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On Principle and Pragmatism Ic - U.S. Constitutional Convention -The Problem with the Articles of Confederation [187]

Updated on December 15, 2014


The following hub uses extensive quotes from the "Notes" of James Madison as he sat through the Constitutional Convention; they were published after his death in the 1800s and are public documents available from the Liberty Fund. The purpose for using such extensive quotes is to retain the flavor and meaning of what James Madison wrote. This hub takes selected quotes to glue together, in this case, the reasons, or at least James Madison's reasons for the need of a Constitutional Convention, a unique story of the events leading up to the Constitutional Convention in preparation for the convention itself; which will be contained in the following hubs with the same format.

To paraphrase Madison's words in order to reduce the amount of quotes linking my chronology is to miss the point. The reader does not want to know my take on what Madison said, but what Madison actually said. I simply link, with appropriate commentary, the various quotes to present a complete, succinct picture without having the reader wade through Madison's Journal without a guide.

By the end of this series of hubs, I hope to have presented a comprehensive, digestible, understanding of what went on behind the scenes that produced the U.S. Constitution; hence the need for unmodified quotes from what Madison actually recorded without my bias being introduced.


JAMES MADISON, IN HIS INTRODUCTION TO THE "NOTES" spends considerable time justifying the need for the Constitutional Convention. He does this by discussing the problems encountered with the Articles of Confederation, including, was we saw at the end of Part 1b, even getting the Articles ratified by the States.

It took five years for this to happen, from 1776 to 1781. The reasons Madison believes caused this diffulty may sound familiar to you given the political discourse of the 21st century:

"The principal difficulties which embarrassed the progress, and retarded the completion of the plan of Confederation, may be traced to 1.) the natural repugnance of the parties to a relinquishment of power: 2) a natural jealousy of its abuse in other hands than their own: 3) the rule of suffrage among parties unequal in size, but equal in sovereignty. 4) the ratio of contributions in money and in troops, among parties, whose inequality in size did not correspond with that of their wealth, or of their military or free population. 5)the selection and definition of the powers, at once necessary to the federal head, and safe to the several members."

Madison thought that the influence of the Revolutionary War masked and suppressed many of these imperfections. But, when the war was over, they became quite obvious. He said - "When that [the Revolutionaly War] ceased to be the case, the fatal defect of the political System was felt in its alarming force. " In his Introduction, Madison goes into to great detail about each of these issues, but I will simply summarize them here, as they are well known:

  1. Lack of uniformity in State commerce
  2. Lack of uniformity in deciding State boundaries
  3. Irresolvable conflicts between States
  4. Inability for the federal gov’t to acquire funds from States
  5. Requirement for unanimous approval among States for any Congressional Act
  6. Growing anarchy of the States
  7. Diminishing respect from foreign gov’ts because of the new nation’s inability to meet its obligations or speak for the nation
  8. States taking independent action vis-à-vis foreign affairs
  9. The authority of the federal gov’t was always under challenge, e.g.," In certain cases the authy of the Confederacy was disregarded, as in violations not only of the Treaty of peace; but of Treaties with France & Holland, which were complained of to Congs."




STATE LEGISLATURES WERE STILL unimpressed with the idea of a central government that assumed even more authority from their sphere of influence. According to Madison, however, there was a growing awareness among the populous that something needs to be done, to wit:

'But in the interval between the proposal of the Convention and the time of its meeting, such had been the advance of public opinion in the desired direction, stimulated as it had been by the effect of the contemplated object, of the meeting, in turning the genal attention to the Critical State of things, and in calling forth the sentiments and exertions of the most enlightened & influencial patriots, that the Convention thin as it was did not scruple to decline the limited task assigned to it and to recommend to the States a Convention with powers adequate to the occasion. Nor was it unnoticed that the commission of the N. Jersey Deputation, had extended its object to a general provision for the exigencies of the Union. A recommendation for this enlarged purpose was accordingly reported by a Come to whom the subject had been referred. It was drafted by Col H. [Hamilton] and finally agreed to unanimously.'

Madison provided multiple examples regarding what the problems with the current confederate system. He concludes his notes with this warning paragraph:

"Such were the defects, the deformities, the diseases and the ominous prospects, for which the Convention were to provide a remedy, and which ought never to be overlooked in expounding & appreciating the Constitutional Charter the remedy that was provided."

To conclude his introduction, Madison makes this personal observations:

"But whatever may be the judgment pronounced on the competency of the architects of the Constitution, or whatever may be the destiny, of the edifice prepared by them, I feel it a duty to express my profound & solemn conviction, derived from my intimate opportunity of observing & appreciating the views of the Convention, collectively & individually, that there never was an assembly of men, charged with a great & arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives, or more exclusively or anxiously [devoted to the object committed to them, than were the members of the Federal Convention of 1787, to the object of devising and proposing a constitutional system which would best supply the defects of that which it was to replace, and best secure the permanent liberty and happiness of their country.]"

On the following hub, Part Id, we will follow the day-by-day goings-on at the Constitutional Convention and hopefully gain a better insight into what our founding fathers, at least the ones who crafted U.S. Constitution, had in mind as they worked their way from compromise to compromise; finally fashioning one of the most enduring documents of all time.


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    • My Esoteric profile image

      My Esoteric 5 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Thanks HS, I am enjoying it immensely. I am about done with what happened during May 1787 and, as you expect, am developing a new perspective of the whole thing. The one thing that is coming across loud and clear is their vision of the central gov't being 1) supreme where the States are defective and 2) its role is to provide for the common defense, securing liberty, and the general welfare of the citizens.

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      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      James Madison was a political genius and visionary. He could see our new nation in abject anarchy and knew a major overhaul was needed. It is remarkable to see that his vision was for the most part adopted in its entirety. Of course, that will be seen in your following chapters. I look forward to reading them. Interesting work, My Esoteric.