In May of 1787, fifty-five delegates, including some of the ablest men in the country, assembled at Philadelphia to consider possible amendments to the Articles of Confederation. The delegates were practical men: farmers, merchants, lawyers, and bankers. Many had political experience as members of the Congress and as governors or state legislators. The delegates soon recognized that revision of the Articles would not solve the nation’s problems. The decided, instead to write an entirely new constitution.
Working in secret sessions through the summer of 1787, the delegates completed their work by September. The Constitution they presented to the people set up a federal system of government, one on which power would be shared between the central government and state governments. The powers of the central, or federal, government were carefully spelled out in the Constitution. The states were to retain control of their internal affairs (Middlekauff, 1982). This was believed to be the written proof of the onset of the American polity (Carter and Herz, 1991).
Although the writers of the Constitution wanted to set up a central government with power enough to manage the nation’s problems, they also remembered their experiences with royal authority. They wanted to make certain that no one person or group of people would be able to gain too much power (Carter and Herz, 1991). The federal system, which divided power between the federal and state governments, was one safeguard against tyranny. Some of the writers of the Constitution followed the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu.
Adopting the principle of the separation of powers, the founders created three separate branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. To prevent the concentration of power in any of the three branches, they set up a system of checks and balances (Davis, 2004). Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia portrayed through the lives of some of the concerned men in the assembly that before the new Constitution could take effect, it had to be approved by at least nine of the states. The men who had drafted the Constitution knew that they would face strong opposition and that ratification was not at all certain.
Not even all the members of the Philadelphia convention agreed on the Constitution’s provisions (Bowen, 1986). Many Americans thought that the Constitution gave too much power to the federal government. These people, called anti-federalists, warned that the proposed federal government would dominate the states and deprive citizens of their liberties. They especially objected to the absence of a bill of rights (Bowen, 1986). Those who favored the Constitution, called federalists, campaigned vigorously for its adoption.
Many believed that the nation was in such a state of crisis that if the Constitution were not adopted, the United States would break up. Federalists throughout the country worked tirelessly for their cause. Three leading federalists, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, published a series of brilliant essays explaining how the new Constitution would remedy the defects of the Articles of Confederation. The essays, called The Federalist, along with the promised of a bill of rights, helped to win the support for the new plan of government (Bowen, 1986).