People: Creation of the Constitution


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Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies, the illegitimate son of a poor Scottish merchant and a woman of French descent. After being sent to America by a local businessman, he became active in New York’s Patriot movement. General George Washington asked Hamilton to join his personal staff and made him a lieutenant colonel. He was admitted to the bar in 1782. In 1783 he served in the Confederation Congress, where he and James Madison both desired a stronger central government.

At the 1787 Constitution Convention, Hamilton’s nationalist views were not received well by the other delegates. He called for a strong executive branch with a president who would serve for life. Though it did not strengthen the national government as much as he had hoped, Hamilton took the lead in promoting ratification of the Constitution in New York. He teamed with Madison and John Jay to write The Federalist Papers, writing 52 of the 85 essays. In Federalist No. 70, he made the case that “the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.” In Federalist No. 84, he argued that a bill of rights was not needed, because the government had only those powers listed: “why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?”

Hamilton served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington. He pressed for the establishment of a national bank—something not in Congress’ enumerated powers. This plan was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and others who feared growing federal power. The first party system in America formed around these two men. After leaving the Washington administration in 1795, Hamilton acted as the defense lawyer in People v. Croswell (1803), in which he made the argument that truth could be used as a defense for libel. Though he lost the case, his arguments led New York to change its law, protecting freedom of the press.

Fifteen years after Hamilton’s death in a duel with Aaron Burr Chief Justice John Marshall held in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that the creation of a national bank was an implied power of the federal legislature and was therefore constitutional.

John Jay was born in New York City to a prominent family and gained notoriety as a lawyer throughout the state. He served in the First Continental Congress and published Address to the People of Great Britain in which he argued that the colonists had the same rights as the British, including rights to private property, jury trials, due process, and religious liberty. Though he opposed many British policies, he favored a moderate approach to Britain. In what many believed to be a sign of integrity, he resigned from Congress rather than sign the Declaration of Independence. He joined his fellow Patriots once the rest of the colonists rallied behind the action.

In 1777 Jay helped draft the New York constitution, served as state supreme court Chief Justice, and in the Continental Congress. He was elected President of the Assembly, the highest office under the Articles of Confederation. Together with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, he traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Paris. While he was away, Congress appointed him Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He found the job difficult to execute because under the Articles each state could act alone, and he had no power to negotiate meaningful treaties. This experience strengthened his resolve for a stronger central government. He teamed with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to write five essays of The Federalist Papers encouraging ratification of the Constitution.

President George Washington appointed Jay the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1789. In 1794 he negotiated “Jay’s Treaty” which was successful at avoiding war with Britain, but which received a negative reception in the United States because of the belief that Jay had made too many concessions to the British. The next year Jay resigned from the Supreme Court as he had been elected governor of New York—an office he neither requested nor sought. As governor, he signed an emancipation bill and continued to work for the abolition of slavery.

Madison was born in Virginia to a wealthy family. After graduating from Princeton, he served in the Virginia legislature. He worked closely with Thomas Jefferson and helped draft and win support for the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom. In 1780 he joined the Continental Congress and became concerned that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate.

In 1787, he was a leader at the Constitutional Convention. The author of the Virginia Plan, he suggested a system of checks and balances. He also worked to balance the reserved and concurrent powers of the states and federal government. He also took detailed notes through the convention. Because of his efforts, Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution.

When the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, Madison teamed with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers in support of ratification. He led the debate to approve the Constitution in Virginia, taking on Anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry. When it became clear that the Constitution would not pass without the promise of a listing of rights, he proposed seventeen amendments, twelve of which were sent to the states for approval. Of those twelve, the states approved ten which became known as the Bill of Rights. Madison was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1789, where he became George Washington’s chief supporter. Madison eventually split from Washington politically as Washington aligned himself with Alexander Hamilton and his plan for a Bank of the United States. Madison moved away from the Federalists and closer to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.

After leaving Congress in 1797, Madison and Jefferson wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Madison became Jefferson’s Secretary of State and later succeeded him as President in 1809. As President, he allowed the nation to enter the War of 1812—called “Mr. Madison’s War” by many at the time—a decision that many historians count as a historic failure. However, the war won respect for the new republic overseas and Madison emerged from the war with great popular support.

George Mason was born in Virginia. He was George Washington‘s supply officer in the French and Indian War, and served in the Virginia colonial legislature. Mason supported independence and was the primary author of the Virginia Constitution and Virginia Declaration of Rights. Both documents were adopted in June of 1776. Mason’s words in the Virginia Declaration, which were based on the ideas of John Locke and natural rights theory, influenced Thomas Jefferson‘s writing in the Declaration of Independence.

During the 1780s, Mason was among the many statesmen who believed the Articles of Confederation to be an inadequate form of government. Mason was called on to serve at the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. There, he opposed the Constitution because he believed the central government was too strong. He argued that the document needed a bill of rights to protect the people from government abuses. He also called for an end to the importation of slaves. All these calls were rejected. Acting with integrity, Mason refused to sign the Constitution. He argued against its ratification, making enemies of James Madison and George Washington.

Mason became a leading Anti-Federalist after the Convention, writing a pamphlet called Objections to this Constitution of Government. He argued that the Constitution gave “no security” to the “Declarations of rights in the separate States.” At the Virginia Ratifying Convention, he joined Patrick Henry in opposing adoption. Madison promised that a bill of rights would be added, and Virginia voted to ratify. Three years later, many of the protections in the U.S. Bill of Rights would be based on Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. For this reason, Mason is known as the “Grandfather of the Bill of Rights.”

Baron Charles de Montesquieu was a famous French nobleman who lived from 1689 to 1755. His ideas about government and law were recorded in several books. The most influential of these was The Spirit of the Laws written in 1748. In this work, he proposed separating the powers of government so that power would not be concentrated in the hands of one person or one group of people. His ideas inspired James Madison and were echoed in Federalist 47 in which Madison defended the division of power detailed in Articles I, II, and III of the U.S. Constitution. Madison went on in Federalist 51 to defend the checks and balances system as a way to further define the powers of the three branches. Montesquieu is thought to be the most quoted political philosopher by the men at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Gouverneur Morris was born in New York. During a visit home from King’s College (now Columbia University), Morris’s right arm was crippled when he was burned by an overturned pot of hot water. After being admitted to the New York bar, Morris became interested in politics and after initial resistance, took up the Patriot cause. He helped write New York’s new constitution and served in the Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation in 1778 and soon after, lost his left leg in a carriage accident. He had to use a wooden leg for the rest of his life.

In 1781 as Assistant United States Superintendent of Finance, Morris struggled to finance the Continental Army. He hinted that the Continental Army might employ force if Congress did not act. The officers assembled at a barn in Newburgh, New York to discuss marching on Philadelphia, but George Washington quelled the Newburgh Conspiracy by appearing at the gathering.

Morris was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was appointed, along with Alexander Hamilton, to the Committee of Style and was responsible for the final language of the Constitution. Some believe he glossed the wording to enhance the power of the federal government, including beginning the Preamble with the words “We the people” rather than “We the states,” signifying that the Constitution was not the creature of the states, but the work of the nation as a whole.

Morris turned down an offer from Alexander Hamilton to co-author a defense of the Constitution which became known as The Federalist Papers. He succeeded Thomas Jefferson as ambassador to France and courageously remained at his post during the bloody Reign of Terror—the only foreign diplomat to do so. In 1812 he became distressed by the war with Great Britain and called for the secession of New York and New England from the Union. This attempt was discredited, and Morris died four years later at the age of 64.

Morris was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention. He was appointed, along with Alexander Hamilton, to the Committee of Style and was responsible for the final language of the Constitution. He rewrote the Preamble to begin with the words “We the People” rather than “We the States,” signifying that the Constitution was not the creature of the states, but the work of the people as a whole.

Virginian Edmund Randolph, born in 1753, is sometimes called a “Forgotten Founder” because his name is not familiar to many Americans despite his many contributions to the United States. During the Revolutionary War, he served as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington. He also served in several public offices including delegate to the Continental Congress, delegate to the Annapolis Convention, as well as the Constitutional Convention.

At the Constitutional Convention, Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan. By the Convention’s end, though, Randolph refused to sign the Constitution. He believed his integrity required him to refuse. He thought the final version had strayed too far from what he called the “republican propositions” of the Virginia Plan. He also feared that a single President would lead to tyranny. Instead he supported a three-person executive council. James Madison later persuaded Randolph to support ratification at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. The compromise was made easier for Randolph because eight states had already ratified by the time of Virginia’s Convention.

Randolph was appointed to serve as the nation’s first Attorney General by President George Washington.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland. His political and philosophical writings, including The Social Contract (1762), were both influential and controversial. Banned in France and Geneva for criticizing religion, The Social Contract nonetheless had an influence on governments in Europe and on the Founders.

Rousseau held that human nature was essentially good—that man was naturally a “noble savage”—but degrades into cruelty without a system of laws. Rousseau held that in a natural state, individuals must compete with each other, but they are also increasingly interdependent on each other. This contradiction was to blame for man’s degradation. By uniting under a social contract, individuals surrender their natural freedom and agree to submit to the general will of the people, who are sovereign.

While the Founders accepted some of Rousseau’s philosophy, such as supporting freedom of religion, they rejected others. Rousseau criticized private property and asserted that the general will of the people was sovereign over the individual’s body and property. This argument put him knowingly in opposition to other enlightenment philosophers including John Locke, Rousseau also advocated restraints on free speech in order to protect people from bad ideas. For this and other reasons, he is considered an intellectual ancestor of socialist systems.

Roger Sherman was born in Massachusetts, and moved to Connecticut in 1743. He owned a cobbler shop, published a series of almanacs, and studied the law independently.

In the 1760's Sherman became a leader in the resistance to British tyranny. Dedicated to moderation, he urged peaceful forms of protest, including boycotts and petitions. In 1774 he was elected to the Continental Congress. He served on the committee in charge of drafting the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson; it was the committee that chose Jefferson to draft the document. In 1776, Sherman helped frame the Articles of Confederation, and he later signed it. After leaving national politics to return to public service in Connecticut, Sherman returned to Congress in 1783 to approve the Treaty of Paris.

Sherman was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he worked to guard the power of states against the national government. He argued that the legislature should be the strongest branch of government, suggesting Congress should have the power to select the President. He suggested the Connecticut Compromise, or Great Compromise, which determined the method of representation in Congress. He initially opposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution, but eventually supported James Madison’s effort to add amendments. In 1791, the 70-year old Sherman was appointed to the US Senate, where he served until he died in 1793.

James Wilson was born in Scotland and came to Pennsylvania in 1765. He joined John Dickinson‘s law firm before opening his own practice. He became involved in Patriot activities and published pamphlets criticizing British policies. He served in the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.

As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Wilson advocated direct election of the president. This would have constituted a radical change from the system under the Articles of Confederation (which had no national executive) and from that supported by advocates of republican government. It also put him at odds with major figures from the Founding period, such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that substantial power should be reserved to the individual states, and that a popularly-elected executive–among other changes–would concentrate power too heavily at the national level. Wilson is credited with the compromise that resulted in the formation of the Electoral College. Once the Constitution was sent to the states, Wilson joined with Benjamin Rush to secure ratification in Pennsylvania.

In 1789, President George Washington appointed Wilson to the Supreme Court. His most important opinion, establishing that a citizen of one state could sue the government of another state, was overturned by the Eleventh Amendment. During his time on the Court, Wilson also served as the University of Pennsylvania’s first professor of law. He lectured on the place of law in society, and cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, and he urged moderation, swiftness, and certainty in punishment as a means of ensuring justice.