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Constitutional Convention Summary & Analysis

Towards the end of his life, James Madison wrote that since no government can be perfect, "that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best government." This brand of optimistic realism infused the bold and uncertain strivings of the Constitutional Convention delegates. The unusually privileged and educated men who gathered in Independence Hall in the spring of 1787 sought to improve upon their fractured and imperfect union, but they had to struggle with widely divergent agendas and tenuous compromises in order to forge a "more perfect union." Though the colonies had rebelled against England as Americans, their inhabitants had lived their lives as Virginians or New Yorkers; that is, they identified best with the region that was closest at hand—their local government, colony, and culture. The notion of an all-encompassing national identity or allegiance was never an automatic or an easy transition. This was especially true in a country whose very existence derived from rebellion against a despotic king; fear of centralized authority was therefore bound to be a predominant factor in national life.

Yet by the spring of 1787, it had become clear to many that the pendulum had shifted too far in the other direction. The ardent revolutionary efforts to thwart tyranny by denying the central government the power to tax had backfired, as the country suffered economic unrest and social tension. Diplomatic failures ensued, and a weakened government with a small and poorly equipped peacetime army proved incapable of protecting and supplying settlers on the western frontier. Merchant vessels proved susceptible to attack and seizure by pirates. Congress could not reach a quorum because legislators were tired of showing up to work when they had no effective means of solving the problems that plagued the country. And the final blows came when the Confederation Congress's biggest achievement—the Northwest Ordinance, which allowed for orderly settlement of the Ohio Valley—did not reap the financial windfall that had been expected, in part because the military was too understaffed and underfunded to effectively protect frontier settlers.

Seeking to resolve these issues, representatives of all the states but tiny Rhode Island assembled to construct a more efficient, centralized, and effective government. The men who crafted this new blueprint were elites in their respective colonies; not all of them were tremendously wealthy, but they possessed formal schooling and privileges beyond the reach of most other Americans at the time. This made them suspect in many eyes; true American patriots like Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, and George Mason were understandably cautious about where this powerful new governmental framework might take the country. The delegates were also suspicious of one another; of whether the larger (or smaller states) were trying to gain undue influence and disproportionate power with the new government.

They debated far-reaching questions, such as the presence and future of slavery in American life, and whether—or how—to integrate that controversial system into the framework of a nominally republican government. They tried to create a stronger system, but one insured with checks and balances that would prevent the monopolization of power by any one person or branch of government. They sought to build a representative government, but felt that it was necessary to institute the electoral college and state legislatures as mediations between the people and the officials in the Senate and the White House. They succeeded because they were able to forge compromises; because they were dedicated to making their experiment in republican government succeed; and because they were later willing to combine these changes with a guarantee of certain rights and freedoms to the American people through the Bill of Rights.

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