In 1787, the idea of placing an amending provision in a constitution was uncontroversial. Popular sovereignty was an assumed doctrine in the colonies; the people retained the unalienable right "to alter or abolish" their system of government whenever they so pleased. How this unquestionable right was to be incorporated into the new federal Constitution, however, was another matter. The delegates who faced each other at Philadelphia had very different views about which body should be entrusted with the power to propose amendments, when that power should be used, and how that power should be defined.

Article V, like the rest of the Constitution, reflects a mixture of compromise and ingenuity. The delegates sought a national government strong enough to overcome the problems of the Articles of Confederation, yet with enough of a federal structure to placate Antifederalist fears of de facto "consolidation" of the states. By creating a dual triggering mechanism, one that could be "pulled" by either the states or the federal government, Article V satisfied both nationalist and statist that "amendments of the proper kind" would be put before the people.

The polarities in the convention, however, were more than nationalist versus statist, or large state versus small. The debates that swirled within and around Philadelphia reveal competing conceptions of government: Classical Republicanism which presumed a virtuous citizenry who could be expected to sacrifice parochial concerns in the pursuit of a common good, versus the emerging Liberal assumption that society was composed of factions whose competitions could be, and must be, structured so as to achieve a stable form of government.

This clash between Liberal and Republican assumptions became especially acute in the debates surrounding the first attempted use of Article V: the Antifederalist call to a second convention. Seeing only "discord and ferment" coming from a second convention, the Federalists articulated a new and darker view of conventions: Is there any guaranty that a national convention will result in the considered judgment of the people? How can the assembly avoid being dominated by faction and demagoguery? The shadow thus cast over the convention clause of Article V has extended far beyond the Founding. It has obscured from view what was to Eighteenth Century Americans the fundamental expression of the "language of democracy," the people's right to assemble apart from established institutions and determine their own form of government.

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