When delegates gathered in Philadelphia 230 years ago this week to consider changes to the structure of the general government, many prominent delegates brought plans to create a much stronger central authority, shifting power away from the states. However the Constitution that actually came out of that convention established a limited general government with power remaining primarily in the states.
On May 14, 1787, delegates from the several states convened in Philadelphia, forming a convention with the initial aim of proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Over the course of the next four months, they formulated a model for a new general government which would require the positive ratification of nine states. According to Article VII, it was a compact between states “so ratifying the Same.”
James Madison and Edmund Randolph went to the Philadelphia Convention advocating for a “National Legislature” with a general legislative authority. Instead, this form of legislature was rejected in favor of a specific list of enumerated powers, reserving the remainder to the states. The two Virginians called for the executive to be elected by a “National Legislature” much like in their own state. Instead, a state-based electoral college was created to elect the executive.
Madison and Randolph supported a bicameral legislature, where both houses would be apportioned by population and the lower house would elect the upper house. Instead, one house of apportioned by population while the other would have equal suffrage. Madison and Randolph drew plans to allow for a powerful federal judiciary, with the power to rule on all cases of perceived importance.
Instead, the Constitution authorized a less powerful judiciary that could only adjudicate original certain types of cases. Madison and Randolph went to the Philadelphia Convention with the hope that the Congress would have a veto power over state laws. This proposal was exceedingly unpopular, and Madison complained about it in the months after the convention, eventually describing his disdain toward the omission in an October 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson.
Alexander Hamilton arrived with a plan that called for the executive to be a monarch, for him to appoint the State Senators and Governors, and for the states to effectively be dissolved and homogenized into a single body. The convention scorned this model, and he did not get his wish. Hamilton also proposed that the Senators should serve for “during good behavior or life.” The obvious product of the Constitution is that they would serve six year terms.
John Mercer, Luther Martin, and James Wilson went to Philadelphia as friends of paper money, opposing any prohibitions against it. Instead, the Constitution prohibited both the states and the federal government from issuing such currency.
Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and James Madison left Philadelphia contending that a bill of rights was unnecessary and superfluous. During the First Congress, Sherman and Madison withdrew their opposition. The Bill of Rights was written, endorsed by Congress, and ratified by the states. It contained various explicit restrictions against the federal government.
Madison went to the Philadelphia Convention with the hope of defining treason as a crime committed against the general government as a whole. Instead, the Constitution defines the crime as an act perpetrated against individual states. He also went to the Philadelphia Convention promoting a binding power whereupon state governments would share responsibility for enforcing the laws and judicial decisions of other states. Instead, the finalized Constitution imposed no such requirement.
In Philadelphia, Gouverneur Morris envisioned the executive as an unimpeachable, irremovable figure. The result of the Constitution made the president, as well as all civil officers, subject to the impeachment and removal power. He was joined by Robert Morris in attempting to secure a power to institute a national bank with monopoly power over currency emissions. Their proposal was defeated.
Some new powers were delegated through the Constitution, mostly concerning items related to foreign matters and taxation. Still, the federal orientation of the government was maintained, and a general legislative authority was discarded in favor of enumerated powers. Ultimately, the finalized Constitution was much less nationalistic compared to alternatives such as the Virginia Plan and Hamilton’s Plan for government.
Notable Federalists in the states, such as Charles Pinckney, Edmond Randolph, Alexander Hamilton, James Iredell, and Fisher Ames described the Constitution in their respective state ratification conventions as a mechanism which would bring a limited government with specific enumerated powers, whereupon no other authority could be exercised.
The Tenth Amendment, which most states desired in order to make these assurances explicit, was deemed by Thomas Jefferson to be the “foundation” of the federal Constitution.