"To Form a More Perfect Union"

The following skit is based on the records of the Constitutional Convention which met in Philadelphia from May to September, 1787. In the skit, you will read the main arguments presented by key members of the Convention. Whenever an argument is presented for the first time, a note refers you to a major weakness in the Articles of Confederation.


-What the delegates saw as their major responsibility

-The points on which the delegates agreed or disagreed

Scene: The Constitutional Convention of 1787

Time: May 25- September 17, 1787

Place: Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Characters: George Washington, President of the Convention; Edmund Randolph, Delegate from Virginia; William Patterson, Delegate from New Jersey; Charles Pinckney, Delegate from South Carolina; Alexander Hamilton, Delegate from New York.


Washington: On this day May 25, 1787, a quorum being present, I call this convention to order, each of you knows why we are here. Briefly, our purpose is to revise and strengthen the Articles of Confederation in order form a more perfect union of our states. If we do not succeed in achieving this goal, I fear that our new nation will fail. Let us now consider that our first order of business.

(A "quorum" is the number of members that must be present in order to conduct business at a meeting)

Randolph: Mr. President.

Washington: The Chair recognizes Mr. Edmund Randolph, Governor of Virginia.

Randolph: Mr. President, the Virginia Delegation, under the capable leadership of Mr. James Madison, has come to the conclusion that the Articles of Confederation, with only the minor changes suggested by many of the delegates present here today, would still be unworkable. Therefore, we suggest a complete change in the Articles. And, if necessary to meet the needs of the country, we suggest even the adoption of a new form of government.

Washington: What you say is interesting, but somewhat radical. We are here to revise the Articles; not to prepare a new document. Nevertheless, please explain your idea.

Randolph: Thank you. As representatives of the largest state of this Confederation, we of the Virginia delegation think that the Congress should be made up of two houses. Representation in the lower house would be based on the number of people in each state, and representatives would be elected by the people. A second house of Congress, a Senate, would be made up of delegates who had been nominated by the state legislatures and then elected by the lower house of Congress. The number of representatives for each state would be based on money contributions, or, more importantly, on the number of free people in the state.

Paterson: Mr. President.

Washington: The Chair recognizes Mr. William Patterson of New Jersey.

Paterson: Mr. President, I disagree with Mr. Randolph’s large-state plan. We of the small states would be at a disadvantage if the Virginia plan were accepted. For example, if the plan were accepted, Virginia would have about sixteen representatives in Congress; while New Jersey, or Delaware, or Rhode Island, would have only two or three. Thus, Virginia could out-vote all of the smaller states combined. We suggest a plan in which Congress would be made up of only one house. Delegates would be chose by the state legislatures. And each state would have only one vote. This one house should not be allowed to become too powerful. It must not have the power to collect taxes. The states should do that. Congress should be allowed to act only when a state does not collect the taxes owed to the national government. Therefore, we argue that we will not become part of a union which would endanger the smaller states.

Pinckney: Mr. President.

Washington: The Chair recognizes Mr. Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina.

Pinckney: Mr. President, I cannot agree with Mr. Patterson’s plan for a one-house legislature. What we need is a two-house body. A larger house, the House of Delegates, would be elected by the people. The number of delegates from each state would be based on the number of people in each state. Members of the smaller house, the Senate, would be elected by the House of Delegates. Each delegate and senator would have one vote. In this way, the smaller states and larger states would have a satisfactory representation in Congress.

I would like to discuss another point which is very important to the six slave-holding states. If we accept the two-house plan, should slaves be counted when determining the number of representatives each state should have? And, should slaves be counted when deciding the amount of taxes each state should pay? The southern states feel that slaves should be counted when determining representation. The delegates from the northern business and industrial states disagree. Yet the northerners want slaves counted when it comes to deciding taxes. I realize that there is a basic disagreement on these issues. We of the South suggest, then, that perhaps slaves could be counted as three-fifths of a person both in determining representation in Congress and in deciding taxes.

Washington: Are there any more comments to be made on the role of the legislative branch of the national government?

Randolph: Mr. President.

Washington: The Chair recognizes Mr. Randolph.

Randolph: Mr. President, if I may, at this point I would like to open discussion of the role of the executive branch of the national government.

Washington: The Chair has no objections. Proceed, Mr. Randolph.

Randolph: Thank you. We have seen, during the last war, the injustices a king would commit. Therefore, I suggest that we adopt a plan in which a single executive is chosen by Congress for one term only. To have an executive serve longer would only invite a dictatorship or the establishment of another king. The chief executive, or President, should be given the power to carry out the laws. A weak executive would be a repetition of government under the Articles.

(Under the Articles, there was no independent executive.)

Patterson: I agree with Mr. Randolph’s idea of limiting the executive’s term. But there is too much danger in having just one executive. We need several presidents so that no one man can have too much power. I also think that these presidents should have the power to appoint officials and the right to direct military operations. We do not want the armed forces ever to be in a position to run the affairs of the country. Our country if sounded on the right of civilians to govern themselves.

Pinckney: Mr. President.

Washington: The Chair recognizes Mr. Pinckney.

Pinckney: I would like to add another suggestion. I feel that the executive should be chosen each year by Congress. This would eliminate the possibility that any one man or group of men would remain in office too long. It would also prevent the executive from establishing himself as king.

Hamilton: Mr. President, may I say a few words?

Washington: The Chair recognizes Mr. Alexander Hamilton of New York.

Hamilton: We desperately need a strong President. He should be allowed to veto laws of Congress when necessary, to fully carry our all laws, to declare war, to make treaties, to appoint officials, and to grant pardons. For the President to perform these duties, he should be elected not for one year, or four, or even ten, but for life. And he should be elected by electors chosen by the people of each state. That is all I wanted to add.

Randolph: We have been considering the legislative and executive branches of the government. I suggest we now examine the role of the judicial branch of the government.

Washington: If there are no objections, you may proceed, Mr. Randolph.

(Under the Articles, there was no national court system.)

Randolph: Thank you. If we are to have strong executive and legislative branches of government, then we must have a strong judicial branch, too. To be strong, any government must be balanced so that each branch acts as a check upon the others. I therefore urge the convention to set up a Supreme Court and lower courts. The judges of each court should be appointed by Congress for life. If judges are not appointed for life, then they cannot be independent. A judge appointed for a short term would be often tempted to side with the group which had the power to reappoint him.

Hamilton: Mr. President, may I interrupt again?

Washington: Yes, Mr. Hamilton.

Hamilton: Almost all of us agree that judges would be appointed for life. We also think that we need a court system which will protect life, liberty, and property. But, the question is, who will appoint the judges? Mr. Randolph wants a strong legislative branch. I disagree. I think the President should appoint judges to the Supreme Court. But his appointments should be approved by the Senate. Moreover, as our growing society becomes more complex, we will need additional lower courts. Thus, I suggest that Congress set up lower courts in each state.

Randolph: Thank you. It seems that we disagree mainly on who should appoint the judges, Mr. Hamilton. That can be settled later. I would like to open discussion on a final point—that of federal government-state relations in general.

Washington: Proceed, Mr. Randolph.

(Under the Articles, Congress could not force obedience to its laws or to the Articles.)

Randolph: Thank you. It now seems that we shall have a new system of government. Thus, I believe that the new federal government should be given the power to admit new states. Moreover, the federal government should be able to throw out any state act which is not good for the Union. In addition, the federal government should have the power to use force against any state which fails to do its duty. Only in this way can we avoid having a government like the one we had under the Articles of Confederation.

Pinckney: Mr. President.

Washington: The Chair recognizes Mr. Pinckney.

Pinckney: I believe that states should not be allowed to keep troops of war, enter into separate agreements with foreign countries, establish their own coinage, or have their own post offices. These powers should be left to the national government. I also believe that all state laws should first be approved by the federal legislature before they can be carried out. This would do away with conflicting state laws such as Mr. Randolph mentioned, or any laws which conflicted with the laws of the national government.

Hamilton: Mr. President.

Washington: Yes, Mr. Hamilton.

Hamilton: I agree that no state law which conflicts with those of the federal government should be allowed to remain in force. I suggest that when this does happen, a special court should hear the argument.

Washington: In this meeting we have heard arguments for numerous plans of governments. Since we have certainly departed from our original purpose of simply changing the Articles, there are some other ideas which I would like to present at this time. As I watched this meeting, I took notes on the following points. Particularly, I noticed the problems related to business and slavetrading. If these problems are not solved, there will be more serious problems to face in the future. The delegates from New England and the Middle States are interested in manufacturing, trade and shipping. They want the nati0onal government to have powers to protect and regulate interstate and foreign trade. The delegates from the South fear that such a power in the hands of the national government will lead to laws against importing slaves. The southerners also fear that a government with such powers will pass laws and make treaties favoring Northern business and manufacturing. If our Union is to remain stable, these problems must be solved with good will and in the name of national unity. We must keep this in mind at all times if we are not only to survive but to thrive as well. That being said, this meeting is now ended so that the appointment committees may perform their duties.

  1. List four main things on which the delegates seemed to disagree.
  2. Did the delegates agree about how the new government should be formed? Explain.
  3. What did the delegates see as their main responsibility?