National Gov. vs. Confederation: Did Convention Exceed Its Mandate?

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
National Gov. vs. Confederation: Did Convention Exceed Its Mandate?

During the first week of deliberations at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates considered the critical issue of the future of the confederation.

Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago this week, the Constitutional Convention began in earnest at the State House in Philadelphia. From secrecy to the future of the confederation, the deliberations turned serious — and seriously acrimonious — very quickly.

After deciding on the rules that would govern the proceedings, delegates prepared to hear proposals on the critical issue that led to the convention: amending and improving the Articles of Confederation.

The last paragraph from the report of the Continental Congress calling for the convention of the states held in Philadelphia beginning in May 1787 resolved that:

In the opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the states render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government & the preservation of the Union.

Delegates knew they had a hard row to hoe, as Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation mandated that regarding any changes made to the Articles: “Nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”

When the work got underway that warm day in late May, that legally binding and constitutional provision was ignored. 

Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia and nominal leader of the Old Dominion’s august delegation, stood and proposed what was known as the “Virginia Plan."

Before presenting the 15 points of his plan (a plan undoubtedly written by his colleague James Madison), Randolph “expressed his regret that it should fall to him rather than those who were of longer standing in life and political experience to open the great subject of their mission; but as the Convention had originated from Virginia, and his colleagues supposed that some proposition was expected from them, they had imposed this task on him.”

Randolph would probably regret being the target of the attacks that followed after his fellow delegates learned the details of his proposal.

Declaring his respect for the framers of the Articles of Confederation — the legally binding constitution at the time — Randolph laid out Virginia’s plan for a “national” government composed of a unicameral “national legislature,” a “national executive” chosen by the national legislature, and a “national judiciary.”

While very little of the Virginia Plan bears any resemblance to the Constitution that would come out of that convention several months later, to the delegates present on May 29, 1787, the most remarkable and reprehensible (to many) aspect of the recently revealed “correction” of their constitution was the use of the word “national.”

Notably missing from the Virginia Plan was any mechanism for state approval of the national legislature. This omission seemed to suggest that under this new form of government, the national authority would operate directly on citizens of the several states, something novel and, according to most, radical.

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Image: Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy

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