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Constitutional Convention

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Constitutional Convention

In 1786, several events exposed the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. In August, Shays’ Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts, showing the ineptitude of the federal government to intervene during a national crisis. In September, the Annapolis Convention was held to propose amendments to the Articles to help with the growing national financial crisis. But, it was poorly attended, and Congress planned a new conference for the spring of 1787 in Philadelphia. The Constitutional Convention, also known as the Philadelphia Convention, was held from May to September 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation. However, as the delegates arrived, a sentiment grew that perhaps the United States needed a new form of the federal government. Who attended the Constitutional Convention? How did the idea of the U.S. Constitution arise? What compromises had to be made to create the Constitution? How did the Convention ratify the Constitution?

This painting from 1856 by Junius Stearns depicts George Washington presiding over the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention

In May 1787, 55 delegates arrived in Philadelphia. They came from every state except Rhode Island, where the state legislature opposed any changes to the Articles of Confederation to increase central authority. The delegates were men of property: merchants, slaveholding planters, and other men of wealth and means.

Some delegates, such as Benjamin Franklin, had been early advocates of independence. Others such as George Washington and Robert Morris had risen in popularity during the war. Some influential patriots embroiled in the cause for independence missed the Convention. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in Britain and France, serving as ministers. Massachusetts rejected Samuel Adams as a delegate as he vehemently opposed a stronger national government.

Did You Know?

Virginian Patrick Henry famously refused to attend because he “smelled a rat,” meaning he felt the growing wave of a nationalist faction to overthrow the government of the Articles of Confederation.

Listed below are all 55 Delegates to the Constitutional Convention, organized by state. The (*) indicates delegates who attended but did not sign or ratify the Constitution. These delegates are often referred to as the “Framers” of the Constitution, as it is their summer of debate that shaped the current government of the United States.1

Connecticut

New Jersey

Oliver Ellsworth (Elsworth)*

William Samuel Johnson

Roger Sherman

David Brearly (Brearley)

Jonathan Dayton

William C. Houston*

William Livingston

William Paterson (Patterson)

Delaware

New York

Richard Bassett

Gunning Bedford, Jr.

Jacob Broom

John Dickinson

George Read

Alexander Hamilton

John Lansing, Jr.*

Robert Yates*

Georgia

North Carolina

Abraham Baldwin

William Few

William Houston*

William L. Pierce*

William. Blount

William R. Davie*

Alexander Martin*

Richard. Dobbs Spaight

Hugh Williamson

Maryland

Pennsylvania

Daniel Carroll

Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer

Luther Martin*

James McHenry

John F. Mercer*

George Clymer

Thomas Fitzsimons (FitzSimons; Fitzsimmons)

Benjamin Franklin

Jared Ingersoll

Thomas Mifflin

Gouverneur Morris

Robert Morris

James Wilson

Massachusetts

South Carolina

Elbridge Gerry*

Nathaniel Gorham

Rufus King

Caleb Strong*

Pierce Butler

Charles Pinckney

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

John Rutledge

New Hampshire

Virginia

Nicholas Gilman

John Langdon

John Blair

James Madison Jr.

George Mason*

James McClurg*

Edmund J. Randolph*

George Washington

George Wythe*

President of the Constitutional Convention

The delegates unanimously elected George Washington to preside over the convention. They chose Washington as he was an immensely popular figure due to his successful command of the Continental Army and his respect as a politician from Virginia.

Washington's Influence on the Convention

Washington made it clear before he agreed to attend the convention that he wanted to remain impartial, not use his newfound celebrity to influence the proceedings. As president of the convention, he remained neutral and gave very little input, living up to his convictions to stay as non-influential as possible.

Only at the end of the convention as the delegates moved to present the new Constitution to Congress did Washington insert his thoughts and sway. Penning a letter to accompany the document. The following is a brief excerpt from the letter in which Washington expresses his support of the new U.S. Constitution:

"In all our deliberations on this subject, we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence, This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each State in the Convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude, than might have been otherwise expected; and thus the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable."2

The Constitutional Convention of 1787

The absence of experienced leaders such as Adams - both Samuel and John, Jefferson, and Henry, allowed younger nationalists to set the convention's agenda. James Madison insisted on increasing national authority and was joined by Alexander Hamilton. What began in May of 1787 was a summer of intense debate and compromise after the nationalists convinced the other delegates that a new form of government was necessary.

Constitutional Convention Compromises

How will a new government be representative of the people? How will the government be structured? How can a system of government ensure a balance of power between states? Between the states and the federal government? How would the new government oversee the growing disparity between the states over the institution of slavery? All of these fundamentally essential but divisive questions had to be answered by the delegates to frame a new government.

The Virginia Plan vs. The New Jersey Plan

A portrait of James Madison, considered the "father of the Constitution". Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

James Madison arrived at the Constitutional Convention prepared to present a case for an entirely new form of government. What he proposed is called the Virginia plan. His plan was multifaceted and addressed many of the issues of representation, the structure of government, and nationalist sentiments he felt were lacking in the Articles of Confederation.

The Virginia Plan

The Virginia plan presented three critical points of debate and a solution for each.

  • First, the plan rejected state sovereignty in favor of a superior national government, including the power to override state laws.

  • Second, the people would establish the federal government, not the states that established the Articles of Confederation, and national laws would operate directly on the citizens of the varying states.

  • Third, Madison’s plan proposed a three-tiered election system and a bicameral legislature to address representation. Ordinary voters would elect only the lower house of the national legislature, naming the upper house members. Then both houses would choose the executive and judicial branches.

Issues with the Virginia Plan

Madison's plan had two major flaws for those delegates not yet convinced of the nationalist agenda:

  • The notion that the federal government could veto state laws was aberrant to most state politicians and citizens.
  • The Virginia plan would give most federal power to the populous states because representation in the lower house depended on the state's population. Many smaller states objected to this plan and rallied behind William Paterson of New Jersey’s proposed plan.

The New Jersey Plan

The New Jersey Plan held onto the structure of the Articles of Confederation and was strongly supported by the smaller states. It would give the Confederation the power to raise revenue, control commerce, and make binding resolutions on the states, but it preserved the state’s control of their laws. It also guaranteed state equality in the federal government by maintaining that each state would have one vote in a unicameral legislature.

This debate over representation between large and small states became the most critical discussion of the convention. Many delegates realized that no other compromises could be made over any additional questions without resolving this issue. The debate over representation lasted two months. Only a few states had agreed to use Madison’s plans as the basis of discussion, let alone how to structure representation in the government.

A Portrait of Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut who authored the "Great Compromise". Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

In mid-summer, The delegates from Connecticut proposed a resolution.

  • The upper house, the Senate, would comprise two representatives from each state, elected by state legislatures, maintaining the equality in the legislative branch demanded by the smaller states.

  • The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, is apportioned by state population- through a national census every ten years.

The debate over this proposal lasted another few weeks, such as discussion over each chamber’s powers and control began, such as giving the lower house the ability of the “purse” to control legislature involving taxes, tariffs, and funding while giving the upper house the power of approving executive appointments to office and courts. After bitter debate, delegates from the populous states reluctantly agreed to this “Great Compromise.”

Slavery: The Three-Fifths Clause and Compromise

Once the delegates had settled the structure of representation, delegates began to address the looming issue of slavery that hovered over many of the debates. Many northern delegates, such as Gouverneur Morris, saw slavery as a horrible institution and directly conflicted with the sentiments of free markets and personal liberty instilled in the new national government.

The Three-Fifths Compromise

Position of the Southern States

Position of the Northern States

Southern delegates joined together to defend slavery, but they split over the Atlantic slave trade. Planters from Virginia and Maryland, who had a stable population of slaves, wanted to end the importation of slaves from the Caribbean and Africa. Delegates from North and South Carolina wanted to continue to import slaves as their population of enslaved labor was unstable due to relatively more harsh work environments.

Northern delegates, seeing this divide, seized the opportunity for compromise. First, delegates debated and agreed to deny Congress the power to regulate immigration - and thus the slave trade- until 1808. After that date, it would be illegal to import new slaves into the United States. To nullify objections by southern delegates, the compromise included the creation of the “fugitive slave clause” that allowed southern enslavers to reclaim enslaved blacks and even white indentured servants who fled to other states.

Finally, a compromise was made regarding slave populations and voting. Because enslaved peoples lacked the right to vote, northern anti-slavery delegates wanted to exclude their populations from appropriating seats in the House of Representatives, while - though hypocritically- southern delegates wanted enslaved peoples to be counted as full citizens. The compromise was that the delegates agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a free person for representation and taxation.

Did you know?

A significant consequence of the 3/5 Compromise was that it helped southern planters dominate national politics until the 1860s. The southern states got the power and control of the House of Representatives they sought by having a portion of enslaved peoples count towards representation. Though it was not overwhelming control, it came out to approximately 18 additional representatives in the House.

Other Compromises

The Convention quickly settled other state-related issues by restricting the extent of Federal control:

  • Some states opposed a federal system of courts. So the Constitution established one supreme court and allotted the power to create any lower courts to the national legislature.

  • The delegates did not put any property requirements for voting in national elections, allowing states to determine their voting requirements, which precipitated up to nine states to extend their rights of suffrage beyond property owners.

  • The Convention placed the selection of a President as the head of the executive branch in an electoral college chosen on a state-by-state basis, and specified state legislatures would elect their members of the U.S. Senate. By giving state legislatures important roles, delegates hoped for an acceptance of less state sovereignty.

Having addressed the concerns of the small states and slave states, the delegates created a structure for a strong national government. To ensure the sovereign power of the central government, the delegates created the “Supremacy Clause,” that the Constitution and national laws would be the supreme law of the land, and the power to create any laws “necessary and proper” to implement provisions to taxation, defense, and commerce.

Did you know?

The delegates created a procedure to ratify the Constitution. As many knew the possibly controversial compromises in the document and that under the Articles of Confederation - still the current law of the land in September 1787- they would need the unanimous consent of the states, the delegates did not submit the document to the state legislatures. Instead, they arbitrarily specified that the Constitution would be ratified by the approval of nine of the thirteen states in special voting conventions.

The ratification debate began in early 1788, and factions supporting and opposing the Constitution quickly arose. Supporters called themselves the Federalists, and opponents called themselves the Antifederalists- early precursors of the political parties that would form during the creation of the U.S. government under the Constitution. Among the many issues, the most important for the Antifederalists was a lack of a declaration of individual rights to protect citizens from the “supremacy” of the federal government.

Federalists: Those who advocated for a strong federal government after the American Revolution and during the Constitutional Convention and the early administrations of the U.S. Government.

Anti-Federalists: Those who opposed the strong central government created in the U.S. Constitution.

In a final act of compromise to ensure states with strong Antifederalist sentiment would ratify the new government, it was proposed that the first act of the government would also be to ratify a Bill of Rights, protecting explicit freedoms, protecting state's rights, and limited the extent of the federal government.

With that final compromise, the state conventions began their debates over the ratification of the new government and, over the next two years, approved the U.S. Constitution:

  • Delaware: December 7, 1787,

  • Pennsylvania: December 12, 1787

  • New Jersey: December 18, 1787

  • Georgia: January 2, 1788

  • Connecticut: January 9, 1788

  • Massachusetts: February 6, 1788

  • Maryland: April 28, 1788

  • South Carolina: May 23, 1788

  • New Hampshire: June 21, 1788

  • Virginia: June 25, 1788

  • New York: July 26, 1788

  • North Carolina: November 21, 1789

  • Rhode Island: May 29, 1790

The Constitutional Convention - Key takeaways

  • In 1786, several events exposed the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. In August, Shays’ Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts, showing the ineptitude of the federal government to intervene during a national crisis.
  • In May 1787, 55 delegates arrived in Philadelphia. They came from every state except Rhode Island, where the state legislature opposed any changes to the Articles of Confederation to increase central authority. The delegates were men of property: merchants, slaveholding planters, and other men of wealth and means.
  • The delegates unanimously elected George Washington to preside over the convention.
  • The delegates debated a number of compromises to create a new government, the major compromises are known as the Great Compromise (about representation) and the three-fifths Compromise (about slavery).
  • The Convention quickly settled other state-related issues by restricting the extent of Federal control
  • The final compromise was the addition of the Bill of Rights explicitly protecting individual rights from the Federal government, this compromise was made to ensure the Constitution would be ratified by the required 9 out of 13 states.

1. Meet the Framers of the Constitution. (2020, March 16). National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/founding-fathers

2. “From George Washington to the President of Congress, 17 September 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-05-02-0306. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 5, 1 February 1787 – 31 December 1787, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997, pp. 330–333.]

Frequently Asked Questions about Constitutional Convention

The U.S. Constitution was drafted and debated by delegates from 12 of 13 states. 

The Constitutional Convention was a meeting during the summer of 1787 between 55 delegates from 12 of 13 states who drafted and debated the creation of the U.S. Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Held in secret in carpenters hall. 

The convention was held from May 11 to September 1787

The original purpose was to debate and draft amendments to the Articles of Confederation. 

Final Constitutional Convention Quiz

Question

What was the original purpose for the convention in Philadelphia in 1787? 

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Answer

To propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation

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Question

What major event triggered the need for a convention to change the Articles of Confederation? 

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Answer

Shays' Rebellion 

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Question

How many delegates attended the Constitutional Convention? 

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Answer

55 Delegates 

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Question

Which state did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention? 

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Answer

Rhode Island

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Question

Why did Patrick Henry state that he "smelled a rat" and refused to attend the Convention? 

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Answer

He felt that the nationalist movement would attempt to create a new government and overthrow the Articles of Confederation

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Question

Who was unanimously elected to be the president of the convention? 

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Answer

George Washington 

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Question

Which plan, proposed by James Madison, became the framework for the Legislative branch, but led to intense debate over representation? 

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Answer

The Virginia Plan

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Question

The New Jersey Plan, proposed by William Paterson, presented a resolution for representation that kept what structure of the Articles of Confederation? 

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Answer

A Unicameral Congress of equal representation

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Question

Which state's delegation proposed the Great Compromise combining the Virginia and New Jersey Plans? 

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Answer

Connecticut

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Question

In allowing the three-fifths clause, what did delegates from northern states receive in return? 

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Answer

That importation of slaves into the United States would end in 1808 

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Question

Which faction of delegates and state legislatures opposed ratifying the Constitution with the addition of the Supremacy Clause? 

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Answer

Anti-Federalists

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Question

To pacify the Anti-federalists and guarantee ratification of the Constitution, the Federalists compromised by allowing what to be added to the Constitution? 

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Answer

A Bill of Rights protecting individual freedoms. 

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Question

In what year did the 9th state ratify the Constitution, putting the new government into effect? 

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Answer

1788

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