By May 1787, the Articles of Confederation that bound the colonies together during the American Revolution were starting to unravel. The States were quarreling with each other over currency, land, waterway rights and debts. The European powers with designs on the new world laid in wait; preparing to devour the infant United States should she falter. The call went out to assemble in Philadelphia, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”
People became suspicious. Patrick Henry of Virginia refused to attend because he smelled a rat, and Rhode Island, keeping with her rebellious heritage, boycotted the convention. Eventually, twelve of the thirteen states would be represented. The first order of business was electing George Washington Convention President, and establishing a set of rules to encourage a full and open debate. However, it soon became evident that the Articles of Confederation could not be salvaged. A new government would be necessary; a new type of government suited to a new people, and a new nation.
The men who attended the convention were the cream of the colonies, well-educated and propertied; legislators and governors, leaders of the Continental Army, signers of the Declaration of Independence, and authors of the Articles of Confederation. They were seasoned, experienced, and politically shrewd. As they began their debate, and set about to construct a new government, it became apparent that the single greatest obstacle they faced, is what in Christian Theology is known as, “the fallen nature of man.”
The framers of the Constitution realized that human beings were corrupt, and it was man’s nature to abuse power. The dilemma they faced was, to whom to entrust the power; the government or the people? They knew the nation needed an effective government. However, they also understood that all governments gravitated towards tyranny. As Benjamin Franklin reminded them; a king will continue to tax the people to pay for his army and government, until he first takes all their money, then their land, and eventually, their freedom.
They also had serious reservations about the people’s ability to govern themselves. In order for the nation to succeed, the American people would have to rise to the challenge. They would have to be well educated, informed, involved, and above all else, moral. Experience had taught the framers that the people could be easily manipulated, and controlled by politicians who promised them entitlements from the national treasury. If the American people were not vigilant about their self-government, the nation would fail.
Drawing on the lessons of history, they discussed and debated every possible form of government, and came to the conclusion that a Republic, a nation of laws, with three distinct branches; the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, would offer the greatest chance of success. However, the devil is in the details, and that’s where things became difficult.
Should there be one Chief Executive or a council of three? Should he serve for life? Should he have absolute power to veto the laws of Congress, or should there be a mechanism to override his veto? Should he be appointed by the Legislature, or elected by the people? How many houses should make up Congress? How will representation be determined; proportional by population, or equally by state? Should they be appointed by their state legislatures, or elected by the people. Can they hold an office in both their state government and federal government at the same time? Are state governments even necessary? Wouldn’t it be better to dissolve the state governments and consolidate everything under the national government? Who was going to pay Congress; their home states or the national treasury?
Benjamin Franklin opposed paying government officials a salary. He believed that the two things men most coveted were money and power, and creating a government office that offered both, would only attract the worst possible candidates.
They worked and debated through the brutally hot summer, continually struggling to balance and reconcile the allocation of power. Often, tensions and emotions ran high; big states versus small states, north versus south, and farmer versus merchant. Some delegates became despondent and quit, returning to their home states in frustration and despair. Several times it appeared that the convention was at an impasse, and would dissolve in failure, but they continued compromising, working with each other for the benefit of the new nation. Slowly, the Constitution began to take shape; word by word, line by line, every paragraph and phrased was discussed and debated until it was right. As the convention came to a close that September, not a single person in attendance was completely satisfied, five of the delegates refused to sign it, but what they had accomplished was truly miraculous; something never before seen in human history; a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
On the last day of the convention, Benjamin Franklin too old and sick to stand and address the assembly had James Wilson read some remarks that he prepared. He recognized that the Constitution was not perfect, but he implored his fellow delegates to like him, doubt a little of their own infallibility, and sign the document. However, Franklin pessimistically went on to make a prediction. He said that initially the government would succeed in benefiting the people, but eventually, like all governments, it would end in despotism, because in the end, the people would become so corrupt, that only a tyrant could rule them.