Democratic and Undemocratic Aspects of the Constitutional Convention

Democratic and Undemocratic Aspects of the Constitutional Convention

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Democratic and Undemocratic Aspects of the Constitutional Convention

The Articles of Confederation was the first government of the United States. The Articles had created a very weak national government. At the time the Articles were approved, they had served the will of the people. Americans had just fought a war to get freedom from a great national authority--King George III (Patterson 34). But after this government was put to use, it was evident that it was not going to keep peace between the states. The conflicts got so frequent and malicious that George Washington wondered if the “United” States should be called a Union (Patterson 35). Shays’ Rebellion finally made it evident to the public that the government needed a change.

A group of men with political power and status, an elite by definition, got together and decided the solution to the problem of government was to have a group of men evaluate the Articles and make the proper changes. At least, this was what Congress thought the purpose of the Constitutional Convention was when they approved it (Patterson 37).

The first step of the Constitution was undemocratic. No popular vote was taken either directly or indirectly on the proposition to approve a convention (Beard 14). The group of men who wanted the convention was skillful in getting it approved in that their proposal of it was a surprise. This gave the Federalists an upper hand. Their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, could not refuse to a discussion of possible, and perhaps necessary, reforms. By refusing, they could lose the support of the public very easily (Roche 18).

The next step of the convention was more democratic, in that there were delegates sent to Philadelphia by the state legislatures (Roche 18). Since the legislatures were chosen by elections in the states, the delegates to the convention were indirectly chosen by the people. Rhode Island did not send delegates, but there was an opportunity for them to do so. They decided against sending anyone since they knew they would not be welcomed by the convention.

James Madison, a delegate and one of the main supporters of a stronger national authority, had thought ahead and drew up the Virginia Plan before the convention in Philadelphia began. Thus, it became the first discussion of the committee (Roche 19).

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Drafting a brand new constitution was the premise of this plan. Since this idea was the exact opposite of what Congress had planned for them to do, the Framers had to keep the proceedings a secret. This could be seen as undemocratic in a way, since the people had not approved this plan of action in any form, but as the Framers were acting in what they thought was the public’s best interest, it was as democratic as they could allow it to be.

The Virginia Plan had to be modified before it was presented to the people since it gave more representation and power to the larger states (Roche 19). The smaller states would not be willing to ratify a constitution that gave them little representation. This was an underlying, and sometimes obvious, theme of the convention. The delegates wanted to make a constitution to fit their ideas of a stronger, more effective national government, but they also had to compromise and make it seem appealing and necessary to the people. The mere fact that they were constrained by the support of the public makes the actions and decisions that the delegates agreed upon more democratic.

As the framers were realizing that the Virginia Plan was not going to be acceptable, the New Jersey plan was proposed. This plan would give the large and small states equal representation in the legislature (Patterson 37). Roche says this plan was not to endorse states’ rights, but to appease the people of those states and make them more willing to ratify (Roche 21). The constitution decided this matter in a democratic way--they voted, and a majority voted for the Virginia Plan to be the basis for their document (Roche 23).

The next big issue of the convention was concerning representation of the states in Congress. Madison and Virginia were strong proponents of there being no equal representation of the large and smaller states in the second chamber. Finally, the voting of the delegates resulted in a tie. The members decided to vote on a delegate from each state to make up a committee to make the final decision. The voting procedure was democratic (Roche 24).

After this hurdle, there were still debates and conflicts over what would go into the new constitution, but the Framers not only getting tired of being there, but they also had pressure on them to get the new product out to the public for review. Some issues in it were left flexible to interpretation and some matters were just completely overlooked. This could be an indication that they cared more about their own interests than the good of the people, which was undemocratic.

Charles Beard wrote that the first object of government was to protect the men’s right of property (Beard 11). These men did have higher economic and political status so they looked after their own interests, but they were also the ones who exerted a sort of power over the middle and lower class individuals who never would have gotten the opportunity to be on the committee. These men wanted the constitution to be ratified because it would directly benefit them and their wealth (some of these Framers were to be the men who filled the positions of the new government), but these motives were not as selfish as some would think. In Federalist No. 10, Madison states that controlling factions is necessary for the survival of the national government (Patterson A-18). By protecting property rights of themselves and the other citizens of the United States--a group with diverse economic status--the Framers were not just thinking of themselves. The control of factions was to benefit everyone.

The delegates made their plan more likely to be ratified by agreeing to a second convention to make a bill of rights (Roche 26), which was not part of their original plan. The states were given a sort of ultimatum though, by saying that the constitution had to be ratified or none of it would be used at all. In the end, the ratification process was democratic since the states had the opportunity to do as their population wanted and ratify it or not.

As can be seen in the articles written by such people as Charles Beard and John Roche, there is still debate over how democratic the proceedings of the Framers’ in Philadelphia were. There were instances were undemocratic actions were taken, but since the fate of the constitution was ultimately in the hands of the states that were influenced by public opinion, the constitution was beneficial to public interest as well as their own. The best evidence that what the Framers did in Philadelphia was more democratic than undemocratic was that the men deemed ‘delegates’ acted more as ‘trustees’ in the making of the constitution. They were certainly the ones who had the power to decide what would be written in the constitution, and they used their discretion to decide what would be best for the public. Since the Framers’ concept of a proper system of representation was based on the theory of Edmund Burke, and Burke defined trustees as “elected representatives whose obligation is to act in accordance with their own consciences as to what policies are in the best interests of the public” (Patterson 50), most of their processes and actions were democratic. They worked within the realm to which they were confined and gave the public what they believed was a constitution for the people.

Works Cited

Beard, Charles A. “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” American Politics. Alan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.

Madison, James. “Federalist No. 10.” The American Democracy. Thomas E. Patterson. New w York: McGraw Hill Company, 2001.

New York: McGraw Hill Company, 2001.

Roche, John P. “The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action.” American Politics. Alan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
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