This article originated in Martin McKibbin's advanced 0) American history class at McDonogh School. McKibbin's classes are preparing a book, "What If: Exploring the Paths Not Taken in American History."
AS THE Soviet Union tries to form a less than perfect union of sovereign states with a central body appointed by the republics, adjustments will be essential. So the Soviets should examine the compromises made at the United States Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.
Although the American states did not face problems quite as complex as those in the Soviet Union, it was certainly possible that our country might not have become united. Because unity was achieved, we sometimes take it for granted, but what if the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had been unable to write an acceptable Constitution?
In 1787, the chances for compromise and unity among the future United States seemed slim at best, even to the chairman of the convention, George Washington. "What prospect is there of a coalescence," he wrote, ". . . when the different views and jarring interests of so wide and extended an empire are brought forward and combated?" On all sides of the debate, groups jealously guarded their own interests. The conflicting needs of slave and free states, large and small states and agricultural and commercial states made the outlook grim for any kind of agreement.
One of the major disputes was between small and large states, because each group wanted voting power favorable to its interests. The smaller states feared that a powerful central government would be dominated by larger, more populous states. They wanted to follow William Paterson's "New Jersey plan." His blueprint was basically a revision of the Articles of Confederation, creating a loosely united group of states. Each state was entitled to cast one vote. On the other hand, some of the larger states approved Edmund Randolph's "Virginia plan," which created a strong central government with separate legislative, executive and judiciary branches. A system of checks and balances was created to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful.
The debate over the two plans began. Most of the delegates were leaning toward the New Jersey plan, because they feared that the Virginia plan, with its strong central government, would threaten the sovereignty of the states. William Paterson, author of the New Jersey plan, rose to speak. He declared that the
purpose of the convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, not to overhaul the established system.
According to Catherine Bowen in "Miracle at Philadelphia," the "small, frail" James Madison then took the floor and said simply, "The New Jersey plan will not cure what the delegates have been sent to heal." He then proceeded to illustrate the weaknesses of Paterson's plan through a series of questions. He asked:
"Would the New Jersey plan prevent the states from infringing on one another's rights?"
"Could the loosely organized states work together well enough to allow America to prosper as a nation among nations?"
"Would there always be a safe balance of power?"
"Would civil war arise?"
"Could the plan solve internal turmoils. . ."
Finally and most important to the future of the United States: "Could a nation survive under a compact which did not bind it as a whole?"
With his eloquent speech, Madison stirred excitement within the delegates at the prospect of becoming one nation. He persuaded them to vote for the Virginia plan, 7 to 3.
There were many compromises including the "great compromise," which appeased the disgruntled small states by creating a two-chambered legislature; the House of Representatives favored large states, while the Senate benefited small states.
Slave and free states came to an uneasy peace through the now infamous "three-fifths compromise." Each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person to determine the number of votes in the House of Representatives.
The convention once was on the verge of unraveling. Fortunately, the crisis occurred on a Friday, so the delegates had a chance to cool off over the weekend. Despite the obstacles, the states finished not as separate competitors but as a single entity, at least in spirit.
Today, as various Soviet republics have obtained their sovereignty, we might hearken back to our history in 1787 and 1861. Delegates representing independent Soviet republics will attend a conference to attempt to improve and define relations among the republics. Uncertainty is evident, as it was among those attending the Constitutional Convention in 1787. A sense of foreboding must be apparent as well. If the efforts of those delegates fail, their people may be in danger of repeating another event in United States history -- the Civil War. As Mikhail Gorbachev said last month, "The main thing is to preserve the union."
Contributing to this article, besides McKibbin, were present and former students Karen Brock, Nancy Cohen, Karen Gray, Stephanie Hershkovitz, J.R. Meliker, Lynn Rosetta and Jean Shin. ...