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This Week in History
May 10-16, 2015

The Convening of the U.S. Constitutional Convention,
May 14, 1787

May 14, 1787 marked the official opening date of the Philadelphia Convention which produced the Constitution of the United States, the most long-lasting national Constitution in existence, and the bedrock of principle upon which the United States of America is based. Deliberations among the delegates officially began in late May and continued through September of that year, though George Washington arrived before the Convention opened and immediately began discussions with Benjamin Franklin and others, as other delegates were slowly arriving.

As historian Robert Ingraham his recent ground-breaking paper on the battle of the New York-based Hamiltonians against the Virginia Slavocracy, there would have been no Constitution convention, but for the work of the genius Alexander Hamilton. Driven by his commitment to building a society which fostered the constant advance of the "productive powers of labor," Hamilton waged a relentless battle to create a Federal union devoted to that aim. Although not all of his objectives were reached, the establishment of the U.S. Constitution represented a victory over the Imperial Power, which represented a giant leap forward for mankind.

Hamilton's first known written advocacy for a Federal Convention to create a national union came in a letter to New York patriot, and later Mayor, James Duane in Sept. 3, 1780. At that time, Hamilton was still General Washington's aide-de-camp, and intimately aware of the disastrous state of the Army and the ability of the nascent nation to finally defeat the British, and hold together. The relevant passages are quoted below:

From Duane letter, Sept. 3, 1780

Alexander Hamilton.

...The first step must be to give Congress powers competent to the public exigencies. This may happen in two ways: one by resuming and exercising the discretionary powers I suppose to have been originally vested in them for the safety of the States, and resting their conduct on the candor of their countrymen and the necessity of the conjuncture; the other, by calling immediately a Convention of all the States with full authority to conclude finally upon a general confederation, stating to them beforehand explicitly the evils arising from a want of power in Congress, and the impossibly of supporting the contest on its present footing, that the delegates may come possessed of proper sentiments as well as proper authority to give to the meeting. Their commission should include a right of vesting Congress with the whole, or a proportion, of the unoccupied lands, to be employed for the purpose of raising a revenue; reserving the jurisdiction to the States by whom they are granted.

The first plan, I expect, will be thought too bold an expedient by the generality of Congress; and, indeed, their practice hitherto has riveted the opinion of their want of power, that the success of this experiment may very well be doubted.

I see no objection to the other mode that has any weight in competition with the reasons for it. The Convention should assemble the first of November next. The sooner the better. Our disorders are too violent to admit of a common or lingering remedy. The reasons for which I require them to be vested with plenipotentiary authority are that the business may suffer no delay in the execution, and may, in reality, come to effect. A Convention may agree upon a Confederation; the States individuality hardly ever will. We must have one at all events, and a vigorous one, if we mean to succeed in the contest and be happy hereafter. As I said before, to engage the States to comply with this mode Congress ought to confess to them, plainly and unanimously, the impracticability of supporting our affairs on the present footing and without a solid coercive union. I ask that the Convention should have a power of vesting the whole, or a part, of the unoccupied land in Congress; because it is necessary that body should have some property as a fund for the arrangements of finance; and I know of no other kind that can be given them.

The Confederation in my opinion, should give Congress complete sovereignty, except as to that part of internal police which relates to the rights of property and life among individuals, and to raising money by internal taxes. It is necessary that every thing belonging to this should be regulated by the State Legislatures. Congress should have complete sovereignty in all that relates to war, peace, trade, finance; and to the management of foreign affairs; the right of declaring war; of raising armies, officering, paying them, directing their motions in ever respect; of equipping fleets, and doing the same with them; of building fortifications, arsenals, magazines, etc., etc.; of making peace on such conditions as they think proper; of regulating trade, determining with what countries it shall be carried on; granting indulgencies; laying prohibitions on all the articles of export or import; imposing duties; granting bounties and premiums for raising, exporting importing, and applying to their own use, the product of these duties—only giving credit to the States on whom they are raised in the general account of revenues and expenses; instituting Admiralty Courts, etc.; of coining money; establishing banks on such terms, and with such privileges as they think proper; appropriating funds, and doing whatever else relates to the operations of finance; transacting everything with foreign nations; making alliances, offensive and defensive, treaties of commerce, etc., etc. ...

The Confederation should provide certain perpetual revenues, productive and easy of collection; a land tax, poll tax, or the like; which, together with the duties on trade, and the unlocated lands, would give Congress a substantial existence, and a stable foundation for their schemes of finance. What more supplies were necessary should occasionally demanded of the States, in the present mode of quotas.

If a Convention is called, the minds of all the States and the people ought to be prepared to receive its determinations by sensible and popular writings, which should conform to the views of Congress. There are epochs in human affairs when novelty even is useful. If a general opinion prevails that the old way is bad, whether true or false, and this obstructs or relaxes the operations of the public service, a change is necessary, if it be but for the sake of change. This is exactly the case now. It is a universal sentiment that our present system is a bad one, and that things do not go right on this account. The measure of a Convention would revive the hopes of the people and give a new direction to their passions, which may be improved in carrying points of substansial utility. The Eastern States have already pointed out this mode to Congress; they ought to take the hint and anticipate the others.

It was not long afterward that Hamilton began to wage that campaign of "sensible and popular writings" which would prepare the ground for the Convention. He published a series of six essays called "The Continentalist" in 1781-1782 that called attention to the deficiencies of the Articles of the Confederation. Then, in 1782, even though not member of the State Legislature, he drafted the first official call for changes to the Articles of Confederation--which passed the New York State legislature. A few years later, he also drafted the first official call for a national convention of the states, which passed the New York State legislature in 1785.

The future Treasury Secretary's role at the September 1786 Annapolis Convention, which issued the call to the states to go beyond the original purposes of making arrangements for improved cooperation on commerce and trade, in convening a national convention, is well known. The relevant section of the Call he issued reads as follows:

...Your Commissioners decline an enumeration of those national circumstances on which their opinion respecting the propriety of a future Convention, with more enlarged powers, is founded; as it would be a useless intrusion of facts and observations, most of which have been frequently the subject of public discussion, and none of which can have escaped the penetration of those to whom they would in this instance be addressed. They are, however, of a nature so serious, as, in the view of your Commissioners, to render the situation of the United States delicate and critical, calling for an exertion of the untied virtue and wisdom of all the members of the Confederacy.

Under this impression, Your Commissioners, with the most respectful deference, beg leave to suggest their unanimous conviction that it may essentially tend to advance the interests of the union if the States, by whom they have been respectively delegated, would themselves concur, and use their endeavors to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of Commissioners, to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to, by them, and afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, will effectually provide for the same.

Though your Commissioners could not with propriety address these observations and sentiments to any but the States they have the honor to represent, they have nevertheless concluded from motives of respect, to transmit copies of the Report to the United States in Congress assembled, and to the executives of the other States.

Would Congress agree to abide by this request? It was a fight, to be sure, but by the end of February, 1787, Congress endorsed a meeting of what some called the "Grand Convention" for the second Monday of May next. Ultimately, all the states but Rhode Island responded by appointing delegates to the Convention, where the great purpose laid out by Alexander Hamilton in the first Federalist Paper, published in October 1787, was taken up:

"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, dserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."