Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
May of seventeen eighty-seven, a group of America's early leaders met
in Philadelphia. They planned to make changes in the Articles of
Confederation, which created a weak union of the thirteen states. But
instead of changes, the convention produced a new document.
This week in our series, Frank Oliver and Richard Rael continue the story of the United States Constitution.
Last week, we told how the convention reached agreement on a
national judiciary. Delegates approved a Supreme Court. And they agreed
that the national legislature should establish a system of lower
The national executive -- or president -- would appoint the judges.
These courts would hear cases involving national laws, the rights of
American citizens, and wrongdoing by foreign citizens in the United
The existing system of state courts would continue to hear cases involving state laws.
We also told how the convention heard different proposals for a
national government. Virginia and New Jersey offered their plans.
Alexander Hamilton of New York presented a third proposal. It would
give the national government almost unlimited powers.
Hamilton's ideas were not popular. After Hamiliton's five-hour
speech, one delegate said, "Hamilton is praised by everybody. He is
supported by no one."
Delegates voted to reject the New Jersey Plan. They did not even
vote on Hamilton's plan. From that time, all their discussions were
about the plan presented by Virginia.
delegates began to discuss creation of a national legislature. This
would be the most hotly debated issue of the convention. It forced out
into the open the question of equal representation. Would small states
and large states have an equal voice in the central government?
One delegate described the situation this way. "Let us see the
truth," he said. "This is a fight for power, not for liberty. Small
states may lose power to big states in a national legislature. But men
living in small states will have just as much freedom as men living in
The issue brought the deepest emotions to the surface. One day,
Gunning Bedford of Delaware looked straight at the delegates from the
"Gentlemen!" he shouted. "I do not trust you. If you try to crush
the small states, you will destroy the confederation. And if you do,
the small states will find some foreign ally of more honor and good
faith who will take them by the hand and give them justice."
The debate on legislative representation -- big states against small
states -- lasted for weeks that summer in Philadelphia. Delegates voted
on proposals, then discussed other proposals, then voted again.
By the beginning of July, they were no closer to agreement than they
had been in May. As one delegate said: "It seems we are at the point
where we cannot move one way or another."
So the delegates did what large groups often do when they cannot
reach agreement. They voted to create a committee. The purpose of the
committee was to develop a compromise on representation in the national
legislature. The so-called "Grand Committee" would work by itself for
the next several days. The rest of the delegates would rest and enjoy
themselves during the July Fourth holiday.
July Fourth -- Independence Day. It was a national holiday in the
United States. It marked the eleventh anniversary of America's
Declaration of Independence from British rule. It was a day for
parades, fireworks, and patriotic speeches.
The celebration was especially important in Philadelphia. It was the
city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Now it was the
city where a new nation was being created.
Convention president George Washington led a group of delegates to a
ceremony at a Philadelphia church. They heard a speech written
especially for them.
"Your country looks to you with both worry and hope," the speaker
said. "Your country depends on your decisions. Your country believes
that men such as you -- who led us in our war for independence -- will
know how to plan a government that will be good for all Americans.
"Surely," the speaker continued, "we have among us men who
understand the science of government and who can find the answers to
all our problems. Surely we have the ability to design a government
that will protect the liberties we have won."
The delegates needed to hear such words. Just a few days before,
Benjamin Franklin had expressed his thoughts about the convention. He
was not hopeful.
said: "We seem to feel our own lack of political wisdom, since we have
been running around in search of it. We went back to ancient history
for examples of government. We examined different forms of republics
which no longer exist. We also examined modern states all around
Europe. But none of these constitutions, we found, work in our
Franklin urged the convention to ask for God's help. He said each meeting should begin with a prayer.
Hugh Williamson of North Carolina quickly ended any discussion of
Franklin's idea. His words were simple. The convention, he said, had no
money to pay a minister to lead the delegates in prayer.
The convention returned to its work on July fifth. Delegates heard
the report of the Grand Committee about representation in the national
legislature. The report had two proposals. The Grand Committee said
both must be accepted or both rejected.
The report described a national legislature with two houses. The
first proposal said representation in one house would be based on
population. Each state would have one representative for every forty
thousand people in that state.
The second proposal said representation in the second house would be
equal. Each state would have the same number of votes as the other
The convention already had voted for a national legislature of two
houses. It had not agreed, however, on the number of representatives
each state would have in each house. Nor had it agreed on how those
representatives would be elected.
The proposals made by the Grand Committee on July fifth were the
same as those made by Roger Sherman of Connecticut a month earlier. In
the future, they would be known as the "Great Compromise.”
Delegates debated the compromise for many days. They knew if they
did not reach agreement, the convention would fail. Those were dark
days in Philadelphia.
Later, Luther Martin of Maryland noted that the newspapers reported
how much the delegates agreed. But that was not the truth. "We were on
the edge of breaking up," Martin said. "We were held together only by
the strength of a hair."
Delegates Robert Yates and John Lansing of New York had left the
convention in protest. But George Mason of Virginia declared he would
bury his bones in Philadelphia before he would leave without an
Even George Washington was depressed. He wrote to Alexander Hamilton, who had returned to New York temporarily.
"I am sorry you went away," Washington said. "Our discussions are
now, if possible, worse than ever. There is little agreement on which a
good government can be formed. I have lost almost all hope of seeing a
successful end to the convention. And so I regret that I agreed to take
During the summer of seventeen eighty-seven, the delegates argued
long and hard about how much power to give a central government. But
that question was not the most serious issue facing the convention.
Many years later, James Madison explained. He said the most serious
issue was deciding how the states would be represented and would vote
in a national government. That question, he said, was the one which
most threatened the writing of the Constitution.
That will be our story next week.
Our program was written by Christine Johnson and read by Frank
Oliver and Richard Rael. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A
NATION, an American history series in VOA Special English.
This is program #21 of THE MAKING OF A NATION