January 26, 2015 12:23 UTC

USA

American History: States Plan for Constitutional Convention

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Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
 
This week in our series, we begin the story of a document that defined a nation: the United States Constitution.
 
The 13 American colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776. But they had to fight for that independence in a long war that followed. During that war, the states were united by an agreement called the Articles of Confederation.
 
But the union of 13 states was loosely organized. The Articles of Confederation created a weak central government. The document did not create courts or provide for a president or other executive to carry out laws.
 
The Articles of Confederation did create a Congress. But that legislature had little power or money. When British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, a messenger brought the news to the Congress. But Congress could not even pay the messenger. So money had to be collected from each member.
 
The war ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. Even before then, three influential Americans had called for a change in this loose confederation of states. The three were George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They urged the formation of a strong central government.
 
George Washington commanded America's troops during the revolution. He opposed the Articles of Confederation because they provided little support for his army. His soldiers struggled with shortages of food, warm clothing, shoes and other supplies.
 
Here is an actor playing George Washington in a show at the National Archives. He is talking about the Articles of Confederation.
 
"In my mind, it prolonged the war by several years. Every time I needed men or money to prosecute the war, I had to go to 13 sovereign heads of state, hat in hand. Even now, under peacetime conditions, we are like a giant with 13 heads, tottering towards a cliff."
 
Alexander Hamilton was a young lawyer who served as an aide to General Washington during the revolution. Hamilton called for a convention of the 13 states to create a new central government. He expressed his opinion in letters, speeches and newspaper articles.
 
Finally, there was James Madison. He was one of the authors of the state constitution in Virginia in 1776. When Madison, Hamilton and Washington looked at the Articles of Confederation, they saw an unhappy picture.
 
There were thirteen governments that each tried to help themselves at the expense of the others. Each state had its own army. Nine states had their own navy. The states had these forces to protect themselves – from each other.
 
For example, Virginia passed a law which said it could seize ships that did not pay taxes to the state. Virginia did not mean ships from Great Britain or Spain. It meant ships from other states, like Maryland and Pennsylvania.
 
“Basically, the thought was, we need a military defense structure, we need a modest army and a navy, we need to regulate trade with Europe, and individual states in a loose confederation won’t do the job.”
 
Akhil Reed Amar is a professor at Yale Law School. He says Americans realized a strong central government could improve their national security system.
 
In 1786, representatives from Maryland and Virginia met to discuss opening land for new settlements along the Potomac River. The Potomac formed the border between those two states.
 
The representatives agreed that the issue of settling new land was too big for just two states to decide. Someone asked, Why not invite Delaware and Pennsylvania to help? Someone else said all the states should be invited. Then they could discuss all the problems that were giving the new nation so much trouble.
 
The idea was accepted. And a convention was set for Annapolis, Maryland.
 
The convention opened as planned. But it was not much of a meeting. Representatives came from only five states. The men who did meet at Annapolis, however, agreed that it was a beginning. They agreed, too, that a larger convention should be called. They appointed the representative from New York, Alexander Hamilton, to put the agreement in writing.
 
So Hamilton sent a message to the legislature of each state. He called for a convention in Philadelphia in May of the next year, 1787. The purpose of the convention, he said, would be to write a constitution for the United States.
 
The nation was new, but the idea of a constitution was not. Law professor Akhil Reed Amar explains that the earliest settlers had formed political agreements called compacts, charters or corporations. These agreements developed into state constitutions.
 
“And then, in 1787, '88, the idea becomes to try to continentalize, to take on a much bigger scale this idea of a written constitution, setting forth the rules for how people would govern themselves. What government could do and not do, what their powers would be and what the limits would be.”
 
Even so, he says Americans were not sure about creating such a constitution. Amar says they were afraid a new central government might be as arrogant and out of touch as the King of England had been.
 
However, most people slowly came to believe that a strong central government would protect their country better than the loose union of thirteen states could.
 
Many people also believed that a constitutional convention would not succeed without George Washington. People wanted to elect him president of the convention. But Washington did not want to go. He suffered from rheumatism. His mother and sister were sick. He needed to take care of business at Mount Vernon, his farm in Virginia. And he already said he was not interested in public office.
 
George Washington was the most famous man in America. Suppose only a few states sent representatives to the convention? Suppose it failed? Would he look foolish?
 
Two close friends -- James Madison and Edmund Randolph -- urged George Washington to go to Philadelphia.
 
He trusted them. So he said he would go as one of the representatives of Virginia. From that moment, it was clear the convention would be an important event. If George Washington would be there, it had to be important.
 
The first delegate to arrive in Philadelphia for the convention was James Madison. Madison was 35 years old. He was short and losing his hair. He was not a good speaker. But he always knew what he wanted to say. He had read everything that had been published in English about governments, from the governments of ancient Greece to those of his own time.
 
Madison believed the United States needed a strong central government that was more powerful than the 13 states.
 
Madison also knew that he should not push his ideas too quickly. So he planned his work quietly. He came to the convention with hundreds of books and papers. He was prepared to answer any question about government that any other representative might ask him.
 
Madison asked the other delegates from Virginia also to arrive early. He wanted to enter the convention with a plan for a strong central government. He was sure no other state would do this. Two Virginia delegates came early, as requested. Together, the three men worked on Madison's plan.

The only other delegates there were from Pennsylvania. Nobody seemed worried that there were no delegates from the other eleven states. After all, it took two weeks to ride a horse to Philadelphia from New Hampshire in the northeast. And it took as long as three weeks to get to Philadelphia from Georgia in the south.
 
Finally, the other delegates started coming a few at a time. Fifty-five men in all from twelve states. Pennsylvania sent the most delegates -- eight. Rhode Island sent none. A few of the delegates were very old. But many were in their twenties or thirties. The average age of the delegates was just 43 years.
 
From the moment the convention began, Madison kept careful records of everything everyone said. He never stopped writing. If it were not for James Madison, we would know little of what happened at that historic meeting in Philadelphia in 1787.
 
Later, Madison explained how he did it. He wrote:
 
"I sat in front of the president of the convention. All the other delegates were on my right and on my left. I could hear everything the president said. I could hear all the words of every delegate. I made notes only I could understand. Then, at night in my room, I wrote out completely all the speeches and acts. I attended the convention every day. I was there as long as the delegates were meeting and talking."
 
James Madison's full records of the convention were not published until thirty years later.
 
The Constitutional Convention will be our story next week.
 
You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
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