Summer — 1787
Revolutions are difficult, but building a strong nation is even harder. In 1781 we faced one of the toughest problems there can be in designing a government. How do you provide freedom for each person and still have a government powerful enough to accomplish things? At first, the government was just too weak. In 1783, the Congress got chased out of Philadelphia by its own army because it hadn't paid their salaries. It had no money and no power to collect taxes .
After their bad experience with kings and Parliament, Americans were afraid of a strong congress and a strong president. So they had gone to the other extreme. The Articles of Confederation , the country's first constitution, didn't give Congress the power to do much of anything. There was no president except the president of the Congress. And he couldn't do much either.
James Madison, among others, was worried. He wrote, "If some very strong props are not applied, the present system will tumble to the ground."
So a new constitutional convention was called. When General Washington rode into the country's largest city, Philadelphia , on May 13, 1787, to attend that convention, it seemed as if all 40,000 townspeople came out to cheer. The fifty-five delegates who were there had to be strong men to make it through the hot, hot summer. Flies and mosquitoes bit right through their silk stockings. But that didn't seem to dampen the mood, as Virginia delegate James Madison noted: "The whole community is big with expectation. And there can be no doubt but that the result will ... have a powerful effect on our destiny."
More than anyone else, it was James Madison who got the convention organized. He became known as "the father of the Constitution." Madison was small and soft-voiced; someone once described him as "no bigger than a half piece of soap." But he had one of the finest minds in the entire countryand everyone knew it. The delegate from Georgia, William Leigh Pierce, wrote, "[W]hat is ... remarkable is that every person seems to acknowledge his greatness. Mr. Madison always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate ."
The delegates were divided on many issues, but most of all on power: Who should have it, and how much should they have? Some delegates wanted the states to be strong; others were for a strong national government; a few hoped for a balance. In a private letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson, James Madison wrote, "Each of these objects was pregnant with difficulties. The whole of them together formed a task more difficult than can be well conceived ."