The Significance Of The Philadelphia Convention

Despite its comparatively condensed existence, America has swiftly scaled the summit of world power. This could not have been accomplished without the written constitution that was drawn up at the legendary Philadelphia convention. The convention was a secretive gathering, which brought together representatives of twelve of the thirteen states for the “sole and express purpose of revising the articles of confederation”. It began in May 1787, having been proposed the previous year at an assembly in which five states took part.
Fifty-five state representatives took part, although there were rarely more than thirty-five at any one session. It was held in the State House at Philadelphia; “the city of brotherly love”, an appropriate location for the establishment of the new America. The delegates worked in small groups, six days a week, five to six hours a day, under the experienced gaze of presiding officer George Washington. After four months of exhausting talks, the delegates emerged having drawn up a completely rewritten constitution that now required ratification from nine states to come into effect.
Removal of British rule had left America without an effective government. Although the articles of confederation had been devised to replace the British government in America, they were “nothing more than a treaty of amity, of commerce and of alliance between independent and sovereign states. It was soon apparent that the articles were unable to adequately overcome the problems that arose. Many leading figures became anxious over this issue and the need for reconsideration ensued. The convention acknowledged this and allowed the opportunity for the most prominent figures in America to rectify the predicament.

In early post-independent America, many unforeseen difficulties had occurred. Disputes over trade routes and in particular war debt repayment had materialised due to separate state government. Between 1785 and 1786 seven states had issued paper money, which quickly became worthless, to repay their debts. In certain states, creditors were even compelled to accept the paper money. The central government had to rely on state generosity for its funds and authority, and a unanimous vote if key decisions were to be passed, which did not function satisfactorily due to self-interest.
This rendered America as a mere collection of isolated states, vulnerable to attack by natives or rival colonists. The disjointed effort of states to solve their individual problems was becoming worryingly uncoordinated. The short-term trigger of Shays”s rebellion embodied these flaws. Massachusetts had raised taxes to repay its debts, and this hit the poor (who were already struggling in the aftermath of the war of independence) hard. Daniel Shays”s, a discontented war veteran turned farmer, led a mob consisting of over one thousand equally dissatisfied farmers in an assault on the Springfield armoury.
Although easy put down, the incident had caused widespread concern over America”s weaknesses, resulting in the necessity for the convention and the changes it would incur. America”s problems in the mid 1780″s stemmed from an inadequate central government. Due to a lack of control over states and individuals, congress was incapable to regulate America”s economy sufficiently, neither was it empowered to effectively defend not only its territory but also the rights of the individual. Thus the convention was significant as it intended to address the causes of these problems, not the symptoms.
Thomas Jefferson, though absent from the convention serving as an envoy to France, played his part. He famously assigned the description “an assembly of demi-gods” to the gathering. Although this may not have been entirely appropriate, the delegates were certainly formidable; among their number such legends as Franklin, Hamilton, Madison and Washington were to be found. The extensive reputations and abilities of these men are tribute to the importance and prominence of the convention. The collective qualities of the convention also included diversity; there were federalists and anti-federalists, speakers and listeners, idealists and realists.
Most of the delegates were comparatively young like James Madison; the average age was forty-four, but there remained ample room for experience in the form of Benjamin Franklin among others. George Washington played a substantial role at the convention. Being revered Commander-in-Chief of the victorious American army during the war of independence augmented his already impressive national stature. He commanded colossal respect over his fellow Americans, demonstrated by his immediate and unanimous election as presiding officer at the convention.
He applied this influence wisely, quickly settling disputes and safeguarding America”s best interests while maintaining the atmosphere of goodwill. As a fledgling nation, divided into states and possessing only a loose political system, America was in need of a formal and comprehensive but flexible and durable document under which it was to be run. The convention recognised this fact and accordingly created the Constitution of the United States. The constitution compromised the authority of state and federal governments; for every branch of federal government there was a corresponding arm of each states” government.
The constitution also handed supreme power to the central government; the right of individual states to make treaties, coin money, declare war or maintain an army and it required approval from the federal government over regulation of trade. Federal law took precedence, and congress now had sufficient power over taxes, defence, commerce and legislation. The supreme federal court also had the power to overrule the decisions made by state judiciaries, although states still retained everyday management of their legal systems.
Although the federal government now had supreme power and authority over important areas such as defence, it was generally perceived that the states would be predominant in organising and managing themselves, albeit under the supervision of the federal government. It was also necessary to compromise over the issue of state representation. To satisfy both larger and smaller states, the house of representatives was to be based upon a system of proportional representation while each state would be equally represented in the senate.
These concessions were acceptable to both small states such as New Jersey and larger states like Virginia and thus one of the most frequently debated issues of the convention was settled. The constitution created a sufficiently robust federal government that was now able to rectify the previous difficulties over taxes, debts, security, law and the economy. Although the American system was now comparatively democratic, it was not excessively so; only one-in-six adult males could vote so the fears of democracy arriving too abruptly were allayed. Both state and federal governments were to be deftly balanced.
Each branch of government was responsible for regulating the others and could never possess a dominance of authority. For example, the president could make most key decisions, but could be overruled by the senate if the vote was adequate. He possessed much authority but due to the democratic method by which he was elected, it was unlikely that he would abuse it and congress were able to remove him if it proved necessary. Thus the constitution was also engineered to avoid its abuse and ensure that no section of America”s government could grow too powerful.
America”s future as a viable nation hung in the balance following its political severance from Britain. Its governmental system was previously untried and thus susceptible to defects. The situation in the North American continent was potentially a very difficult one. There were huge expanses of land mainly to the east still under contention from Indians, the French and the Spanish. Europe was undergoing a great many changes; consequently America”s links with Europe would possibly be compromised. Thus America needed a strong position with which to confront forthcoming problems, and the new constitution provided this.

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