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S.C. at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Part I

September 24, 2015

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable . . . Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

The U.S. Constitution just celebrated its 228th birthday on September 17. The Founders created a remarkable document in just ten pages, not including the Bill of Rights. This monumental document changed the world. It almost did not happen.

The chaos that ensued following the War for Independence was not merely a bump in the road. In retrospect, we can view the outcome with a belief in destiny or providence, but to the players in the drama unfolding between 1776 and 1787, the founding of a nation seemed no more predestined than the chaos currently taking place in Syria.

The assumption of inevitability is dismissed by the Founders’ own personal writings. Leaders of all the states felt the same sense of urgency and crisis. The Congress under the 1777 Articles of Confederation had ceased to function by 1786.

A small group of nationalists dissatisfied with the Confederation called for a constitutional convention. As the delegates gathered in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787, the task at hand was not to form one nation, but to decide whether or not to form one nation out of thirteen, loosely confederated states. The birth of the United States of America, one nation, was not a manifest destiny.

Moderate nationalists, such as John Rutledge and Charles Pinckney, were wary of granting too much power to the new central government at the expense of the states. Pinckney ambitiously initiated a broad reorganization of the government under the Articles, which barely provided a legislative body, and no executive or judiciary at all.

Archnationalists led by Alexander Hamilton favored a strong centralizing power on the national level. Then, there were the radicals on the other end, the Patrick Henrys of the Revolution generation, that were not convinced that the Americans needed a new constitution. They had fought too hard and sacrificed too much to allow another tyrannical form of government to suppress them.

signing the Constituion 1787The South Carolina delegation, Rutledge, C. Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Pierce Butler, came to agree that a new national constitution was needed. Persuading delegates of other states was their first hurdle. The details had to be hammered out, but the framers had a fairly clear vision of the structure the new government should take. They needed to create a legislature with the power to apportion and collect taxes, an executive, and a judiciary set in a system of checks and balances of power.

Pinckney quickly began the debate and presented the Pinckney Plan, very similar to the Virginia Plan but more specific. Approximately thirty-two provisions in the Constitution can be attributed to the Pinckney Plan.

The entire convention came very close to collapsing several times. The most contentious debate surrounded proportional representation vs. equal representation in the Congress. The savvy Rutledge and C. Pinckney led the convention toward compromise, whereby all parties sacrificed for the sake of establishing a bi-cameral legislature: a lower house based on population and an upper house based on equal representation. With Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion of the 3/5 rule, the Great Compromise passed, the convention was saved, and the U.S. Constitution was born.

South Carolina at the 1787 Constitutional Convention


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This entry was posted on September 24, 2015 by .

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