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why was the constitutional convention closed to the public

As evidenced by the Watergate scandal and the countless other БgatesБ that have followed, the American people do not like their politicians conducting government in secret. Which is ironic because the American government was created in secret. This week (May 29) in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which would produce the Constitution on which our government is based, the convention delegates agreed to protect themselves from the Бlicentious publications of their proceedingsБ by voting to keep those proceedings a complete secret from all outsiders, including (especially) the press. And except for one unfortunate incident in which a delegate mislaid his convention notes, that secrecy rule was unfailingly observed. бThose mislaid notes, by the way, were found by another delegate and given to the convention president, George Washington, who rebuked the entire convention so sternly regarding such carelessness that the miscreant delegate, fearing WashingtonБs wrath, never identified himself and is unknown to us today. Today, of course, such secrecy would be both impossible and unacceptable by the public and the press, but given the immense importance of their work, the delegatesБ greatest fear was that if the press leaked their deliberations to the public piecemeal it would paint an incomplete and misleading picture of what they were seeking to accomplish. As delegate George Mason put it, secrecy was Бa necessary precaution to prevent misrepresentations or mistakes; there being a material difference between the appearance of a subject in its first crude and undigested shape, and after it shall have been properly matured and arranged.


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Further, by keeping the press away, the delegates were able to disagree, debate, and finally arrive at compromises without fear of stirring up partisan acrimony, fed by newspaper reports, among their fellow citizens back in their home states. As the delegates knew well, in many states there had been bitter disagreement over the need to hold a convention to create a new government in the first place. But protected by secrecy the delegates could be more candid, more forthright and even more creative, being free to propose ideas that probably wouldnБt lead anywhere Б but then again, just might. As (my hero) James Madison, called by historians БThe Father of the Constitution,Б would later write, БNo Constitution would ever have been adopted by the convention if the debates had been public. Б Indeed, the delegates were so convinced of the need for secrecy that they kept the windows and doors of the convention hall shut tight, in part to prevent the press from eavesdropping. No small sacrifice that, because the Constitutional Convention took place in a cramped, crowded, un-air-conditioned building, the Pennsylvania Statehouse (now called Independence Hall), during a typical hot and humid Philadelphia summer. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is a high point in the history of the United States.


This remarkable assemblage of men, meeting in Philadelphia between May 23 and September 17, 1787, created the document that has given the United States one of the most stable and admired constitutional democracies in the history of the world. 55 delegates from 12 states attended various parts of the convention. Drawn from the educated and wealthy elite of the country, they included such luminaries as GEORGE WASHINGTON, the commander of American forces in the, who presided over the convention, and BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, at 81, the oldest delegate and the country's most famous statesman. A majority of the delegates were lawyers, and many, such as JAMES MADISON, were wealthy landowners. Many notable leaders of the time, however, including THOMAS JEFFERSON, who was in France, and PATRICK HENRY, did not attend. The meetings of the convention were closed to the public and to the press. Thus, behind closed doors, the delegates hammered out the eventual form of U. S. government. The agreements reached during the convention exemplified the values of constitutional government. In an atmosphere that combined competitive, lively debate with tolerance and respect for differences of opinion, the delegates reached vital compromises on matters that threatened to divide the still loosely connected union of states. Many different factions opposed one another small states versus large states, farmers versus businesspeople, North versus South, and slave states versus nonslave states.


The Constitutional Convention occurred in three separate phases. The first, from May 23 to July 26, created the basic features of the national government, including its division into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. During this phase, delegates also arrived at one important compromise between the interests of large and small states. That compromise created a bicameral, or two-chamber, legislature, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate. During the second phase of the convention, from July 27 to August 6, the five-man Committee of Detail created a rough draft of the Constitution. In the third phase, which lasted from August 6 to September 6, the delegates debated remaining sticking points, particularly relating to the and the means of electing a president. Eventually, they settled on the suggested by Benjamin Franklin. On September 17, 39 of the 42 delegates present signed the Constitution. Gouverneur Morris, coauthor of the New York State Constitution and a key delegate, summed up the significance of the Constitution that the convention had created when, after affixing his signature to it, he uttered these words: "The moment this plan goes forth, all other considerations will be laid aside and the great question will be: Shall there be a national government or not? And this must take place or a general anarchy will be the alternative. "

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