Philadelphia - Though 11 days late and still many members short, the Federal Convention finally secured the arrival of enough participants to begin discussing revisions to our Articles of Confederation. The Convention’s original slated start of May 14th saw only 2 delegations arrive in Philadelphia. Since then, 7 more delegations have completed their sojourns to the nation’s most populous city. By week’s end, 11 of the 12 participating state delegations will be in the city.
Electing a Convention Leadership
The first order of business addressed by the delegates was electing the Convention’s president. General George Washington of Virginia received unanimous support to fill the position. Mr. Robert Morris of Pennsylvania and Mr. John Rutledge of South Carolina initiated the push for Washington to be named president, though the blessing of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, the only delegate whose stature can equal Washington’s, surely helped secure the unanimous election.
After Washington’s election the delegates took up more menial tasks, such as the selection of Major William Jackson as Secretary and the creation of the Committee on Rules. Alexander Hamilton, Charles Pinckney, and George Wythe were the three delegates chosen to serve on the Committee on Rules. These members will propose baseline rules governing what delegates can and cannot do during the Convention.
The Rules Governing the Convention
The Committee on Rules will offer its proposal on the second day, May 28th. It will turn out that many of these rules will be procedural, though not all of them. At the suggestion of Pierce Butler, the Committee will consider additional rules—including one about publication of Convention proceedings. The issue of rules will finally be settled on the Conventions’ third day, with the members agreeing to keep secret the events of the Convention. With the rules agreed to, the delegates will pursue settling main business.
Randolph’s 15 Resolutions – The Virginia Plan
Having arrived in Philadelphia 2 weeks prior, the Virginia delegation was prepared to drive the Convention’s agenda. Virginia’s Governor, Edmund Randolph, staked out a position that some delegates saw as radical, arguing that the Convention should begin not by reviewing the Articles of Confederation, but by inquiring first “into the properties, which [a federal] government ought to possess.” He then presented a list of 15 resolutions, the major effect of which was to propose a national government superior in power to the state governments – including giving the national legislature power to veto state laws, and to use force to coerce the states to fulfill their duties to the national government.
When the Convention re-convened on May 30, chaos erupted. Not only would the Committee of the Whole not vote on Randolph’s resolutions, they would not vote on a series of 3 propositions stating, 1) that a confederation would not accomplish the objects of promoting the common defense, protection of liberty, and the general welfare; 2) that treaties among the states would not promote those objects; and 3) that a national government consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branch should be established. Some feared that Randolph’s proposal would abolish the state governments altogether. Others thought such a proposal exceeded the powers of the Convention. Six state delegations accepted the third proposition, and the Convention proceeded to another thorny debate – about how representatives to the national Legislature should be apportioned.For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.