From VOA Learning English, welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in Special English. I’m Steve Ember. This week in our series, we continue the story of the United States Constitution.
In May of 1787, a group of America's early leaders met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They planned to amend the Articles of Confederation. That document established a loose union of the 13 states. Instead, the leaders wrote a completely new constitution. It created America's system of government and recognized the rights of its citizens.
Last week, we told how the group reached agreement on the position and powers of a national executive. They decided the executive could veto laws. And they decided the person could be removed from office if found guilty of serious crimes.
We also told about the debate on a national judiciary. The delegates approved a federal system of courts and judges. These courts would hear cases involving national laws, the rights of American citizens, and wrongdoing by foreign citizens in the country. State courts would continue to hear cases involving state laws.
Next, the delegates began to discuss competing proposals for a national legislature. This would be the most hotly debated issue of the convention. It forced the question of equal representation. Would small states and large states have an equal voice in the central government?
|Early American flag with 13 stars representing the 13 states|
The convention had already agreed that the national legislature would have two houses. It had not agreed, however, on the number of representatives each state would have in each house. The large states wanted representation based on population. But the small states believed they would lose power to the large states. They wanted representation to be the same for all states, no matter what the size.
One day, Gunning Bedford of Delaware, one of the smallest states, looked straight at the delegates from the largest states.
"Gentlemen!" he shouted. "I do not trust you. If you try to crush the small states, you will destroy the confederation. And if you do, the small states will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith who will take them by the hand and give them justice."
The debate on legislative representation -- big states against small states -- lasted for weeks that summer in Philadelphia. The delegates could not agree. So they debated other parts of the proposal.
One involved the names of the two houses of the legislature. Most spoke of them simply as the First Branch and the Second Branch. We will speak of them by the names used today: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Next came the question: Who could be elected to the House and Senate? Delegates did not take long to decide. Members of the House, they agreed, must be at least 25 years old. They must have been citizens of the United States for seven years. And, at the time of election, they must live in the state in which they are chosen.
The delegates agreed that members of the Senate must be at least 30 years old. They also must have been a citizen of the United States for nine years. And, at the time of election, they too must live in the state in which they are chosen.
But who would elect them? The question raised an interesting issue. It concerned democracy. In 1787, the word "democracy" meant something very different from what it means today. To many of the men meeting in Philadelphia, democracy meant mob rule. To give power to the people was an invitation to anarchy.
Still, George Mason of Virginia argued for popular elections. "The people will be represented," Mason said, "so they should choose their representatives."
James Wilson of Pennsylvania agreed. He stated firmly that the people must elect at least one branch of the national legislature. That, he said, was a basic condition for free government. The majority of the convention agreed with Mason. The delegates decided that members of the House of Representatives should be elected directly by the people.
Akhil Reed Amar is a professor at Yale Law School in Connecticut. He says the delegates’ decision to let people elect their representatives helped change the meaning of the word “democracy.”
“The success of the American constitutional project has proved to the rest of the world that democracy can work, government of, by and for the people can survive and flourish, and this has been a model for the rest of the world.”
However, most delegates agreed that the state legislatures would choose the representatives to the second legislative branch, the Senate. It remained that way for more than 100 years. In 1913, the states approved the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment legalized the direct election of Senators by the people.
How long would lawmakers serve? Roger Sherman of Connecticut thought representatives to the House should be elected every year. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts agreed. He thought a longer term would lead to a dictatorship.
James Madison of Virginia protested. "It will take almost one year," he said, "just for lawmakers to travel to and from the seat of government!" Madison proposed a three-year term. But the delegates finally agreed on two years.
There were many ideas about the term for senators. A few delegates thought they should be elected for life. In the end, the convention agreed on a Senate term of six years.
Next came a debate about the pay for elected officials. How much should they get? Or should they be paid at all?
Some delegates thought the states should pay their representatives to the national legislature. Others said the national legislature should decide its own pay and take it from the national treasury.
That idea, James Madison argued, was shameful. He thought the amount should be set by the Constitution. Again, Madison lost the argument. The Constitution states only that lawmakers will be paid for their services and that the money will come from the national treasury.
Finally, the time came for the convention to face the issue of representation in the House and Senate. The large states still wanted representation based on population. And the small states still wanted equal representation. The delegates had voted on the issue several times since the convention began. But both sides stood firm. Yet they knew they could not continue to vote forever, day after day.
So the delegates did what large groups often do when they cannot reach agreement. They voted to create a committee. This "Grand Committee" would try to develop a compromise. The rest of the delegates would enjoy themselves during the July Fourth holiday marking American independence.
July Fourth -- Independence Day. It marked the eleventh anniversary of America's Declaration of Independence from British rule. The celebration was especially important in Philadelphia. It was the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Now it was the city where a new nation was being created.
Convention president George Washington led a group of delegates to a ceremony at a Philadelphia church. They heard a speech written especially for them.
"Your country looks to you with both worry and hope," the speaker said. "Your country depends on your decisions. Your country believes that men such as you -- who led us in our war for independence -- will know how to plan a government that will be good for all Americans. Surely we have the ability to design a government that will protect the liberties we have won."
After the speech, Benjamin Franklin urged the convention to ask for God's help. He said each meeting should begin with a prayer.
Hugh Williamson of North Carolina quickly ended any discussion of Franklin's idea. The convention, he said, had no money to pay a minister to lead the delegates in prayer.
On July fifth, the Grand Committee presented a two-part compromise. It provided something for large states and something for small states. It called for representation based on population in the House and for equal representation in the Senate. The committee said both parts of the compromise must be accepted or both rejected.
Delegates debated the compromise for many days. They knew if they did not reach agreement, the convention would fail. Those were dark days in Philadelphia.
Later, Luther Martin of Maryland noted that the newspapers reported on how much the delegates agreed. But that was not the truth. "We were on the edge of breaking up," Martin said. "We were held together only by the strength of a hair."
Delegates Robert Yates and John Lansing of New York had left the convention in protest. But George Mason of Virginia declared he would bury his bones in Philadelphia before he would leave without an agreement.
Even General George Washington was depressed. He wrote to Alexander Hamilton, who had returned to New York temporarily.
"I am sorry you went away," Washington said. "Our discussions are now, if possible, worse than ever. There is little agreement on which a good government can be formed. I have lost almost all hope of seeing a successful end to the convention. And so I regret that I agreed to take part."
On July 16th, the convention voted on the issue for the last time. It accepted what is called “the Great Compromise.”
But even this agreement raised another problem. If representation was based on population, who would you count? Would you count just free people? Or would you count Negro slaves, too? How the delegates answered that question of who would be counted will be our story next week.
I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week here at VOA Learning English for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
This was program #19