Constitutional conventions, like the written constitutions that they produce, are among the American contributions to government. A constitutional convention became the means that a free people used to put into practice the
SOCIAL COMPACT THEORY by devising their FUNDAMENTAL LAW. Such a convention is a representative body acting for the sovereign people to whom it is responsible. Its sole commission is to frame a CONSTITUTION; it does not pass laws, perform acts of administration, or govern in any way. It submits its work for popular ratification and adjourns. Such a convention first came into being during the AMERICAN REVOLUTION. The institutionalizing of constitutional principles during wartime was the constructive achievement of the Revolution. The Revolution's enduring heroics are to be found in constitution-making. As JAMES
MADISON exultantly declared, "Nothing has excited more admiration in the world than the manner in which free governments have been established in America; for it was the first instance, from the creation of the world ? that free inhabitants have been seen deliberating on a form of government and selecting such of their citizens as possessed their confidence, to determine upon and give effect to it."
Within a century of 1776 nearly two hundred state constitutional conventions had been held in the United States. The institution is so familiar that we forget how novel it was even in 1787. At the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, which framed this nation's constitution, OLIVER ELLSWORTH declared that since the framing of the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION (1781), "a new sett [sic] of ideas seemed to have crept in.? Conventions of the people, or with power derived expressly from the people, were not then thought of. The Legislatures were considered as competent."
Credit for understanding that legislatures were not competent for that task belongs to JOHN LILBURNE, the English Leveller leader, who probably originated the idea of a constitutional convention. In his Legall Fundamentall Liberties (1649), he proposed that specially elected representatives should frame an Agreement of the People, or constitution, "which Agreement ought to be above Law; and therefore [set] bounds, limits, and extent of the people's Legislative Deputies in Parliament." Similarly, Sir Henry Vane, once governor of Massachusetts, proposed, in his Healing Question (1656), that a "convention" be chosen by the free consent...