This section is from the book "Popular Law Library Vol1 Introduction To The Study Of Law Legal History", by Albert H. Putney. Also see: Popular Law-Dictionary.
The second Monday of May, 1787, fell upon the 14th. On that day only a few delegates had assembled, and seven states were not represented until May 25th, when the first meeting of the Federal Constitutional Convention was held.1
A correct appreciation and understanding of the United States Constitution requires a knowledge of the history of the Constitutional Convention. It was with both vague and widely differing notions as to what should be done that the members of the convention assembled together on this 25th day of May, 1787. There was, however, one characteristic which seems to have belonged to all this remarkable body of men. They seem, almost without exception, to have been men of a practical, instead of a speculative mind; men imbued with all the conservatism of the Anglo-Saxon race. There is little in the Constitution which originated in the minds of any member of this convention. What they did was to select from the political institutions of the past those features best suited, in their opinion, for our country, and then to mould or modify them to meet existing conditions.
1 Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were represented at the opening session on May 25th. Delegates from Connecticut and Maryland appeared on May 28th. New Hampshire was first represented on July 23, while Rhode Island took no part in the Convention.
What, then, were the sources from which the framers of the Federal Constitution drew their material? First and foremost stand the constitutions of the different states. It has been said that every provision of the Constitution of the United States which has worked well, was suggested by some provision in the Constitution of some State, and that every provision which was not so suggested has worked poorly. Such a statement is too broad to be wholly true, but it serves to illustrate the importance of this source. For example, the compromise which saved the Constitution when the convention was about to go to pieces on the question of representation in Congress, was suggested by a provision of the Connecticut Constitution. (The various provisions of the United States Constitution copied from the various State constitutions will be shown when the Constitution is treated in detail in the next volume.) Next in importance among the sources from which the United States Constitution was drawn, stands the English system of government. It was the English system of government, however, as laid down by Blackstone, and as understood generally by Americans at that time, which served as a guide to the Constitution makers, rather than the English government as it really existed. Like Blackstone, the members of the Constitutional Convention were all the time looking at the letter of the English law, rather than its spirit. They were acquainted with the laws of the English Constitution, but not with its conventions. They saw the three branches of the legislative power without appreciating the supremacy of the House of Commons. To them the executive power appeared vested in the King rather than in the ministry. The closest copying from English law appears in the Bill of Rights where various provisions of the Magna Charta or Bill of Rights appear embodied almost verbatim in the Constitution, or in the first ten amendments. It should be added, that the State Constitutions were largely based on English law, and thus, much that was copied from them came indirectly from England, although many of the most valuable provisions suggested by the State Constitutions have nothing resembling them in the English law or Constitution.
A recent writer 2 has made an effort to make out a Dutch origin for American institutions. The free schools, the written ballot, and some features of the township system, may be largely traced to Dutch sources, but we find little trace of Dutch influence in the Constitution itself. The Dutch republic was, however, of service to the framers of our Constitution, as furnishing a striking example of the evils attending an undue exaltation of the power of local governments. The Articles of Confederation were also of benefit as showing what to avoid, rather than as presenting much worthy of being followed. Certain provisions of these articles appear, however, in a slightly modified form, in the Constitution, noticeably the clause relative to the reciprocal rights of the citizens of the several states.
The period during which the convention met was one of a great revival of classical study. The minds of the people were filled with admiration of the character and institutions of the ancient Romans. Much of this sentiment is to be found in the speeches in the Constitutional Convention, but little evidence of Roman influence is to be found in the text of the Constitution except in the name of the upper branch of the legislative body, and this name was already in use in eleven of the states.
2 Mr. Douglas Campbell, in "Puritan in Holland, England, and America."
Three great causes of dissension early manifested themselves among the members of the Convention. The interests of the large and of the small states came at once into conflict, while the members of the convention became arrayed either as supporters or opponents of a strong central government, and as the friends or enemies of slavery. The positions of the different parties on the first two questions were set forth in the "Virginia" and "New Jersey" plans, while the various conflicting interests were brought to a certain degree of harmony by the three great compromises of the Constitution. It is around the Virginia3 and New Jersey4 plans and these three compromises that the history of the Constitutional Convention centers.