This Day in History: The final days of the Constitutional Convention

On this day in 1787, the Constitutional Convention draws to a close. The delegates turned to the subject of constitutional amendments.

The then-existing draft of the Constitution gave state legislatures the ability to call for a Convention to propose amendments. The U.S. Congress had no similar power.

Alexander Hamilton, delegate from New York, was dissatisfied with the provision. “The State Legislatures,” he stated, “will not apply for alterations but with a view to increase their own powers. The National Legislature will be the first to perceive and will be the most sensible to the necessity of amendments.”

The delegates decided to change the provision. In the final Constitution, the Congress can begin the constitutional amendment process more easily than states can.

Hamilton’s statement seems a little ridiculous today. Doesn’t the federal government always seem to be the road block to amendments that many Americans want? (e.g., term limits, balanced budget?) But now consider the world in which Hamilton lived. In 1787, the state governments were much more powerful than the federal government. Indeed, the delegates were deliberately creating a Constitution that gave the federal government only limited powers. Our Founders feared a large, powerful, federal government. They wanted their states to retain much of the legislative authority.

Given this situation in 1787, it would have been perfectly logical to think that the powerful states would be the most likely to abuse the amendment power. Today, the situation has reversed itself.

In retrospect, would Hamilton have made it much easier for states to propose amendments?

The Constitution might make it easier for Congress to propose amendments, but the states can still make an amendment happen. The Constitution specifically provides that Congress MUST call “a Convention for proposing Amendments” if “the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States” make application for such a convention.

Some people today worry that such a convention could degenerate into a “runaway convention.” But remember that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention relied upon conventions much more often than we do, and they would have understood the rules and norms of such conventions. (Today’s generation needs to be reminded!) If such a convention were to be called, state legislatures would be in charge. They could limit the topics under discussion and they could limit delegates’ commissions so that their delegates would have only limited authority.

There are legitimate reasons to fall on either side of the debate about whether we should call an Article V convention. But perhaps the debate would be generally helped if Americans knew more about the Founders and their use of conventions in the late 1700s.