The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was one of the most important meetings in US history. This meeting replaced the confederal government under the Articles of Confederation, which the Second Continental Congress had proposed in 1777 and which was ratified in 1781, with a strengthened federal government holding the power to operate directly on individual citizens. The Convention provided a positive answer to the question that Alexander Hamilton, in defending the new Constitution, had pondered in Federalist No. 1: “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” This Convention was not the first but it was certainly the most famous application of the convention mode of constitution making. By this method, delegates assemble to deliberate and write a constitution as the first of a cautious, two-stage process that is followed by a second stage of ratification by another body or bodies.
Under the Articles of Confederation, state governments, which were largely dominated by legislatures, retained primary sovereignty. All states were represented equally in Congress, each with a single vote, with nine or more votes required on most key measures. Congress did not have power over interstate commerce; it could requisition states for revenue or for troops but had no power to coerce those that did not comply. There was no independent executive or judicial branch. Congress could propose constitutional amendments, but they required the unanimous consent of the states. On a number of occasions Congress proposed amendments that would have strengthened the government, only to have a single state or two veto them.
Although American forces won the protracted war for independence, the government under the Articles was far less successful in presenting a united front to other nations or in managing the national economy. States coined their own money, much of which was highly inflated, and they enacted tariffs on goods coming in from other states, much as if they had been foreign countries. There was general agreement that the promise of the Revolution was beginning to dim.
After representatives of Maryland and Virginia met at George Washington's house in March 1785 to discuss mutual issues relative to navigation of the Potomac and Pocomoke Rivers, they called for a convention of the states to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786 to discuss commercial matters. Even though representatives from only five states attended this meeting, its delegates drew up a resolution calling for another meeting to revise the Articles of Confederation. Support for this meeting received further impetus that winter after Shays's Rebellion, a taxpayers' revolt in Massachusetts that called the security of property rights into question as well as Congress's authority to protect states against internal disputes. Congress authorized such a meeting to be held in Philadelphia.
In time all thirteen states except Rhode Island sent a total of fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention that began meeting at the State House in Philadelphia ( today's Independence Hall
In the months leading up to the Convention, James Madison, a leading member of Congress who had also served in his state legislature, had researched both the weaknesses of previous confederations and the vices of state governments. Contrary to what most delegates probably anticipated, the delegation from Virginia (the most populous state) introduced a plan, largely crafted by Madison, that advocated instituting a new system of government rather than simply trying to amend the Articles. It called for establishing a bicameral congress, in which states would be represented in both branches according to population and/or wealth, with the people choosing members of the first branch, whose members would choose individuals for the second branch from nominees from state legislatures. The Virginia Plan further provided for Congress to select a president as well as an independent judicial branch and to exercise a veto of any state legislation that it disapproved. Other proposals called for the admission of new states, for a guarantee of republican government within each of the states, for amendment without requiring congressional consent, for state officials to be bound by oath to support the Union, and for ratification of the convention's work by special conventions within the states. This plan formed the central basis of discussion by the Committee of the Whole during the first two weeks of deliberation.
As more delegates began arriving from less populous states, they proposed a rival small-state plan often named for New Jersey, the state of the delegate, William Paterson, who introduced it. It accepted the idea of three distinct branches of government, and many other proposed features of the Virginia Plan, but would have provided for equal state representation within the existing unicameral congress. Moreover, it advocated a plural executive, which would appoint members of the federal judiciary. Thus the New Jersey Plan was more a revision of the Articles of Confederation than a new plan.
Neither the Virginia Plan nor the New Jersey Plan exhausted the range of proposals that delegates raised at the Convention. Alexander Hamilton gave an extended speech in which he advocated provisions, such as presidential and senatorial terms for life, that would have brought the nation much closer to the British system of government, which he so admired. Delegates introduced multiple proposals for almost every institution and aspect of the prospective new government.
Although delegates fairly quickly resumed discussion of the Virginia Plan, the primary issue of state representation that the New Jersey Plan had raised continued to dominate convention discussions for another month, a time of rising tension in which at least two delegates suggested the possibility that their states might ally with foreign powers. In time, cooler heads prevailed, and the delegates adopted the Great Compromise, sometimes called the Connecticut Compromise because of that state's role in formulating it. This compromise provided for representation according to population in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the US Senate. The delegates ensured that amendments could not change a state's equal suffrage without its consent. By easing fears that the large states would dominate, this compromise in turn prepared the way for future agreements.
The issue of representation according to population was complicated by the issue of slavery. Southern states depended heavily on slavery while many in the North were abolishing it. Although the delegates declined to refer to this nefarious institution by name in the Constitution, they provided that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation. They further allowed for the importation of slaves for twenty additional years, and in what became a major bone of contention between northern and southern states leading up to the Civil War, the Constitution obligated free states to return fugitive slaves to the states from which they had fled.
Delegates divided other powers among the three branches of the national government, which are respectively described in the first three articles of the Constitution, and between the general government and the states (largely described in Article IV). Although the Constitution thus granted Congress the power to declare war and to make appropriations on its behalf, it made the president the commander in chief of the armed forces. The delegates further varied the terms of different elective offices (two years for members of the House of Representatives, four years for the president, and six years for senators) so that they would overlap, providing for both continuity and change but (with the rise of political parties) setting up the possibility of divided government. Ultimately, the framers vested primary legislative powers, including the power of the purse, in a bicameral legislature; executive powers, including the power of the sword, in a unitary executive with a qualified veto power; and judicial powers, to interpret the law (the power of judgment), in a judiciary headed by a Supreme Court, which would eventually assert the power of judicial review, that is, the power to declare laws to be unconstitutional.
Convention deliberations are largely known because of the painstaking notes that Madison took but that were not published until after his death. His notes—and those of other delegates, as collected by the historian Max Farrand in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 ( 1913 )—remain the best single source on the Convention (for Madison's notes, see Avalon Project, “The American Constitution”). Much of the difficult work of the Convention was conducted in committees, including the Committee of the Whole, through which opening deliberations were conducted; a committee that formulated the Connecticut Compromise; the Committee of Detail, which compiled resolutions into a draft manuscript that included an enumerated list of congressional powers; the Committee of Style, which put the finishing touches on the document; and numerous other committees typically consisting of a member of each state.
By September 17, when delegates signed the Constitution, thirty-nine of forty-two remaining delegates (one by proxy) were willing to approve; on this closing day, Benjamin Franklin presented a speech in which he said that he was among those who were willing to disregard his own objections for what he thought was a distinct improvement over the Articles of Confederation. Some who had opposed the direction the Convention was taking, like John Lansing and Robert Yates of New York, had left long before. The objections raised by George Mason, Edmund Randolph, and Elbridge Gerry (the three nonsigners) would form the basis for AntiFederalist opponents of the document, who especially focused on the absence of a bill of rights during the state ratifying conventions and concerns over the increased powers of the national government. Fortunately, the Constitution had provided a mechanism in Article V by which amendments could be proposed by two-thirds majorities of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states. This mechanism proved successful in allowing for the addition of the first ten amendments, which were proposed in the First Congress in 1789 and ratified in 1791.
Throughout most of US history the Constitution has served both as a practical instrument of government and as an object of veneration that arguably fulfills a unifying function similar to the monarchy in Great Britain. Despite varied interpretations of the meaning of the document they produced, which resulted in a division into two political parties in George Washington's first administration, Americans have largely lauded the Founding Fathers for their willingness to compromise and their devotion to the public good. Such veneration has been challenged from time to time, most notably by those prior to the Civil War who objected to compromises with respect to slavery. Later, during the Progressive Era, critics charged that delegates had been inadequately devoted to democracy—Madison was particularly known for distinguishing in Federalist No. 10 between the representative democracy of the Constitution and the pure democracy of earlier city-states—and too devoted to the protection of private property. The Progressive interpretation received a major boost in 1913 when the historian Charles Beard advanced the notion that delegates had largely been motivated by economic interests. The historian Forrest McDonald ( 1958 ) undercut this thesis by arguing that Beard had exaggerated distinctions between those with personal property and those with real property and underplayed how such economic interests worked together with wider political views. Some subsequent interpreters have tried to modify and salvage Beard's view ( McGuire 2003 ).
Most works on the Constitutional Convention have consisted of the following: accounts of the day-to-day debates at the Convention ( most of which rely heavily on Madison's notes
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, remains a major historic site. Nearby, the National Constitution Center displays bronze statues of each of the signers. The Constitutional Convention remains a remarkable example of enlightened statesmanship that resulted in the oldest continuing national written constitution in the world.
SEE ALSO American Constitutional Development from 1789 to 1868 ; Anti-Federalists ; Articles of Confederation ; Connecticut Plan (Connecticut Compromise) ; Constitution ; Declaration of Independence ; Federalist, The ; Federalists ; Franklin, Benjamin ; Governance ; Madison, James ; Negotiation ; New Jersey Plan ; Ratification of the US Constitution ; Virginia Plan ; Washington, George .
Avalon Project. “The American Constitution: A Documentary Record.” Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/constpap.asp .
Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.(1913.) Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2011.
Beeman, Richard. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York: Random House, 2009.
Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966; repr., 1986.
Brown, Robert E. Charles Beard and the Constitution: A Critical Analysis of ‘'An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.
Edling, Max M. A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Farrand, Max. The Framing of the Constitution of the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1913; repr., 1962.
Gibson, Alan. Interpreting the Founding: Guide to the Enduring Debates over the Origins and Foundations of the American Republic. Rev. ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.
Gibson, Alan. Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions. Rev. ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
Hendrickson, David. Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
Johnson, Calvin H. Righteous Anger at the Wicked States: The Meaning of the Founders' Constitution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Kammen, Michael. A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Ketcham, Ralph. Framed for Posterity: The Enduring Philosophy of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
McDonald, Forrest. We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
McGuire, Robert A. To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–178 8. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Miller, William Lee. The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
National Archives. “America's Founding Fathers: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention.” http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_founding_fathers.html .
Robertson, David Brian. The Constitution and America's Destiny. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Rossiter, Clinton. 1787: The Grand Convention. New York: Norton, 1966; repr. 1987.
Vile, John R. The Men Who Made the Constitution: Lives of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Vile, John R. The Writing and Ratification of the U.S. Constitution: Practical Virtue in Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969; repr., 1998.
John R. Vile
Middle Tennessee State University