The Constitutional Convention

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Describe the political innovations the 1787 Constitutional Convention developed for the new nation.

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The main innovation was the amount of compromises that took place that allowed the Constitution to be created. The Great Compromise created a bicameral legislature with the representation in the House being based on population and the Senate being composed of two members per state. The Three-Fifths Compromise allowed slaves to be counted for population purposes as long as they could also be taxed. These compromises allowed a set of bickering states to be joined together in a Union; some Founding Fathers wondered if that Union would be permanent.

Another innovation was a written Bill of Rights that stated the right of every American citizen. This was inserted in order to placate the Anti-Federalists; however, the Bill of Rights was and is the most important part of the Constitution. The first Ten Amendments to the Constitution state the rights that every American citizen can expect. Many of these rights are reactions to British abuses that led to the American Revolution. These rights are meant to preserve the liberty of the people and to give the people a safeguard against a government that would seek too much power. The Tenth Amendment divides power between the federal government and the states. This was another compromise inserted into the document in order to make the Anti-Federalists happy.

Another innovation is the system of checks and balances. It is meant to ensure that no single branch of government becomes more powerful than the rest. By creating three equal branches, the Founders ensured that government would be more efficient, but would ensure that the people's voice would continue to be important in running the government. A judiciary that was not subject to the will of the voters would ensure that the Constitution was being followed. The chief executive would be subject to executing the laws, and he (or she) would have to answer to the people every four years in an election. In an effort to recognize the country's struggle against taxation without representation, the Constitution gave Congress, the branch of government most responsive to the people, the duty of taxation.

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The two most important political innovations in the Constitutional Convention were the development of federalism and the system of checks and balances. Each of these was an attempt to place constraints on what most of the leaders of the convention believed should be an immeasurably stronger national government than the one that existed under the Articles of Confederation.

Federalism was an attempt to balance the need for a more powerful central government with the desire on the part of states to maintain some degree of self-governance. This was accomplished by first establishing that the federal government was supreme, which was done in the so-called "supremacy" clause to the Constitution. Many of the Framers thought that limiting the powers that were delegated to the federal government would be sufficient as a safeguard for state powers. The Tenth Amendment, added in 1791, reflected the anxieties of some Americans that the federal government would arrogate too many powers. It provided that all powers not specifically granted to the national government should be reserved to the states. While the debate over how much power the national and state governments should have continues to this day, the system of federalism established by the Framers was truly a political innovation. It allowed the federal government to work in a large geographical area without becoming tyrannical.

The system of checks and balances was also an innovation, one not really comparable to any contemporary governments. The idea was that by giving certain powers to each branch, including the power to restrain each other's activities, the Constitution would keep any one branch from dominating the others. The veto power, for example, was vested in the President and was intended to restrain the power of Congress. But Congress could override the presidential veto and had the power to impeach the chief executive. Additionally, only Congress had the power to declare war. These were intended to be safeguards against Presidential tyranny. Over time, the authority of the federal courts to declare laws and executive actions unconstitutional became a major check on both the legislative and executive branches, and the power of the President to appoint justices (with Congressional approval) limited the power of the judiciary, which was not even fully fleshed out by the Constitution.

These two innovations made the Constitution unique from any other plan of government established in human history.

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The political innovations developed at the Constitutional Convention centered on the concept of compromise. There were many issues that needed to be resolved in order to develop the new plan of government. One of those issues dealt with the structure of Congress. Large states wanted to have unequal representation in Congress. They wanted representation to be based on the population of a state. Small states wanted to have equal representation in Congress. They feared their concerns would not be heard if representation in Congress was unequal. An agreement was made to have two houses of Congress. Representation would be unequal in the House of Representatives. It would be equal in the Senate.

Another compromise dealt with the issue regarding if slaves should be used in counting the state’s population. If slaves were counted, this would increase the population of a state, giving it more representatives in Congress. This would favor the South. A compromise was reached, called the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which every five slaves would count as three people.

Finally, there were differences of opinion regarding trade. An agreement was reached that allowed Congress to control trade. However, only imports could be taxed.

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