Origins of American Government

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This is “My Constitution,” a podcast from the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement at Purdue University. In this podcast, we’ll discuss the origins of American government.

The younger of the two men was born in Westchester County, New York. His family had served in positions of power in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The older man was born in Boston. His father made candles and soap. Yet the two men had much in common.

Both had served their country during the Revolutionary War; one at home and the other primarily in Europe. They were both personally aware of the fragility of life. The younger had suffered terrible burns to his right arm when he was only 14 years old and lost a leg as a result of a carriage accident in his twenties. The Massachusetts man, in his eighties, was in precarious health. Sometimes observed to be sitting in a sedan chair, carried by prisoners, he suffered from gout and kidney stones, and in a weakened state asked another to speak for him. Slavery had impacted both men. The family of Gouverneur Morris, the one-legged man from New York, had owned slaves. Benjamin Franklin, printer, scientist, and diplomat, had also been a slave-owner. Yet both men ended up opposing slavery. These men were two of eight delegates representing Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. They joined others in signing the newly created charter of American government, which was ratified in June 1788.

The early years of the new country were beset by problems. In the eyes of some, the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, was one of those problems. Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government was weak, and real power was in the individual states. Congress had the power to declare war, raise revenue, coin money, and discuss tariff arrangements with international partners. However, it relied on the good will of the states to provide troops and money. States could also issue their own currencies, work out their own tariff arrangements with other countries, and even tax goods moving from one state to another.

Under the Articles of Confederation, whatever the size of their population, states were represented equally in the national Congress. That body faced an uphill struggle to address the problems facing the country. The agreement of nine states was required before the government could act. Every state had to agree if the Articles were to be changed. In addition, the nation faced challenges from Britain, Spain, and France. There was unrest as former soldiers wished to be paid the money they were owed. Angry farmers were saddled with debts. Both took to the streets. Here’s Mark Dimunation of the Library of Congress, discussing the 1786 Shay’s Rebellion.

In western Massachusetts, Farmer Shay, objecting to the fact that Massachusetts had the nerve to tax him and his fellow farmers, goes to Springfield and attacks an arsenal. In essence, a war erupts in western Massachusetts, and the inability of Massachusetts’ state government to actually immediately quell this uprising is the first shot across the fear that the confederate organization was too weak. We had not enough central government to actually quell a farmer uprising in Massachusetts.

Fifty-five delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787 to discuss constitutional change. Delegates came from all the states except Rhode Island. They met in shuttered conditions in the statehouse. Black flies and secrecy prompted the delegates to close the blinds and windows. According to Baruch College historian Carol Berkin, the delegates were certainly not a microcosm of the American population at the time.

For though they all came from the same elite social class, their idiosyncrasies—and they had idiosyncrasies—made them individuals. Some, a few, were men of true genius. Others, a few, were downright foolish men. Among the delegates were dandies and silk suits and men who looked like the Puritans of old. There were flagrant womanizers, confirmed bachelors and one newlywed in his fifties. One delegate was a snuff addict. One delegate was an alcoholic, at least one we know of, whose drunkenness on the convention floor saddened and disgusted many of his colleagues. Three of the delegates would wind up fugitives from angry creditors and local law enforcement officers, victims of their addiction to speculation in shady land deals.

The delegates tended to favor change and, in particular, change in the direction of a stronger national government. Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris shared these two traits with many of their fellow delegates.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines compromise as, “a coming to terms, or arrangement of a dispute, by concessions on both sides.” For Madison, compromise, except in matters of conscience, was the beating heart of American politics. Though sometimes difficult to obtain, compromise was much in the air in Philadelphia in 1787.

Let’s look at some of the issues facing the delegates.

One issue of disagreement was how states were to be represented in the national legislature. The two plans of importance here were the New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan. The Virginia Plan bore the fingerprints of James Madison. Here’s Brown University historian, Gordon Wood.

Now, his Virginia plan proposes a two-house legislature, with both houses having proportional representation. That was very important to Madison. He wants both houses to be like the House of Representatives in proportion, representation in proportion to population. Not simply because he comes from the biggest state in the union, but I think more important in his mind was he wants to keep the states out of the system altogether. He sees that the states have a representation as states in the government, they'll vitiate it. They're so strong. The loyalties to states are so strong that the federal government will never be able to stand up against them.

In contrast, the unicameral, or one-chamber, legislature proposed in the New Jersey Plan was more like the original Articles of Confederation. It had each state getting the same number of representatives whatever the population.

Not all of Franklin’s ideas found root in rich soil during the months the Convention met. For example, his idea that the executive should only receive expenses, and not a salary, was largely ignored. In the face of disagreements over representation in the national legislature, he called for compromise. He also proposed equal representation in what he called “the second branch of the general legislature.” Both ideas struck a chord with the delegates. Now back to the idea of compromise.

In his discussion of its value, Franklin drew an analogy between an artist making a table and the task before the delegates. Here are his words: “When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner here, both sides must part with some of their demands in order that they may join in some accommodating purpose.”

The Great Compromise, or Connecticut Compromise as it was also known, combined elements of the Virginia and the New Jersey Plans. Embracing a bi-cameral, or two–house, solution to the problem of representation, the delegates created a Senate in which each state, whatever their population, received equal representation. Again, here’s historian Gordon Wood.

And now we have, from our democratic, small “d” point of view, the absurdity of Wyoming with, I don't know, 600,000 people with two senators and California with 37 million people with the same two senators.

In contrast, House seats were allocated on a proportional basis. States with larger populations would receive more seats than states with smaller populations.

In another move away from the Articles of Confederation, the delegates created an executive selected by electors who were themselves appointed by the states. We know it today as the Electoral College. The number of electors each state was allocated depended on each individual state’s representation in the newly created bi-cameral legislature. By the mid-nineteenth century, all the states provided for direct election of the members of the Electoral College. The newly minted Constitution also provided for a Supreme Court whose members were appointed by the executive, subject to approval by the Senate. In contrast, under the earlier Articles of Confederation, the judiciary had a negligible presence at the national level. The states were the favored children of those who created the early Articles of Confederation. Under the new Constitution, the central government was an orphan no more.

Together with congressional legislation, and treaties negotiated by the U.S. government and ratified by the Senate, the new Constitution was declared to be the supreme law of the land. Congress was given the power to raise taxes. Congress, not the states, was allowed to coin money. Congress was given the power to regulate commerce between the states and between the United States and foreign countries. Congress was also given the power to pass laws which it felt were “necessary and proper” for it to carry out the tasks granted to it by the Constitution. War powers, and the ability to amass forces to fight a war, were given to the national government. Congress was given the power to declare war. And the president was named Commander in Chief

The success of the nationalist agenda at Philadelphia was reflected in the revised preamble to the Constitution. It was penned by our one-legged diplomat, Gouverneur Morris. Here’s the author Stephen Puleo.

He writes the very famous and eloquent preamble to the United States Constitution: We the People. We, the people of the United States, which at the time wasn't a term that was used.

While the proposed Constitution provided for a more robust central government, the Framers were acutely conscious of the dangers of unchecked power.

The Framers deliberately hobbled the powerful new government by, for example, dividing power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and by giving them the power to check the actions of the others. Today, we use phrases such as separation of powers and checks and balances to describe these arrangements.

The Framers further divided power between the states and the national government. We call this arrangement federalism. More on that in a future podcast.

During the months they spent in Philadelphia, the Framers of the new Constitution also discussed slavery. A significant number of delegates owned slaves. A number of the states contained proportionately large slave populations. The new Constitution’s DNA was similarly awash with the torment of uprooted Africans, of their children, and their grand-children. For example, Article I contained the three-fifths clause. Slaves were counted as “three-fifths” of a person for representational and taxation purposes. Article I also allowed for the continuation of the slave trade. As a result, Congress was forbidden from interfering with the transportation of slaves for over two decades. Finally, under Article IV, individuals who escaped from their owners were to be returned to those same owners.

Gouverneur Morris opposed two of the key slavery compromises, the three-fifths clause and the agreement over the continuation of the slave trade. In a debate over the three-fifths clause, Morris provided a comprehensive critique of slavery. Here’s biographer Richard Brookhiser reading from one of Morris’s speeches.

‘Travel through the whole continent, and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave the New England states and enter New York, the effects of the institution become visible. Passing through the Jerseys and entering Pennsylvania, every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed southwardly, and every step you take through the great region of slaves presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings. Upon what principle is it that the slaves should be computed in the representation? Are they men? Why, then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?’

In contrast, our other protagonist, Benjamin Franklin, did not address the slave issue in open debate at Philadelphia. He was asked by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to present a petition against slavery to the Convention. He did not do so.

Gouverneur Morris acknowledged the flaws in the Constitution. He took the position, however, that it was “the best that was to be attained.” Benjamin Franklin provided a somewhat similar assessment of the work of the delegates. As committed nationalists, Morris and Franklin likely found solace in believing that they had created a document that set the stage for a strong national government that would hopefully right the American ship of state.

Before we close, let’s return to James Madison’s discussion of compromise. For Madison, the beating heart of American government could be found in a simple idea: Compromise, compromise, compromise, except in matters of conscience. Numerous compromises were made at the Constitutional Convention. One was the Connecticut Compromise, which combined elements of the Virginia and the New Jersey plans. Another was the delegates’ attempts to tackle the slavery problems.

Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to understand the compromises over slavery at the Constitutional Convention. The traditional argument is that the work of the Framers would not have been ratified if the compromises had not been made. Others defend the actions of the Framers on the grounds that they believed that slavery was a dying institution. Whatever the merits of the arguments, compromises “in matters of conscience” were made at Philadelphia. Two of those making them were the one-legged man and the ancient sage.

Further information on some of the issues discussed in this program, including questions to ponder, our sources, and additional clips from the C-SPAN Archives, can be found on the website of the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement. The address is cla.purdue.edu/cspan. The Center is affiliated with the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University.


To acquaint the student with the work of the Framers at Philadelphia and with the idea of compromise.


  1. One of the key ideas discussed in this podcast is compromise. As we noted, James Madison stressed the value of compromise in many circumstances. How important is compromise in politics? Franklin and Morris clearly compromised their beliefs to a degree. Are there ideas you hold that you would never compromise whatever the cost or result? What are they?
  1. The constitutional structure that the Framers left is not without its critics. Some critics have argued that the Framers concern with the abuse of power has left us with a constitutional structure which sometimes makes it difficult for our government to tackle some of the problems we face as a nation. What value do you see in such concepts as separation of powers and checks and balances? Do you agree with critics that the cost of this constitutional structure can sometimes be high?
  1. One of the criticisms of the work of the delegates at Philadelphia is that they did not include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Remember the Constitution was ratified in 1788 while the Bill of Rights was not ratified until 1791. Why do you think the Framers failed to include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution?


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Brands, H. W. (2002). The first American: The life and times of Benjamin Franklin (pp.666-691, 692-711). New York City, NY: Anchor Books.

Brands, H. W. (September 2003). Founders chic. The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/09/founders-chic/302773/

Brookhiser, R. (2002). The forgotten founding father. City Journal. www.city-journal.org/html/forgotten-founding-father-12246.html

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Cooke, A. (2002). Letter from America by Alistair Cooke, there's no place like home - 11 January 2002. BBC. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2R00RkS8XVPhcr3H91zT3MV/theres-no-place-like-home-11-january-2002

Creating a constitution. (n.d.). The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary. www.benfranklin300.org/exhibition/_html/5_5/index.htm

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Finkelman, P. (2001). The founders and slavery: Little ventured, little gained. Yale J.L. & Human, Vol. 13. https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol13/iss2/3

Fiorina, M.P., Peterson, P. E., Johnson, B., & Mayer, W. G. (2011). America’s new democracy (6th ed., pp. 23-45). New York City, NY: Pearson.

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Founding fathers. (n.d.) National Constitution Center. constitutioncenter.org/learn/educational-resources/founding-fathers

The founding fathers: Delegates to the constitutional convention. (n.d.). National Archives and Records Administration. law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/marryff.html

George Clymer: Pennsylvania. (n.d.). National Archives and Records Administration, law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/marrypenn.html

Gutmann, A. & Thompson A. (2012). Constitution? let's compromise. National Constitution Center. constitutioncenter.org/blog/constitution-lets-compromise

Marshall, T. (1987). The bicentennial speech. Thurgood Marshall. thurgoodmarshall.com/the-bicentennial-speech/

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Raphael, R. (2013). Let's make a deal. American History. https://www.historynet.com/lets-make-a-deal-the-great-compromise.htm

Waldstreicher, D. (2004). Benjamin Franklin, slavery, and the founders: On the dangers of reading backwards. Commonplace. commonplace.online/article/benjamin-franklin-slavery/


Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) -- https://www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/60us393. One of the most important cases decided by the Supreme Court, Dred Scott provides some insight into how slavery played out in the American legal and political system during the decades after the Constitutional Convention. The link will lead you to a summary of the facts, the legal question, and a summary of the Court’s decision. You can also access the work of the Court by clicking the “View Case” link.


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