December 22, 2014 23:30 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

  • Audio Reports Say North Korea Hit by Huge Internet Outage

    North Korea appears to be experiencing a widespread Internet outage. Hours earlier, The U.S. warned it would answer a computer attack against Sony Pictures. U.S. investigators blamed that hack job on North Korea. Sony canceled the release of a disputed humor film about North Korea's leader. More

  • Investigators work at the scene where two NYPD officers were shot in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, Dec. 20, 2014.

    Audio Man Who Shot NY Police Officers Had Record of Violence, Mental Illness

    A top New York City police official says the man who killed two officers Saturday had a record of violence and mental problems. Ismayyil Brinsley shot officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in their police car in the Brooklyn, New York. He then shot and killed himself at a nearby train station. More

  • Word of the Year

    Audio What’s the Word of the Year?

    The American English dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster announces their word of the year for 2014. The publisher bases its choice on how many people look up the word in its online dictionary. Many search for these words after major news events or stories on entertainment and sports. More

  • Rice farmers in Cambodia tend to their crops. Some 12% of the country's paddy fields are believed to have been destroyed due to the flooding in Southeast Asia.

    Audio Cambodian, Thai Rice Voted Best in the World

    For the third straight year, the World Rice Conference has voted Cambodian rice as the world’s best. This year Cambodia shares the award with Thailand. Cambodia produced just one percent of the world’s rice in 2012. It is trying to increase that amount. The award may help. More

  • Google Scrubbing Search Results

    Video What’s the Top 'Trending' Search This Year?

    At the top of Google’s top-trending searches list is Robin Williams, the American comedian and actor who died four months ago. The list also includes the World Cup, Ebola, Malaysia Airlines, ISIS and Flappy Bird. Chances are that more people have heard of the game Angry Birds than Flappy Bird. More

Featured Stories

  • Nuclear fusion display at the Weiss Energy Hall, Houston Museum of Natural Science

    Audio Is a Fusion Nuclear Reactor Coming Soon?

    The United States technological organization Lockheed Martin says it will produce a working fusion nuclear reactor within five years. Lockheed Martin says it may have an operating prototype by 2017, and a version for sale by 2022. Fusion involves forcing together atomic nuclei. More

  • Obama National Christmas Tree

    Audio The History of Christmas in America

    In the first half of the 19th century, Christmas was a very different kind of holiday than it is today. People did not have a set way of celebrating. Christmas was not even an official holiday yet. More

  • Video Music Shows in Private Homes Gain Popularity

    Attending a live musical performance, be it in a huge arena or a small cafe, is an exciting experience. But here in the U.S., a very different kind of performance is gaining popularity: house concerts. “There's just a totally unique experience as opposed to playing like a coffee shop or a bar." More

  • Lee Surrenders to Grant at Appomatox

    Audio Southern General Robert E. Lee Surrenders at Appomattox

    General Robert E. Lee’s military skill and intelligence helped extend the war between the states. But even his skill could not save the South from the industrial power of the North and its mighty armies -- armies that were better-fed and better-equipped. On Sunday, August 9, Lee surrendered. More

  • Uganda Playground for Disabled Children

    Audio Helping Uganda’s Disabled Children Play

    You may think that all children have freedom to play. But for children who look differently from others or have physical disabilities, the idea of play can seem far away. An organization in Uganda is seeking to change that. Read on to learn words needed to talk about this sometimes difficult topic. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs