If you are a regular reader, you know I follow a few podcasts on a near-daily basis. I was listening to one today, and they touched on the Constitution and the Amendments. With a deep respect for them, I don’t think they had time to do the topic justice in the few minutes left they had before their show ended. I appreciated the points each personality was making but left feeling the subject needed more time and analysis.
In that vein, I want to discuss two oft-misunderstood elements of the founding of our republic. It’s quite understandable that many Americans don’t know the details of these particular items. It’s not due to a lack of interest or a lack of teaching. I would offer that unless a person gets some sort of degree in American history (Associates, Bachelor Minor, Bachelors, Masters, or Ph.D.), they would not have been exposed to the specific texts of the time in question. Of course, there are amateur history buffs who read up on this or other subjects. Still, it’s a question of time.
For background, I have a minor in history. My focus was American history. I’ve also read off-and-on for twenty-plus years on the specific texts written during the time of our founding. Included in this are the notes taken during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. I encourage you to read as much as you can about the era. It’s fascinating. Moreover, if you’ve read on the period before, I encourage you to reread past texts as you may come away with a different perspective.
The first and more extensive misconception about the Constitution is how perilously close we were never to have it in the first place. The Convention began with some delegates questioning the legality of the proceedings and other delegates not even present. Because of the event’s secrecy, delegates came and went all summer to tend to other public or private obligations. They couldn’t very well tell their constituents they were busy working on something really secret but of national importance. Their stated mandate was to fix and improve the existing Articles of Confederation. That’s it. As far as any private citizens knew, that was the sum total of the goings-on.
At the Convention, there were a series of potential deal-breakers. These are commonly referred to as the compromises of the Convention. Some historians suggest there were five such compromises. Since I don’t have a Ph.D., I don’t have the clout to tell them they are wrong. There were two show-stopping compromises. The other three were of the sort we see throughout history in politics where deals develop over time. These lesser three always had movement at the debates and were merely going through an inevitable growing process until they matured into what we know them as today.
You can read about the dialogue on the compromises through the notes of the Convention. It’s an exciting chronology to see how the ideas developed over a handful of months. James Madison is considered the primary authority in this area, though numerous delegates took notes.
If we look at the two main compromises, they were the Great Compromise (also called the Connecticut Compromise) and the Three-Fifths Compromise. Without these two issues being settled as they were, we would not be the United States as we know it. There is simply no other way to put it.
The Great Compromise gave us proportional representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate. In this spirit of recognizing the role everyday Americans would play (voting for Representatives), and States (big “S” still at that time in history) in voting for Senators (until the Seventeenth Amendment gave us direct election in that chamber too), we later see the Electoral College develop as a compromise along similar lines of proportional equality with more populous States awarding more Electors.
If there were no Great Compromise, there would be no Union of large and small States. Less populous States (regardless of their size) and smaller States (think Rhode Island, Delaware, etc.) were rightfully fearful of the big three: Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. The concern was that without equal representation in at least one chamber, those three States would control the national agenda. The small States were willing to walk away from the table and entertain other options if this didn’t come to fruition.
The second deal-breaker was the Three-Fifths Compromise. As despicable as we know slavery is, there wouldn’t be a Union without its protection in the original Constitution. Just as the small States were content to go their own way over the issue of representation, the South was willing to do the same over slavery. This specific compromise gave them an inflated percentage of representation in both the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. In modern America, this is twisted to mean that the Union was built on slavery; the Electoral College was built on slavery; the House of Representatives was built on slavery. Well, yes, though, it’s not the shocking revelation it’s made out to be. It was understood at the time (we’re talking 1787 here) that it was either compromise on the issue now to settle it later or see the States formed into separate countries.
And the issue of forming separate confederacies was an unspoken fear throughout the entire period following our victory over England in the Revolutionary War until the time the Constitution was ratified. Americans rightly worried that the sovereign and independent States (they were, in fact, separate brother countries) would form smaller coalitions or be gobbled up by foreign nations still interested in conquering North America. This specific issue was not settled until Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790.
We can see that the Constitutional Convention had two significant hurdles to clear. If either of these were not borne through their respective compromises, we wouldn’t be Americans from sea to shining sea. However, there was still another massive obstacle that had to be maneuvered; else, we wouldn’t be a nation. I’m referring to the Ratification Debates and the corresponding Ratification Conventions for each State to join the proposed Union.
Ratification required three-fourths of the States to approve of the proposed Constitution by State Convention. Once that magic number was reached, the Constitution would be in effect for those States where it was ratified. Five States were early adopters, holding their conventions and votes within a matter of months following the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The next five States to ratify were reticent, to say the least. We saw the back and forth between the Federalists and anti-Federalists, all writing under pen names. Their battles took to the media platform of the day—the newspaper—in the form of essays extolling this virtue or that outrage.
The little-known Massachusetts Compromise carried the day to ensure the Ratification of the next tally of States. Essentially, this stipulated a buy-now, pay-later deal where in exchange for Ratification, the First Congress would take up the issue of specific Amendments to clearly define individual rights for citizens, State’s rights, and any other concerns on the laundry list of topics not resolved in the framework of the Constitution itself. It was a gentleman’s agreement. At the same time, failure to follow through in the First Congress would likely have resulted in yet another Constitutional Convention by the aggrieved States to seek redress or go their separate way.
The compromise struck in Massachusetts was championed in other States to move the ball across the goal line. New Hampshire because the ninth State to ratify in June 1788. Over that summer, two more States joined the fold, bringing the total to eleven.
The last two States to ratify were North Carolina and Rhode Island. Not until Congress took up the Bill of Rights did North Carolina ratify, and that wasn’t until more than a year later. Rhode Island followed suit the next year (1790) after being given an ultimatum from Congress.
Clearly, the issue of amending the Constitution was of paramount importance to more than half the States. Delegates and average Americans were skeptical that the Constitution went far enough to protect individual and State rights. Moreover, the issue was such a sticking point that it represented the final deal-breaker before becoming a Union of Equal States.
All of this points to a nuanced context of how our country came into being. Not only was it not a foregone conclusion, but the issue also remained in doubt for three years. Within that nuanced context, the compromises cannot be separated from the outcome. Without those bartered deals, we would have been broken into smaller confederacies or vassals of European dominion. It’s also critical to understand that the first ten Amendments—what we call the Bill of Rights—can not be separated from the Constitution despite coming after the fact of its adoption.
In 2021, some people try to downplay the Amendment process’s role in general or the enshrined rights in the Bill of Rights in particular. The BOR, though not seen as necessary by the majority of delegates at the 1787 Convention, became a political necessity. Madison himself championed the Massachusetts Compromise to ensure the Constitution achieved full Ratification. Trying to wrest the BOR from the Constitution would be tantamount to an act of treason by many Americans. They are the bedrock of American ideals.
The uncomfortable compromises that took place in 1787 were necessary evils to creating a nation. I am not downplaying the ills begotten through slavery, nor the confusing construct that is the Electoral College. While we look back with disappointment and despondency upon the uglier parts of our history, I cannot subscribe to any notion that America is still not the best example in human history of the most individual rights, with the most opportunities for personal and economic freedom.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this description of the potential deal-breaking issues that confronted our forefathers at the time of our founding.
As always, this has been the World According to Chris. Please hit the like button or leave a reply.