Smoothing Out the Bumps
Imagine three or four dozen men in powdered wigs arguing with each other in a blisteringly hot building in Philadelphia; that's a pretty accurate description of most of the Constitutional Convention. The delegates disagreed on numerous issues, and the sweltering heat did not help ease their tempers. Still, they managed to put up with the conditions and come up with solutions to the many problems facing the new constitution.
How could the framers make both small and large states happy with the national legislature? The problem puzzled the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention for weeks, until the delegates from Connecticut (Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth) put their heads together and came up with a solution. Known as the Connecticut Compromise or Great Compromise, it took aspects from both the Virginia and New Jersey Plans to create a national legislature with both proportional and equal representation. Congress would have two houses; the House of Representatives would be elected directly by the people, proportionally representative, and its members would serve for two years. The Senate would be elected by state legislatures, equally representative, and its members would serve for six years. Argued over bitterly, the Connecticut Compromise passed by one vote.
Additionally, the issue of slavery began to cause problems at the convention. The northern states were keenly interested in the regulation of interstate commerce; this would help their businesses run smoother. However, the southern states were opposed to it. The south also would reject any constitution that outlawed slavery; slaves had been a part of the colonies since their creation, and were considered property by slaveowners. To satisfy both sides, the delegates worked out a compromise: Congress would have the power to regulate commerce, but it could not interfere with the slave trade until 1808. It was also agreed that slaves would be counted as three fifths (3/5) of a person when determining how many representatives a state could send to the House of Representatives, and when computing taxes. Finally, the fugitive slave clause of Article IV provided that slaves who escaped to other states must be returned to their owners.
This was probably the biggest problem that faced the creators of the Constitution. Should there be more than one chief executive? How long should he serve for? How much power should the chief executive have? How should the chief executive be selected? All of these problems plagued the framers.
First, it was decided that there would only be one chief executive, the President; multiple executive officials might come into conflict. The length of term fluctuated between seven, six and four years, but the final decision was for four years, with no limit on the number of terms a President can serve. The current limit of 2 terms was set by the Twenty-second Amendment.
The powers of the President were a major sticking point. They definitely wanted to avoid too much power; the King George's power had been too great, and it lead to corruption and rebellion in the colonies. Too weak was also bad, as proven by the ineffectual government under the Articles of Confederation. A middle ground needed to be found. Finally, the delegates arrived at these conclusions:
The rest of the President's powers are not defined. Why? The framers simply didn't know what the chief executive of the nation should be like. Many of the creators trusted George Washington, who was practically guaranteed the Presidency, to `fill in the blanks' in the Constitution.
The election of the President was also an especially troubling issue. Truth be told, the framers didn't really trust any group to the choice of such an important person. No one - not the people, not Congress, not state legislatures - could satisfy them. So, they invented a new group, the electoral college. Though it's undergone some alterations since its first appearance, basically this system has worked successfully for over 200 years. It goes like this: The electoral college meets every four years to select the President. Each state has the same number of electors as it has Senators and Representatives in Congress. When the people vote, they don't actually vote for the President directly; instead, they vote for electors. The electors, in turn, vote for the President. Nowadays it's know ahead of time what Presidential candidate an elector will vote for, due to the influence of political parties.
Copyright © 1997 Jonathan Chin & Alan Stern