Digital History
James Madison on the Constitutional Convention
Digital History ID 193

Author:   James Madison


By the Spring of 1787, many national figures believed that the national government needed to be strengthened if the young republic was to survive. The threat of national bankruptcy, Britain's refusal to evacuate military posts in the Northwest Territory, Spanish intrigues on the western frontier, and armed rebellion in western Massachusetts had revealed serious weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation. The only solution, many national leaders were convinced, was to create a central government, led by a strong chief executive, which would be powerful enough to maintain social stability, suppress Indian warfare, negotiate with Britain and Spain, overcome state rivalries, and restrain the democratic tendencies unleashed by the Revolution. A firm union, in turn, would depend on repeated compromises, especially over the explosive issue of slavery.

Of the 55 delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787, a third were Revolutionary war veterans and 34 were lawyers. They represented every state except Rhode Island, and were instructed by Congress to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation. But shortly after deliberations began, the delegates agreed to draft an entirely new plan of government, the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution established not only a confederation of states, but a national government with clear powers to raise taxes, enforce laws, regulate trade, and suppress internal resistance.

In this letter, James Madison (1751-1836), the "father of the Constitution," describes the reasons behind the Continental Congress's decision to endorse revision of the Articles of Confederation.


...The only step of moment taken by Cong[res]s, since my arrival has been a recommendation of the proposed meeting in May for revising the federal articles. Some of the States, considering this measure as an extra-constitutional one, had scruples ag[ains]t concurring in it without some regular sanction. By others it was thought best that Cong[res]s should remain neutral in the business, as the best antidote for the jealousy of an ambitious desire in them to get more power in their hands. This suspense was at length removed by an instruction from this State to its delegates to urge a Recommendatory Resolution in Congress which accordingly passed a few days ago. Notwithstanding this instruction from N. York, there is room to suspect her disposition not to be very federal, a large majority of her House of delegates having very lately entered into a definite refusal of the impost, and the instruction itself having passed in the State by a casting vote only. In consequence of the sanction given by Cong[res]s, Mass[achuset]ts it is said will send deputies to the Convention, and her example will have great weight with the other N. England States. The States from N. C[arolin]a to N. Jersey inclusive have made their appointments, except Mary[lan]d, who has as yet only determined that she will make them. The gentlemen here from S. C[arolin]a & Georgia, except that those States will follow the general example. Upon the whole therefore it seems probable that a meeting will take place, and that it will be a pretty full one. What the issue of it will be is among the other arcana of futurity and nearly as inscrutable as any of them. In general I find men of reflection much less sanguine as to the new than despondent as to the present System. Indeed the Present System neither has nor deserves advocates; and if some very strong props are not applied, will quickly tumble to the ground. No money is paid into the public Treasury; no respect is paid to the federal authority. Not a single State complies with the requisitions; several pass them over in silence, and some positively reject them. The payments ever since the peace have been decreasing, and of late fall short even of the pittance necessary for the Civil list of the Confederacy. It is not possible that a government can last long under these circumstances. If the approaching convention should not agree on some remedy, I am persuaded that some very different arrangement will ensue. The late turbulent scenes in Mass[achuset]ts & infamous ones in Rhode Island, have done inexpressible injury to the republic character in that part of the U. States; and a propensity towards Monarchy is said to have been produced by it in some leading minds. The bulk of the people will probably prefer the lesser evil of a partition of the Union into three more practicable and energetic Governments. The latter idea I find after long confinement to individual speculations & private circles, is beginning to shew itself in the Newspapers. But tho' it is a lesser evil, it is so great a one that I hope the danger of it will rouse all the real friends of the Revolution to exert themselves in favor of such an organization of the confederacy as will perpetuate the Union, and redeem the honor of the Republican name....

The Writings of James Madison, 1783-1787. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1901, II, 317-20

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