State governments sent prominent political leaders to represent them at the Constitutional Convention. Many of these delegates had thrived in the vibrant political life of America in the 1780s. They agreed that the nation faced an urgent crisis. The bankrupt Confederation Congress could hardly act, much less cope effectively with daunting problems of national defense, internal insurrection, economic hardship, and commercial disarray. But the delegates viewed the crisis in different ways because they brought diverse aspirations, experiences, and interests to the Convention. Some aimed to build a much stronger, more centralized American state, while others presumed that the existing Confederation could be repaired with some additional institutions and policy authority. The delegates’ interests were bound up in these aspirations, and they came into conflict because each region and state had its different hopes and needs for a reconstituted national government. For almost four months, they battled over their different priorities and different visions of the nation’s present and future.
Fifty-five men attended the Constitutional Convention at one time or another. As a group, they were among the world’s most experienced and skilled republican politicians. Nearly all had been elected to their state’s legislature. One-fourth of these delegates had served in other important state offices. Two were governors of their states, and two others had served as governors in the past. Others served as state attorney general, speaker of the lower house, or a judge of the state supreme court. More than half had represented their states in the Confederation Congress. James Madison described the group as “in general … the best contribution of talents the States could make for the occasion.”1 The two dozen most important delegates—those who attended most sessions, spoke most often, and made the most proposals—were virtually full-time political leaders. These included elder statesmen, such as the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin of