When and Why the U.S. Constitution Was Created

By Michael Arnheim

The Constitution emerged from a meeting called the Philadelphia Convention, which took place in 1787. (That meeting has since come to be known also as the Constitutional Convention.) The Convention was held because the Articles of Confederation — the document that had been serving as the country’s first governing constitution — were considered to be weak and problematic. The stated goal of the Convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but the outcome was much more than a mere revision: It was a new form of government. See the figure for a look at a scene from the Convention.

constitution-washington
Source: Howard Chandler — The Indian Reporter

George Washington presiding over the Constitutional Convention, 1787.

The 55 delegates to the Philadelphia Convention came to be known as the Framers of the Constitution. They represented 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island didn’t send a delegate), and they included some familiar names, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.

The Convention lasted from May 25 to September 17, 1787. In the end, only 39 of the 55 delegates actually signed the Constitution. Three delegates refused to sign it, and the rest had left the Convention before the signing took place.

For the Constitution to take effect, it had to be ratified — or confirmed — by nine states. Special conventions were summoned in each state, and the Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia conventions ratified the Constitution unanimously. But some of the other states saw a pretty fierce battle for ratification. In New York, for example, the Constitution was ratified only by 30 votes to 27.

Ratification was achieved in 1788, and the Constitution took effect with the swearing in of President George Washington and Vice President John Adams on April 30, 1789.