The Drafting of the United States Constitution
On September 17, 1787, representatives from most of the states voted to approve a ten-page document that became the United States Constitution. By 1787, it was apparent to many leaders that the Articles of Confederation needed an overhaul or the union of states would eventually fall apart. So Congress agreed to call a convention of delegates from each state to try to fix things.
The first of the delegates (selected by state legislatures) to arrive in Philadelphia in May 1787 was James Madison, a 36-year-old scholar and politician from Virginia who was so frail he couldn’t serve in the army during the Revolution. Madison had so many ideas on how to fix things he couldn’t wait to get started.
Not everyone else was in such a hurry. Although the convention was supposed to begin May 15, it wasn’t until May 25 that enough of the delegates chosen by the state legislatures showed up to have a quorum. Rhode Island never did send anyone.
Eventually, 55 delegates took part. Notable by their absence were some of the leading figures of the recent rebellion against England: Thomas Jefferson was in France, Thomas Paine was in England, Sam Adams and John Hancock weren’t selected to go, and Patrick Henry refused.
But those who did show up were hardly second-stringers. George Washington was there and was unanimously selected the convention’s president. Benjamin Franklin, at 81 the oldest delegate, was there. But Madison and a handsome 32-year-old, self-made success story from New York named Alexander Hamilton were the true stars of the group.
Half of the group’s members were lawyers and 29 were college-educated. Many were wealthy and thus had a bigger-than-most stake in straightening out the country’s financial mess. Their average age was 42.
They met in long and highly secret sessions, with armed guards at the doors. Their reasoning was that their task was so difficult that any leaks about what they were doing would only increase outside pressures. They studied other forms of government; they debated.
And after 17 weeks, on September 17, 1787, they voted 39 to 3, with 13 absent, to approve a ten-page document that became the United States Constitution. Then most of them adjourned to a local tavern and hoisted a few.
The document the delegates created was a masterpiece of compromises. Big states gained more clout when it was decided that representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population, while small states got protection from being bullied when it was decided that each state would have the same number of members (two) in the Senate.
The South won the right to count slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining population for representation in the House; the North got a promise that the slave trade would end for good in 1807.
Actually, the South didn’t mind this compromise all that much because it didn’t mean slavery itself would end — just the practice of importing more slaves from overseas. In fact, it ensured that the value of slaves already here would increase, thus making their owners richer.
The Constitution gave Congress the power to regulate commerce among states as well as with foreign nations and to pass laws with a simple majority of its members. It gave the presidency a powerful role. It created a federal judicial system, with the Supreme Court at the top.
And it left the individual states with a fair amount of independence to make their own laws on most matters. No one thought it was perfect, but most of the delegates thought it was a pretty good blueprint from which to build.
While the last members of the convention were signing the document, Franklin pointed to a sun painted on the chair in which Washington was sitting. “I have often . . . looked at that behind the president, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting,” he said. “But now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, and not a setting sun.”
But they still had to sell the blueprint to the rest of the country.