The Second Convention Movement, 1787-1789

By Labunski, Richard | Constitutional Commentary, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Second Convention Movement, 1787-1789


Labunski, Richard, Constitutional Commentary


The delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 created an extraordinary document. The issues they confronted during that difficult summer in Philadelphia were complex and divisive. They had to decide the best way to balance power between the individual states and the new federal government; how Congress should regulate trade between the states and with other countries; the structure and jurisdiction of the federal court system; how the states would be represented in the national legislature and its members elected; whether to let the people choose the president; and what the new nation should do about slavery.

James Madison, the shy intellectual from Orange County, Virginia, had played a central role in organizing the convention. Although Madison was greatly relieved that the Constitution had been written and approved, he knew that challenging times were ahead. He would be particularly worried about efforts by Anti-Federalists to call a second federal convention and the lack of concern shown by the Constitution's supporters over the possibility of such a gathering.

Virginia was the largest state--including what is today Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, with almost twice the population of the next nearest state--and of immense political importance. Its leading citizens were among the most prominent in the nation. They had helped promote the movement for independence, developed much of the intellectual and philosophical foundation on which the new government would be based, and set examples--such as providing for explicit protection of individual rights--that other states followed. The opinions of its most active citizens were widely disseminated and highly influential. (1)

Without Virginia, there would be no union. Its refusal to approve the Constitution would not only have likely given New York Anti-Federalists enough momentum to reject the Constitution there, it would have deprived the nation of the services of George Washington as the first president. Because so many people had agreed to the Constitution only because Washington would become the first chief executive, support for the new plan would have quickly eroded once word spread that he was ineligible.

Ratification in Virginia was likely to be especially difficult because two of its most important citizens had refused to sign the Constitution, and there would be strong demand there for another convention. Governor Edmund Randolph and George Mason had expressed serious concerns about the proposed plan throughout the Philadelphia convention. Randolph disapproved of the Senate's role in trying impeachments; the two-thirds majority required for Congress to override a presidential veto; the size of the House of Representatives; congressional authority to create a standing army and to pass navigation laws; and the vagueness of the "necessary and proper" clause giving Congress substantial discretion to exercise powers granted in Article I, among other sections. Randolph also objected to the lack of a bill of rights. That would be its most conspicuous flaw and the most difficult for supporters of the Constitution to defend. (2)

Mason objected for many reasons, including the failure to create a government that would protect the interests of the South, be responsive to the people, and especially because of the lack of a bill of rights. (3) Mason had been the primary author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the document approved along with the state constitution at the Virginia Convention of 1776. When he criticized the lack of protection for individual rights in the new Constitution, he did so with special authority. During the final weeks of the convention, Mason announced that he would "sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." (4) Coming from Mason, such a colorful expression of disdain for the new Constitution was guaranteed to be repeated in newspapers and to lodge in the memory of citizens and delegates at ratifying conventions. …

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