How were issues of representation addressed at the Constitutional Convention?
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How were issues of representation addressed at the Constitutional Convention?

October 24, 2019

During the
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in
1787, the major issues discussed have to do with the
structure of the government. The major issue was
how do you make sure that the people are
represented in a democratic way and retain this principle
of what we today would call states’ rights, that
is to allow the states to have some say. Because if you have only
popular representation, then the bigger states, that is
the more populous states, are going to have the advantage
over the smaller states. And of course the resolution
is a peculiar bicameral system, peculiar because it’s not based
on issues of let’s say class as the bicameral system
was based in England. It is based on two competing
systems, one the people, the House of Representatives,
and the other the states, the Senate. Now the second article
of the US constitution has to do with the executive. There again the debates
are quite fierce. They were creating a new office,
the President of the United States. And this office was
now– it was going to be inhabited by someone who
was going to have new powers. What sorts of powers was
this person going to have? How was this person
going to be elected? How do you make sure
that one group of states doesn’t have the edge in
deciding who is president? And the answer they
create ultimately is the Electoral College. And of course the Electoral
College is still with us today. Now the Electoral
College created in that convention in 1787
is different from the one we have today, but the
notion of the Electoral College, the
principle behind it, that you maintain a system of
electing the president that’s democratic in nature
but acknowledges the importance of
individual states, that fundamental
principle is still there. Of course, one of the
most talked about issues, although not addressed
systematically in one and only one
article, is slavery. The people are going
to be represented in the House of Representatives. What about the slaves? Are they going to
be represented? That creates a problem. If you count the
slaves as people, then you’re going
to give the edge in the House of Representatives
to the Southern states where slavery was predominant. If you don’t count
the slaves as people, then you’re going to give
the edge to the North, and so there’s a compromise. We call it the Three
Fifths Compromise. In the debates around
the presidency, again, with the electoral
colleges created, it’s modeled on the way
that the 3/5 clause worked in that slave states were
supposed to be given equal say with free states. So it’s modeled in
terms of making sure that the president would
have the interests in mind of both free states
and slave states. So while the issue is
debated, compromised over in these various moments of
debate about other issues, there’s a consciousness of
not wanting to make slavery explicitly something that was
debated at length, so much so that the word does not even
appear in the final document.

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