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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-4


A Citizens Introduction to Federalism: Federalism and the Future of Constitutional Government


Part I: The Articles of Confederation and the Constitutional

Convention of 1787



The fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention were “confronted with three major tasks:


The first was to improve the relationship among the States, or to create ‘a more perfect union.’ The second was to design a federal government with limited, delegated, and enumerated powers sufficient to govern effectively, reserving to the States and the people thereof those powers not delegated, in order to protect their rights and liberties and prevent the central government from usurping them. The third task was to implement the principle of ‘government by consent’ and to confer legitimacy upon the new government by building it upon a solid foundation of popular sovereignty, without sacrificing the sovereignty of the States that agree to join the Union.[25]


Matthew Spalding, a noted scholar of the American founding, wrote that “the challenge for the American Founders in framing the Constitution was to secure the rights and liberties promised in the Declaration of Independence, preserving a republican form of government that reflected the consent of the governed, yet avoided despotism and tyranny.”[26] This was the challenge for the delegates at the Constitutional Convention to devise a government that was strong enough, but also limited as to protect fundamental liberties. Fortunately the convention in Philadelphia represented some of the best minds in Western political philosophy.


George Washington, the hero of the American Revolution, held considerable respect, and was selected to chair the Constitutional Convention. George Washington’s role at the convention and his support of the Constitution was vital. Washington’s colleague from Virginia, James Madison would also be an indispensible leader at the convention and even though the deliberations were kept secret, his notes tell the story of the convention.  Although not everyone agreed with each other, and some even left, the Constitutional Convention was described more as a “gathering of polite friends than an assemblage of angry political zealots.”[27] As James McClellan described:


Under the influence of gentle manners, the Convention was conducted with a decorum not since encountered in these United States, as delegates of differing views observed with one another the old traditions of civility. Temperate speech led to moderation, and moderation made it possible for the Framers to resolve their differences peaceably and to achieve a lasting consensus.[28]


To create a government that was republican, based on representation, abiding by the rule of law, and protecting both the sovereignty of the people and the states was a difficult challenge and hitherto unique to world history. Specifically the Framers had to devise a government that would solve the problems facing the nation. Some of these issues that needed to be resolved included:


    • Put the government on a sound financial footing;
    • Remove trade barriers, both with foreign countries and among the several States, and improve the flow of commerce;
    • Provide sound money for the country, and improve both public and private credit;
    • Set up means for strengthening the United States in the conduct of foreign policy;
    • Obtain a greater degree of cooperation among the thirteen States, and require the state legislatures to protect the rights of property owners;
    • Maintain good order under a republican form of government by preventing rebellions and mob violence when the state governments might be incompetent for that important task;
    • Give the whole country such advantages as uniform bankruptcy laws, copyrights and patents, a postal service, management of western territories and Indian relations, naturalization of immigrants, and in general provide important services that state governments could not.[29]

As the Philadelphia Convention began, the initiative was taken by James Madison, who would become the “Father of the American Constitution,” and the Federalists (nationalists) when the Virginia Plan was introduced by the delegation from Virginia. The Virginia Plan startled some of the delegates, especially those from small states, who feared that not only was this proposal a complete replacement of the Articles, but if adopted, that it might lead to dominance by the larger states.


The Virginia Plan:


Called for a strong ‘consolidated union’ that would act directly on individuals rather on state governments. The national government, divided into three branches, would have extensive powers on all questions on which the states were not competent to act. In an extraordinary provision of national power, the legislature would be able to veto any laws passed by the states. The legislature would consist of two houses, the first or ‘lower’ house chosen by the people and the second or ‘upper’ house elected by the lower house, without regard to representation of the states.[30]


By introducing the Virginia Plan, James Madison and the nationalists were able to take control and establish the focus of the debate on completely replacing the Articles of Confederation. Delegates from the small states were fearful of the Virginia Plan, since it obviously favored larger states, because representation would be based on population and not equality as it was under the Articles of Confederation. The thought of having a national legislature veto laws passed by state governments was also horrific to many of the delegates who were especially supportive of states’ rights.


In response to the Virginia Plan, William Patterson of New Jersey introduced the New Jersey Plan, which called for strengthening the Articles of Confederation and protecting the small states.  The New Jersey Plan:


called for a series of amendments to the Articles of Confederation that would have strengthened the power of Congress to raise money, and added a federal judiciary and an executive council empowered to use force to compel compliance with the Confederation’s laws…Congress would consist of representatives chosen by the state legislatures, not the people directly; national laws would only apply to states, not to individuals; and the powers of the general government would be severely limited.[31]


The New Jersey Plan did not carry enough support to defeat the nationalists, but a compromise had to be reached by the delegates. The Great Compromise or the Connecticut Compromise became the middle ground for delegates. Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, offered the Great Compromise, “under which a House of Representatives would be apportioned based on population and each state would have an equal vote in a Senate.”[32]  Eventually a Committee of Detail was formed to hammer out a draft Constitution and the “delegates continued revising the draft until September 17, 1787 when they signed the Constitution and sent it to the Congress of the Confederation, and the convention officially adjourned.”[33]




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