The sense of crisis made it urgent to change the course of the United States. The delegates all were nationalists, in the sense that they agreed that the country required an effective national government, capable of mounting an effective military defense and nurturing the nation’s prosperity. The Convention had a unique opportunity to overhaul the national government and persuade Americans to accept far-reaching changes. The delegates overcame two serious concerns: first, that the Convention lacked the authority to reconstitute the national government, and second, that Americans would not accept the proposals they produced.
Monarchy was the most common form of government in eighteenth-century Europe, but the delegates dismissed monarchy as an option for the United States. A more capable national government was acceptable only if it was based on republican principles: the people must exercise supreme authority over the government, and the representatives of the people make important public policy choices. Government’s authority had to be derived from the people, majorities had to determine its actions, and its powers had to be separated. These open-ended principles guided—but could not decide for them—more specific choices about the way the national government should be designed.
the Nation’s Government?
The Virginia delegates began the Convention debates with a forceful argument for a thorough overhaul of the national government. James Madison asserted that he would not be afraid to consider anything that would benefit the safety, freedom, and happiness of the nation.1 George Washington privately wrote that all the delegates seemed to share this view.2 For John Dickinson of Delaware, a highly respected delegate from the smallest state, “All agree that the confederation is defective” and