Since, the movement to hold a second United States Constitutional Convention is having some success. It is a good time to examine America’s first Constitutional Convention.
There are a few things every American needs to understand about the first Constitutional Convention; or Con-Con, in Philadelphia in 1787. The first Con-Con was an incredible success, but it had some strange and troubling features.
1. The United States Constitution is a Compromise
The document that came out of the first Con-Con is a compromise. In particular, the Founders compromised between large and small states and slave states and “free” states.
For example, the notorious three-fifths compromise counted a slave as three-fifths of a human being. In addition, they gave each state two Senators to keep small states happy.
The final Constitution is a compromise between the New Jersey Plan and Virginia Plan, put forward by different delegates. To explain, the Virginia Plan called for Congressional representation based on population. The New Jersey Plan demanded equal Congressional representation for each state.
In addition, the Founders created the Electoral College to settle an argument over the election of the president. To explain, low population small-state representatives feared higher population big states could control the presidency.
Hence, they demanded an unelected body elect the chief executive. The result is that the Electoral College contains one elector for each U.S. Senator and each U.S. Representative. The Electors not the voters choose the President.
2. The First Constitutional Convention was undemocratic and representative of the nation.
Nobody elected the 55 delegates who gathered in Philadelphia between May and September 1787. In fact, one state Rhode Island, refused to send representatives.
Nobody asked the American people if they wanted a Constitutional Convention. In addition, the founders did not ask the American people to vote on the final document. Instead, the state legislatures approved the Constitution.
Notably, the Constitution contains a mechanism the founders designed to prevent popularly elected Presidents – the Electoral College.
3. Not all the Founding Fathers accepted or supported the Constitution
In particular, Thomas Jefferson, felt the Constitution gave the federal government too much power. Notably, the Constitution’s failure to guarantee basic rights for U.S. citizens appalled Jefferson.
In addition, two of the most influential Founders, Jefferson and John Adams; the second and third presidents, were not at the first Con-Con. Jefferson was serving as U.S. ambassador to France and Adams as ambassador to the United Kingdom.
However, both men accepted the Con-Con’s results with serious reservations.
4. The Founders Themselves Extensively Revised the Constitution after the Convention.
For example, the Founders submitted and ratified 10 amendments; commonly called the “Bill of Rights, to the Constitution between 1789 and 1791. In addition, the founders added two more amendments; the 11th in 1794, and the 12th in 1804.
Interestingly, the 12th Amendment changed the Presidential election process created in 1787. To explain, the original Constitution made the two candidates in the presidential election; president and vice president.
However, that process proved unworkable. For instance, without the 12th Amendment Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York) would be President Donald J. Trump’s (R-Florida) vice president today.
5. The Founders viewed the Constitution as a Work in Progress.
Therefore, the Founders themselves viewed the Constitution as a work in Progress rather than a document set in stone.
Unlike later generations, the founders were constantly rewriting the Constitution. Hence, one can argue the Founders did not want the Constitution to be permanent.
6. The original Constitution did not Guarantee Individual Rights
Interestingly, none of the big individual or Constitutional Rights; free speech, freedom of religion, right to bear arms, etc., Americans are so proud of, were in the original Constitution.
Instead, they added those rights afterwards with 10 amendments in the early 1790s. Scholars call those amendments the Bill of Rights. Plus, the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, and 24th amendments all expanded rights in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Thus, the original Constitution was neutral on individual rights. However, the amendments have a lot to say about individual rights.
7. The Constitution has proved Amazingly Durable and Stable
The most astonishing features of the U.S. Constitution are its stability and durability.
For instance, after the 12th Amendment they did not Amend the Constitution again for 61 years. Moreover, it took the Civil War to convince Americans that the Constitution needed a few revisions.
They added three amendments; the 13th (banning slavery), the 14th (making nonwhite people citizens), and the 15th (guaranteeing the right to vote) between 1865 and 1870. America added 12 Constitutional Amendments in the 20th Century. In addition, America has only repealed one Constitutional Amendment; the 18th (Prohibition), in 232 years.
Moreover, only four of the later amendments; the 17th, 20th 22nd, and 25th amendments change government operations. In detail, the 17th Amendment provides for the popular election of U.S. Senators, the 20th Amendment changed the date on which the president and vice president take office, the 22nd Amendment restricts the President to serving two terms, and the 25th Amendment allows the cabinet to remove an incapacitated president from office.
Historically, the results of the Constitutional Convention satisfied Americans. Tellingly, Americans did not revise the Constitution after catastrophes including the Civil War and the Great Depression. Thus, for all its flaws the first Con-Con was a great success.