October 20, 2014 08:07 UTC

Home

American History: Meeting in Philadelphia to Write a Constitution

Do you want to know more about American history? Learn about American history and improve your American English with this story.

US Constitution - We The People
US Constitution - We The People

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story
From VOA Learning English, welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in Special English. I’m Steve Ember. This week in our series, we continue the story of the United States Constitution.

In May of 1787, a group of America's early leaders met in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They planned to amend the Articles of Confederation. That document established a loose union of the 13 states. Instead, they wrote a completely new constitution. It created America's system of government and recognized the rights of its citizens.

That Constitution, with other amendments added over the years, is still the law of the land.

The delegates agreed to start the convention as soon as seven states were represented. On May 25th, they finally began. They gathered in the same room where America's Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

The first important decision was choosing a president for the convention. Several of the delegates urged the others to choose George Washington. Washington was the most famous man in America. He had led the forces that won the war for independence from Britain. The delegates agreed. Washington was their choice.

George Washington officially opened the convention with a short speech. He thanked the delegates for naming him president of the convention. But he said the honor was too great. He asked the delegates to forgive him if he made mistakes. After all, he said, he had never been chairman of a meeting before.

With those words, George Washington sat down. Here are two actors playing George Washington and James Madison. They discuss Washington’s role in writing the Constitution. 

WASHINGTON: “As for that document, I merely stood back and let the learned gentlemen do their work. I believe I spoke only once in convention, and that to a minor point.” 
 
MADISON: “I believe you do yourself an injustice, sir. As president of the convention, you led the way.”

Washington did lead the way, but it was not a straight path. From the beginning, the delegates agreed that they had the right to change their decisions. This was the rule.
The convention did not just discuss a proposal, vote on it, and move on to other issues. Any delegate could ask to again discuss any proposal or any decision. And they often did. The same speeches that were made the first time were made again. So days, even weeks, passed between discussions of the same proposal.

The delegates also agreed on a rule of secrecy. Guards were placed at the doors of the State House. Newspaper reporters were not allowed inside. And the delegates were not allowed to discuss convention business in public.

The secrecy rule led people to think all kinds of things about the convention. This was true especially in Europe. There, most people believed the convention was discussing how America could be ruled by a king. Europeans said a republican government worked in a small country, such as Switzerland. But it would not work, they said, in a land as large as America.

At the time of the convention, Thomas Jefferson was serving as America's representative to France. When he learned of the secrecy rule, he was angry. He believed strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
More than 40 years later, James Madison explained the decision behind the secrecy rule.

Madison said that if the convention had been open to the public, no delegate would ever have changed his mind after speaking on an issue. To do so would mean he was wrong the first time he spoke. And no delegate would be willing to admit to the public that he had made a mistake.

This was Madison's reasoning. If the meetings had been open, he said, the convention would have failed.

Another rule helped the delegates speak freely. They used a method of debate known as the committee of the whole. It was useful then and it is still used today in legislatures. Votes taken in the committee are not recorded as final votes. The committee of the whole provides a way for people to discuss ideas and vote, but also to change their minds.

To have the Philadelphia convention become a committee of the whole, the delegates needed to elect a chairman of the committee. They chose Nathaniel Gorham, a judge from Massachusetts.

Each morning at ten o'clock, the convention met and declared that it was sitting as a committee of the whole. George Washington then left the president's chair. Nathaniel Gorham took his place.

Just before four o'clock in the afternoon, the committee of the whole declared it was sitting again as a convention. Gorham would step down. Washington would take the chair and declare that the convention would meet again the next morning.
This process was repeated each day.

Because of these rules, the story of the Philadelphia convention would be difficult to understand if we told about events day-by-day. So, we will put the calendar and the clock away, and tell how each major issue was debated and settled.

On May 29th, the delegates heard what was called the Virginia Plan. This was the plan of government prepared by James Madison and other delegates from Virginia.
The Virginia Plan did more than suggest changes to the Articles of Confederation. It was, in fact, a plan for a completely new central government.

Immediately, the 33-year-old governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, proposed an amendment. The Virginia Plan, he noted, spoke of a federal union of states. But such a federation would not work, he said. Instead, Randolph suggested that the central government should be a national government. It should contain a supreme legislature, executive and judiciary.

For a few moments, there was complete silence. Many of the delegates seemed frozen in their chairs. Did they hear correctly?

Most of them did not question the idea of a government with three separate branches. Several states already had such a system. But to create a central government that was "national" and "supreme." What did these words mean exactly? What was the difference?

The delegates debated the meaning of the words -- federal, national and supreme -- for many days. Both James Madison and a Pennsylvania delegate, Governor Morris, tried to explain.

Madison said a federal government acts on states. A national government acts directly on the people.

Morris gave this explanation. A federal government is simply an agreement based on the good faith of those involved. A national government has a complete system of operation and its own powers.

Governor Morris pointed out that one day the delegates meeting in Philadelphia would be dead. Their children and grandchildren, he said, would stop thinking of themselves as citizens of Pennsylvania or New York or North Carolina. Instead, they would think of themselves as citizens of the United States.

Morris said the states had to take second place to a national government with supreme power.

Other delegates presented their own plans for discussion.
Alexander Hamilton of New York suggested giving the national government almost unlimited powers.

Hamilton's ideas were not popular.  After Hamilton's five-hour speech, one delegate said, "Hamilton is praised by everybody.  He is supported by no one."
New Jersey also offered a plan. An actor playing James Madison at a museum in Washington, DC says that plan was not popular either.

MADISON: And William Patterson unveiled the New Jersey Plan, calling for one house of equal representation. I knew that Delaware, Rhode Island, and the other small states would never go along with that.”

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.

For more than three months, delegates would debate each part, vote on it, then debate it again. The Virginia Plan formed the basis of discussion at the convention in Philadelphia. In the end, it formed the basis of the United States Constitution.

But there was still more to debate in writing the constitution, including the job of an executive branch to enforce the laws. That will be our story next week.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Aymen from: Iarq, Bagdad
01/06/2013 8:03 PM
Great story, I loved it I'm new to English language and it's an amazing articles that you guys made here it's very useful from it and I'm studying it and it's fun to read, just want to say THANKS and please keep 'em coming.


by: Mohamed Warsama Boss from: London, UK
01/04/2013 12:28 AM
Dear Voa,
I am very pleased that you published your article regarding the American history and constitution. The American constitution appeals to me greatly, even though nations or peoples don't comprehend the impact it had and have on the rest of the world. There is a long way to go to adapt this constitution in a developing country due to the hindrances that could impede. But, in the end it is doable so that each country interpret it in their own way. I believe the Bill of Rights amendment must be adapted in every country. And once that happens the world will be a better place. I am looking forward to reading your next article.


by: soroush namdarpour from: iran
01/03/2013 7:54 PM
best regard

Learn with The News

  • Local residents shout to a pro-democracy protester at a main street at Mong kok district in Hong Kong Friday, Oct. 17, 2014.

    Audio Will Hong Kong Unrest Affect Politics in Taiwan?

    Voters in Taiwan are preparing to choose to vote in local elections that may be partly shaped by protests in Hong Kong. As the election gets closer, leaders of both of the country’s main political parties are being pressured to strongly support democracy activists in Hong Kong. More

  • north korean balloon

    Video Activists to Continue Launching Balloons into North Korea

    An earlier launch across the border led to an exchange of gunfire between North and South Korean troops. South Korean leaders have asked activists to stop launching balloons, but do not have the power to make them do so. | As It Is More

  • African Cheetahs

    Audio Is Cheetah Fast Enough to Survive?

    In 1900, about 100,000 cheetahs lived in the world. Today there are only 10,000 of the animals. It appears that the cheetah is vulnerable to attacks by other animals because of its physiology -- the way its body operates. The cat simply burns a lot of calories -- the energy produced by food. More

  • South Sudan Africa Predicting Famine

    Audio Report: Two Billion Suffer from 'Hidden Hunger'

    People who suffer from hidden hunger have enough to eat, but the quality of their food is low. Ten of the 14 countries with the highest rate of "hidden hunger" are located south of the Saharan Desert in Africa. Several Southeast Asian and South Asian countries have improved since 1990. More

  • Foad, the brother of 15 year-old Nora who left her home in Avignon for Syria nine months ago, shows a portrait he took last September on his cell phone as he attends an interview with Reuters in Paris, Oct. 6, 2014.

    Audio European Women Answer the Call of Jihad

    Hundreds of young Europeans and others have joined jihadist groups in the Middle East. Experts estimate that up to 10 percent of the new members are women. These women are reacting to the lure, or appeal, of a pure Islamic state. And they seem to like the idea of fighting in combat for the jihadists More

Featured Stories

  • Millions of years of history, which can be found on the ocean floor, are collected and analyzed at the Core Repository in New York.

    Video Scientists Create New Maps of Ocean Floor

    Until recently, scientists had mapped only about 20 percent of the sea floor. But our knowledge of the deep seas is changing because of information from satellites. Scientists have produced a new map that provides a detailed picture of the oceans. More

  • General George McClellan created a strong Union force, but he worried he did not have enough men to defeat the Confederacy.

    Audio McClellan Approaches Richmond ... And Waits

    The North and South clashed in a series of battles called the Seven Days Campaign. The struggle saved the Confederacy but came at a terrible price. More

  • Solar Storm

    Audio How to Weather a Solar Storm

    The sun’s energy creates light and heat. It also produces charged electrical particles and magnetic fields. The sun can keep the earth nice and warm and helps our crops to grow. But a sudden burst of that solar energy can cause a power outage. More

  • Video Sting, War, Lou Reed for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame officials nominated Green Day, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Kraftwerk. Also included were The Marvelettes, N.W.A., Nine Inch Nails, The Spinners and The Smiths. | American Mosaic More

  • COLUMBUS

    Columbus Discovers America

    Generations of schoolchildren have been taught that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. In fact, the second Monday in October is celebrated as a national holiday, Columbus Day, to honor the European explorer. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs