majority vote of the people. When an issue is to be decided, the entire population votes on it and the majority wins and rules the day. The Founders explained that democracy rule is one that is guided by the majority "feeling." (ie, how the majority happens to be "feeling" at the time). The Founders therefore termed it "mobocracy." Example: in a democracy, if a majority of the people decides that the minority group can no longer own property, then the minority group is no longer allowed to own property. In a Democracy, the individual, and any group of individuals composing any minority group, have no protection against the unlimited power of the majority. As James Madison wrote: "Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions."

    Our Founders studied history and knew that no democracy ever lasted long - looking especially at Greece and Rome. Someone once wrote: "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: "From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage." [Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish born British lawyer and writer (1747-1813) ?].

    A "republic" on the other hand is where the general population elects representatives who then are constrained in their representation by the Constitution and other laws. A republic is a nation ruled by law. There is a degree of insulation between the people (who might try to rule in a frenzied mob style) and government rule. A republican form of government has a very different purpose and an entirely different form, or system, of government than a pure democracy. Its purpose is to control rule-making. More specifically, its purpose is to control the majority. It is designed to protect the minority from oppression by the majority. It is designed to protect the individual's (EVERY individual's) God-given, unalienable rights and the liberties of people in general. Our particular republican form of government has a separation of power because our Founders understood the inherent weakness and depravity of man. They knew that people are basically weak, sinful and corruptible, and will pit one men against another other, making it difficult to pass laws and make changes that are fair to everyone.

    With regard to the choice of a republican form of government, Madison made an observation in The Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 55): "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government (that of a Republic) presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another." [See later for a discussion of "Democracy v. Republic" by David Barton of]

    It is worth noting that the first genuine and solidly-founded republic in all history was the one created by the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1780. The Founders didn't have to look far for a template for our US Constitution.

    As a very old and very tired Benjamin Franklin was leaving the building where, after four months of hard work, the Constitution had been completed and signed, a lady asked him what kind of government the convention had created. The very wise Franklin replied; "A Republic, ma'am if you can keep it."

    At the Convention, there were 3 parties, each with a strong opinion as to the purpose of a government representing all the states. The first group was the Monarchists who were intent on stripping the individual states of all their sovereign powers and substituting one unitary, all-powerful government, to be responsible for all land and all people. Its most vocal proponent was Alexander Hamilton. He made a famous speech at the Convention in which he avowed his admiration for the British constitution and expressed his desire that the delegates model the American government after the British system. He called for a president who would be appointed for life, senators with life terms, and power vested in the president to appoint all governors. Each of these mirrors the British model.

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