The Constitutional Convention : A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison
In 1787, the American union was in disarray. The incompatible demands of the separate states threatened its existence; some states were even in danger of turning into the kind of tyranny they had so recently deposed. A truly national government was needed, one that could raise money, regulate commerce, and defend the states against foreign threats-without becoming as overbearing as England. So thirty-six-year-old James Madison believed. That summer, the Virginian was instrumental in organizing the Constitutional Convention, in which one of the world's greatest documents would be debated, created, and signed. Inspired by a sense of history in the making, he kept the most extensive notes of any attendee.Now two esteemed scholars have made these minutes accessible to everyone. Presented with modern punctuation and spelling, judicious cuts, and helpful notes-plus fascinating background information on every delegate and an overview of the tumultuous times-here is the great drama of how the Constitution came to be, from the opening statements to the final votes. This Modern Library Paperback Classic also includes an Introduction and appendices from the authors.
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November 08, 2005
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Excerpt from The Constitutional Convention by James Madison
Tuesday, May 29. [in convention] On May 29, the aristocratic thirty-five-year-old governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, took the floor to attack the Articles of Confederation and introduce a series of resolutions for a new Constitution. The mandate of the Convention was only to revise and amend the Articles, but Randolph’s resolutions, known collectively as the Virginia Plan (see Appendix A), would scrap them and substitute a strong national government with final authority over what had been semi- independent states. The government would consist of a national legislature, judiciary, and executive—each with the ability to check the others’ power. The legislature would have two houses, or “branches,” with the larger one (the “first branch”) elected by the people and the smaller one (the “second branch”) elected by the larger one. The national legislature could veto state laws it deemed to violate the national Constitution, and it would choose the chief executive, who could veto the legislature’s laws with the aid of a Council of Revision. Mr. Randolph then opened the main business. . . . He expressed his regret that it should fall to him, rather than those who were of longer standing in life and political experience, to open the great subject of their mission. But as the Convention had originated from Virginia and his colleagues supposed that some proposition was expected from them, they had imposed this task on him. He then commented on the difficulty of the crisis and the necessity of preventing the fulfilment of the prophecies of the American downfall. He observed that in revising the federal system we ought to inquire (1) into the properties which such a government ought to possess; (2) the defects of the confederation; (3) the danger of our situation; and (4) the remedy. The character of such a government ought to secure (1) against foreign invasion; (2) against dissensions between members of the Union or seditions in particular states; (3) to procure to the several states various blessings of which an isolated situation was incapable; (4) to be able to defend itself against encroachment; and (5) to be paramount to the state constitutions. In speaking of the defects of the confederation he professed a high respect for its authors and considered them as having done all that patriots could do in the then-infancy of the science of constitutions and of confederacies. . . . He then proceeded to enumerate the [confederation’s] defects: (1) that the confederation produced no security against foreign invasion, Congress not being permitted to prevent a war nor to support it by their own authority. Of this, he cited many examples. . . . (2) that the federal government could not check the quarrels between states nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power nor means to interpose according to the exigency. (3) that there were many advantages which the United States might acquire, which were not attainable under the confederation—such as a productive impost [i.e., a tax on imports]—counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations—pushing of commerce ad libitum [at pleasure]—etc., etc. (4) that the federal government could not defend itself against the encroachments from the states. (5) that it was not even paramount to the state constitutions ratified, as it was, in many of the states. He next reviewed the danger of our situation, appealed to the sense of the best friends of the United States, the prospect of anarchy from the laxity of government everywhere, and to other considerations. He then proceeded to the remedy, the basis of which, he said, must be the republican pri