The great American experiment was about to fail. On the eve of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 – where the U.S. Constitution began – the French minister to America wrote home to his superiors in Paris, “What part of the United States would you like to take when it falls apart?” Disunity between states, a faltering economy, active rebellions, the threat of European interference – all were contributing factors. The Articles of Confederation — the original post-independence document – weren’t working. The fledgling country needed an overhaul of its core principles. In this episode of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite revisits that summer of 1787 when a monumental collaboration ultimately delivered the U.S. Constitution. Within the muggy chambers of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, some of the country’s brightest lawmakers and thought-leading eccentrics came together to hash out a new government system unlike any other in the world. Carol Berkin, presidential professor of American history at The City University of New York and Constitutional author Jeff Broadwater describe the action: state delegates debating and bickering about topics that would chart the course of the country’s future. Learn the real story of an unlikely team of delegates forced to give up their personal egos and the interests of their individual states to build a collective – The United States of America – through compromise.
Teamistry is an original podcast from Atlassian.
GABRIELA: The Constitution of the United States
1950s EDUCATIONAL FILM: First there’s the preamble, “We the People.” Then Article One sets up a Congress. And Article Two provides for the Executive Branch. Remember, the Federal Government was established by the States getting together and delegating certain powers to it...
GABRIELA: Ok, being a political science major in college, I’ve always found the Constitution fascinating. But I do understand that a lot of people find it dense and honestly irrelevant to their everyday life.
GABRIELA: Except, here’s the thing: there’s a lot about the Constitution we didn’t learn in school. It doesn't make the US a democracy. It wasn't penned by a group of almost divine heros, but by a cast of people with their own personal issues, concerns and dreams. And that those people created a “safe space” to argue and change their minds. A space, by the way, that wasn’t regal and elegant, but stinky and sweaty.
GABRIELA: But still, why does any of that matter? Because the way those delegates were able to come together in the summer of 1787 and create a brand new form of government can teach us a heck of a lot that has nothing to do with the Constitution. Like how to balance your needs with the needs of the group. How to find common ground.
Carol Berkin: They couldn't rigidly stick to their own personal ideology. They kept their eye on what was important, saving the country
GABRIELA: I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams...and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating and expressing themselves together, they end up doing something amazing.
GABRIELA: It’s spring, 1787, just over a decade since the War of Independence. And over those years, the optimism and hope of a new country has collapsed. There’s no central currency, so economic trade is faltering, leading to a financial crisis. Rebellions are breaking out in some states, there’s even aggression between states. The central government, if you can call it that, has so little power it can’t resolve any of these issues. A big reason for this mess is the Articles of Confederation. It was supposed to gell the country together after the war, but it’s more like a treaty than a constitution. In fact, it’s looking more and more like the states are going to go their separate ways. The great American experiment is failing. And its leaders are worried that if it all comes undone, Europe will fight over the spoils.
Carol Berkin: We know that this was happening because on the eve of the Convention, the French minister to America wrote home to his superiors in Paris, "What part of the United States would you like to take when it falls apart?"
GABRIELA: Carol Berkin is a presidential professor of American history at The City University of New York. “The Convention” she’s talking about is the event that might save the country. A group of nationalist politicians have convinced the de facto American government, reluctantly, to let them and other state delegates gather in Philadelphia. Starting at the end of May, they’re going to fix the Articles of Confederation. That’s right, they didn’t get together to write the Constitution, that wasn’t the original plan. Many of the delegates didn’t even know each other.
Carol Berkin: The assumption that the framers of the constitution were all friends, it's not true. Many of them had never met or even heard of other people at the convention and you find in their own papers, they're writing things like, "Oh, I just met someone named James Madison. He's a very interesting man. He's very short and he stutters a little bit, but he's very smart."
GABRIELA: We may also have an image of some kind of noble luxury that these delegates are enjoying while in Philadelphia.
Carol Berkin: These men were staying in taverns, sleeping three to a bed. They were eating tavern food, which makes, I don't know, McDonald's look gourmet. They couldn't communicate with their families. They didn't know what was happening in their law practice, on their plantation. Mail was extremely slow, so they wanted to go home.
GABRIELA: But, of course, until they figure out a way to keep this new country together and working, they weren’t going anywhere. That work, by the way, is often portrayed as happening in a large and majestic room in the Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall. History professor and Constitutional author Jeff Broadwater paints a more humble picture.
Jeff Broadwater: The committees worked wherever they could find a place to work. They worked in taverns and boarding houses. There was a library on this, or what they call the library room on the second floor of Independence Hall, and at least one of the committees met there. The assembly room where they met was not all that large.
GABRIELA: This assembly room is where most of the action will happen. History books often portray it as hot and uncomfortable, unbearably humid. The thing is, though, Philadelphia didn’t have a heat wave in 1787. Here are the real reasons why the Convention was so sweaty. First, a lot of these men wore pretty heavy, multilayered outfits. And propriety meant that no matter how uncomfortable you got, you never took off your jacket. You just sat there steeping in your own sweat. Second, they weren’t free to roam around and get some fresh air. Proceedings were strict. So strict that the main reason the room is so hot and sweaty was that the windows in the hall are nailed shut. More on that later.
GABRIELA: All to say that the stage is set for a difficult summer: saving a country in pretty uncomfortable settings.
GABRIELA: The first thing the delegates do, in late May, is to agree that the Articles of Confederation is beyond saving. The document is just too vague to run a country. They need something new. A constitution that will enshrine the powers and responsibilities of a central government. But this opens a whole can of worms. Remember, gathering in Philadelphia are delegates from essentially independent states.
Carol Berkin: Men like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were ardent nationalists. Hamilton, at one point, recommended that they just abolish the states.
GABRIELA: But how were they going to do it, how were they going to balance the desires of the individual states with the needs of a central government? Well, as the convention starts, they have two tactics. First, even though everyone here doesn’t agree on how they would construct this new Constitution, most of the delegates have a shared vision for the country as a whole.
Carol Berkin: The men who came to the convention were, in many ways, self-selected. They were people who supported a stronger national government.
Jeff Broadwater: They believed in the separation of powers. They believed in checks and balances. They thought the government should be representative of the people in some way, although they kind of quarrelled about what that meant. I think all those factors really help explain why they succeeded.
GABRIELA: This is one of their team superpowers, which I’ll call “Common Ground”: they made sure, before they even got started, that everyone shared a vision for a new government. Which is why some of American history’s most famous figures weren’t even there.
Carol Berkin: Samuel Adams, the great rebel rouser of Massachusetts, Patrick Henry, "Give me Liberty or give me death," neither of them would go to that convention. They were ardent defenders of state sovereignty. And until the day he died, Patrick Henry referred to Virginia as his country, not his state, his country.
GABRIELA: So Adams, one of the leaders of the American Revolution, and Henry, long time governor of Virginia, both Founding Fathers, were so opposed to a strong central government, they didn’t attend. But that’s not to say everyone who did attend completely saw eye to eye. In fact, while they shared that main, high level goal, there were a number of competing views on how to get here. Having Common Ground, though, means that whatever they came up with benefits from these different perspectives.
GABRIELA: Now, remember how I said the windows in the meeting hall are nailed shut? Well, turns out, that’s the second strategy they used to ensure success. Right off the bat, everyone agreed that what happens in the Convention, stays in the Convention.
Carol Berkin: It was agreed that no one would take notes in the convention so that there would be no separate record by any of the members and no one would write to anyone and tell them what was going on at the convention and no one would talk in the taverns to anyone about what they were doing until it was all finished.
GABRIELA: So, why did it matter so much to keep this out of the public eye?
Jeff Broadwater: If the debates had been public and the delegates early on had to take public positions, it would have made it more difficult for them to change their mind and to compromise later on. They would have been accused of flip-flopping the way sometimes we accuse modern politicians when they changed their minds.
GABRIELA: So this superpower, which we now call “Psychological Safety,” is a powerful tool that allows delegates to change their minds. They can consider other viewpoints, they can compromise, without being afraid of outside judgement or criticism. Which would mean being cast out by their peers, even losing their positions in the state legislatures. In other words, the founding fathers created a “safe space” to work in.
Carol Berkin: Yes, they wanted a safe space, that's exactly right. They knew that what they were creating went against the government that already existed and went against the way most people in the country at the time, that is most white male voters, thought about government.
GABRIELA: Here’s the funny thing. Even though they all agreed to work in private, there was this one guy.
Carol Berkin: James Madison's one of my favorite characters, he was a hypochondriac, he was an extremely anxious guy. And almost every personal letter he writes begins with, “I've come down with a strange illness, I don't know if I'll survive” and the man lived a long, long life.
GABRIELA: And it turns out that Madison’s anxiety led him to break their big privacy rule right off the bat.
Carol Berkin: They sat at tables according to the states and he grabs a table in the front for Virginia so he could see and hear everybody. And people begin to debate and Madison starts writing down everything they're saying. And when there’s a break he goes over and he says, "I missed some of what you said, can you remind me what you said?" And everybody's watching this and they know he's not supposed to be doing this, but I always picture them in and this is just my imagination, nudging one another and going “Little Jimmy Madison is taking notes. Somebody needs to tell him he can't do that.” “I'm not going to tell him! He'll have a nervous breakdown right here in the convention” And so, nobody stopped him.
GABRIELA: But even though Madison is feverishly taking notes of everything being said, which turns out, thankfully, to be the reason we now know what went on, he does honour the rule to not tell anyone else what’s going on.
Carol Berkin: He would write home to his father and he would write to Thomas Jefferson, who was our ambassador to France at the time. He would write, "We did something momentous today, but I can't tell you what it was." And finally his father writes him back and again, I'm paraphrasing, “Jimmy, I know you can't tell me, so stop telling me you did something really exciting and then telling me you can't tell me.”
GABRIELA: The first and central challenge the delegates have to overcome is representation and the power of the individual states in the new government. Here’s what it comes down to: smaller states want equal representation so they won’t be bullied or ignored by larger states. Large states want proportional representation so that smaller states won’t have more power than their small size would suggest.
Jeff Broadwater: It looked like things might be falling apart. The debate on representation went on for several weeks, and was really bitter and Madison was so upset about it, because he was completely committed to proportional representation. He seemed willing to lead really a walkout of the convention by large state delegates.
GABRIELA: This battle between nationalists and defenders of state rights threatens to scuttle the whole thing. Which could bring down the entire country. That’s not an exaggeration. As these debates are happening, Shay’s Rebellion in Western Massachusetts has just been subdued. But this year-long uprising by thousands of former Revolutionary soldiers has lit a fire under these delegates. The economy of the United States, under the Articles of Confederation, just doesn't work and it’s driving more and more people to the edge of violence. The delegates are convinced that without a new central government, the country will dissolve into open revolt.
Carol Berkin: That day, James Wilson walks over to James Madison and he puts his hand on his shoulder. They all called him Jimmy. Little Jimmy Madison because he was very short. He said, "Jimmy, you must give in on this to the small states. Otherwise we are doomed," or words to that effect. And Madison, who had been so, so ardent about his position, went home and came back the next day and he rose to speak and he said, "I concede." It was an extremely difficult moment for James Madison.
GABRIELA: And with those words, “I concede,” Madison shows that he is willing to compromise to find a solution. That maybe both sides can be appeased. But not everyone there is as flexible.
Jeff Broadwater: Hamilton was probably the most militant nationalist at the convention. The other two New York delegates were John Lansing and Robert Yates and they were two of the strongest advocates of state's rights and they were really skeptical of the convention to begin with. Lansing and Yates left about halfway through the convention because they didn't like the way things were going.
GABRIELA: This, of course, points to their “Common Ground”. People not on side, didn’t show up or left. Those that stick around don’t completely agree on everything but predominantly want a strong central government. Men like Gouvernor Morris, who, by the way, wasn’t a governor, that’s actually his name. He is a character, to say the least.
Carol Berkin: He was one of the richest men in America. He spoke several languages. He had traveled. He was brilliant. He was witty. He was sarcastic. I mean, he's the kind of person you would love to have dinner with. And Gouverneur Morris loved women. He made no bones about it. He especially loved married women, and so the delegates from New England were really quite horrified by him. They couldn't get over the fact that he was a rake and a seducer of other men's wives. He was a beautiful writer, a brilliant stylist. And call me crazy, but I really find him a delicious figure in American history.
GABRIELA: It’s July 2nd and both sides of the representation debate are still fighting. So the delegates tap into the psychological safety superpower. They move the debate to a committee, a committee made up of all the delegates. They do this because committee debates and voting are not recorded. This allows the delegates to compromise.
GABRIELA: And so, on July 16, the delegates agree to a deal, called The Great Compromise: that the government would be divided so that the House would be proportional and the Senate would be two delegates per state. But this ends up leading to another, almost fearcer debate. Who, in this divided government, will represent the entire nation?
Jeff Broadwater: They wanted a strong president, but they didn't want the president to be too strong. They wanted the President to be independent of Congress, but they weren't quite sure that a popular election would work. Madison had initially proposed that Congress select the president. James Wilson, normally his ally, had favored a direct popular vote.
GABRIELA: But it’s not as simple as just having a direct vote. In fact, in the 18th century, there’s nothing simple about that at all.
Carol Berkin: This was a rural farming country. It had no railroads, it had no telegraph, no telegram. No means of communication other than riding in a carriage, or on horseback, or reading the newspapers. And many towns didn't even have newspapers. So, if you ran for the presidency, you would have to get on a horse in Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts, and ride from farmhouse to farmhouse to farmhouse asking people to vote for you.
GABRIELA: It seems hard to imagine now, but at the country’s founding, “democracy” wasn’t a lynchpin in American politics. Virginia delegate George Mason said...
Carol Berkin: "Asking the people to choose the president is like asking a blind man to tell you what color a coat is." So some people have taken that and said, "Oh, this was an anti-democratic group. The men who wrote the constitution were elitists and they didn't trust the people." But really if you read the debate, you'll realize that they were simply realists.
GABRIELA: The delegates debate the Presidency for weeks and finally decide at the end of August to pass the decision to, and I love this name, “The Committee of Postponed Parts.” Yeah, as the name suggests, stuff they just couldn’t resolve. But again, tapping into the Common Ground superpower, this committee is intentionally made up of delegates who are open to compromise. And, as a committee, they get to work in secret. Flip flop. Change their minds.
GABRIELA: The system that they come up with, on September 4th, is the system that we still have today: the Electoral College. On one hand, there is a popular vote, but the electors, who are appointed by the individual states, make sure there’s no direct democracy because they’re the ones who vote for the president. And here’s something I didn’t know: whoever came in second place would be Vice President.
GABRIELA: The Electoral College could not have been created without both the shared values but especially the private deliberations that allowed for compromise.
Jeff Broadwater: James Madison from Virginia, who was probably certainly among the most influential delegates, said later that if the delegates had not debated in secret, he didn't think that the convention could have been a success.
GABRIELA: That success is based on something that usually gets a bad rap: compromise
Carol Berkin: Students in the US learn the great compromise, and the 3/5s compromise, and they think those are the only ones. But I can tell you from reading every word of that debate, there was a compromise virtually every day.
GABRIELA: When you hear the word “compromise” it’s often a negative, a pejorative term, a disappointment, almost a failure. But that’s simply not true. Compromise is what the United States is built on.
Carol Berkin: Compromise is the greatest achievement of that Convention, because they kept their eye on what was important, saving the country, and they compromised at every turn to make sure that they would be able to produce a document that had a chance of being accepted.
GABRIELA: And yet, while this story gives us a positive view of compromise, it needs to be said that not everything they agreed on was positive. The most glaring example is the 3/5ths compromise that Carol mentioned. In trying to figure out proportional representation, the southern states wanted their enslaved populations to count as citizens, to bolster their numbers. Which would have given them much more power in the House of Representatives. Despite the fact, of course, that these people were not afforded any of the rights or freedoms, or dignity, of citizens. Meanwhile, the delegates from states with relatively few enslaved people were most concerned about numbers, not human rights. And while this was another one of the compromises that kept the convention moving, it is an injustice baked into the founding of the country.
GABRIELA: It’s early September, 1787, and after a long, sweaty, difficult summer, the convention is nearing an end. But as they are preparing all the notes for final writing, a major stumbling block: a few delegates, including George Mason, refuse to sign if there is no Bill of Rights. Which, by the way, was proposed after the ratification of the Constitution because a lot of people thought the central government had too much power.
GABRIELA: At this key moment when it looks like things might come off the rails, Common Ground kicks in to save the day. Those delegates still not happy, leave or obstain. They never sign on. They will play a role during that future ratification of the Constitution, when this all gets debated again by the individual states. But for now, we’re left only with those delegates who are willing to work towards a solution. Willing to sacrifice secondary goals for the main one. Willing to put away old ideas, shelve their personal desires, and embrace a new shared vision.
GABRIELA: But here’s something else you may not know: the way they first wrote the Constitution reads like an ol’ timey legal document. It desperately needs a rewrite.
Carol Berkin: Gouverneur Morris would have been a great Madison Avenue advertising executive. He said to the Convention, "Look, we're trying to replace an existing government with something people are going to be really surprised about. We have to tell them why it's better for them, why they will gain by supporting this government." And he's the one who wrote that beautiful preamble about, "Provide for the common defense, promote the national welfare, domestic tranquility." All of the wonderful things that the Constitution was going to do, he's responsible for that.
GABRIELA: And so, finally, on September 15, 1787, the convention adopts the Constitution of the United States of America.
Carol Berkin: At the end of the convention, Alexander Hamilton summed up what I think is the key and most important and most admirable thing about that convention, which was these compromises that everybody made. They compromised their own state's interests. They compromised their own ideological interests. They compromised their own dreams and wishes for the government in the interest of producing a consensus for the convention. And at the end, Alexander Hamilton said, "No man got everything he wanted. No man got nothing he wanted. And every man got something he wanted."
GABRIELA: The Founding Fathers relied on private deliberations and a shared vision that allowed them to compromise, find common ground and build a new country. To find out more about those team powers, check out the “extras” page at atlassian dot com slash Teamistry. Season one of the podcast is almost done and we’re wrapping up with a group of seamstresses who helped put the first man on the moon. That’s next time on Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. Thanks for listening.