On May 25, 1787, with George Washington presiding, the Constitutional Convention formally convened in Philadelphia. Their job? To improve (or replace depending on which delegate you spoke to) the failing Articles of Confederation.
Created and adopted during the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation was doomed to fail for a number of reasons, including:
- The design of the central government made it too weak to be effective
- Taxes could not be collected from the states. Lacking funds, the central government could not maintain an effective military, back its own paper currency, or settle Revolutionary War-era debts
- Each state had their own monetary system, which made trade extremely difficult
- For more reasons, check out:
Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 was the final straw for many of the founders because it proved that the central government was unable to maintain order or protect the union. This prompted the recommendation to have the meeting of all 13 states in Philadelphia.
Even though he agreed with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton that the Articles were a mess, Washington had to be convinced to come to Philadelphia. As the George Washington’s Mount Vernon website recounts in their article about Washington’s Constitutional Convention experience,
“Washington also realized that many citizens suspected the Convention would be merely a seizure of power from the states by an all-powerful, quasi-royal central government. Further, Washington initially refused to attend because he suspected that he would be made the Convention’s leader, and probably be proposed as the nation’s first chief executive. Washington did not want to be perceived as grasping for power, and active participation in the Convention.”
Eventually – spoiler alert – Washington was persuaded by Madison to join the fun in Philadelphia. On the first official day, delegates elected a rules committee, and convention officers, including Washington as president of the convention. And, as he feared, the call for him to become the first president of the United States began in earnest.
Why do you think the delegates felt Washington’s attendance was essential to the success of the convention? What do you think would have happened if he had decided not to go? Does it matter that the Founding Fathers did not have the legal authority to tear up the Articles of Confederation and start over?