StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
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?
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
Oliver Ellsworth (Elsworth)*
William Samuel Johnson
David Brearly (Brearley)
William C. Houston*
William Paterson (Patterson)
Gunning Bedford, Jr.
John Lansing, Jr.*
William L. Pierce*
William R. Davie*
Richard. Dobbs Spaight
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer
John F. Mercer*
Thomas Fitzsimons (FitzSimons; Fitzsimmons)
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
James Madison Jr.
Edmund J. Randolph*
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.]
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.
What was the original purpose for the convention in Philadelphia in 1787?
To propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation
What major event triggered the need for a convention to change the Articles of Confederation?
How many delegates attended the Constitutional Convention?
Which state did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention?
Why did Patrick Henry state that he "smelled a rat" and refused to attend the Convention?
He felt that the nationalist movement would attempt to create a new government and overthrow the Articles of Confederation
Who was unanimously elected to be the president of the convention?
Which plan, proposed by James Madison, became the framework for the Legislative branch, but led to intense debate over representation?
The Virginia Plan
The New Jersey Plan, proposed by William Paterson, presented a resolution for representation that kept what structure of the Articles of Confederation?
A Unicameral Congress of equal representation
Which state's delegation proposed the Great Compromise combining the Virginia and New Jersey Plans?
In allowing the three-fifths clause, what did delegates from northern states receive in return?
That importation of slaves into the United States would end in 1808
Which faction of delegates and state legislatures opposed ratifying the Constitution with the addition of the Supremacy Clause?
To pacify the Anti-federalists and guarantee ratification of the Constitution, the Federalists compromised by allowing what to be added to the Constitution?
A Bill of Rights protecting individual freedoms.
In what year did the 9th state ratify the Constitution, putting the new government into effect?
Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.
Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.
Create and find flashcards in record time.
Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.
Have all your study materials in one place.
Upload unlimited documents and save them online.
Identify your study strength and weaknesses.
Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.
Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.
Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.
Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.
Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.
Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.