Who Drafted the Constitution?
The American Revolutionary War came to an end with the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on September 3rd 1783. One of the most important aspects of the treaty was not just British recognition of American independence, but also the definition of the United States border. This resulted in a very large grant of new lands to the U.S.: the Northwestern Territory. Five new states north of the Ohio River would be established and admitted into the union. At a stroke, the size of the United States had effectively doubled, and the foundations for the great westward expansion which would take place in the following century had been laid.
The central government of the United States at this time was extremely limited in its power. The Articles of Confederation had been drafted around the same time as the Declaration of Independence and were finally ratified in 1781. The Articles of Confederation granted the Congress of the Confederation the power to declare war, raise an army, and negotiate trade but little to no ability to raise funds. Any changes to the Articles required the agreement of 9 of the 13 colonies to pass and could not overrule the state assemblies. It was apparent to many that the Articles were more of a temporary wartime measure than a long-term solution. A small convention of five states met in Annapolis in 1786 to discuss the possibility of amending the Articles of Confederation.
The inadequacy of the present set-up was exposed by an armed uprising in Massachusetts from 1786-1787 against the local government’s handling of war debts and taxation. The rebellion was led by Daniel Shays, a veteran of the American Revolution. The inability of the government to provide a force to suppress the rebellion (the militia which defeated Shays’ followers was privately-funded) led to calls for a much stronger central government. Delegates from every state except Rhode Island agreed to meet in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation in May 1787.
On May 28th the convention agreed to keep proceedings secret and to allow delegates to reconsider any issue previously raised. This would allow the delegates to carefully consider measures at the cost of making swift progress. At the beginning of the convention, it wasn’t actually clear how far the discussions were to go. Would the delegates simply revise certain parts of the Articles of Confederation or throw them out completely?
What would be known as the Virginia Plan would soon set the tone of the convention. As the name implies, the plan came from the delegates from Virginia, one of the largest states in the Union. The plan was written by James Madison but presented by Edmund Randolph. One of the great sticking points of the Articles of Confederation for large states like Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania was the 9-of-13-states requirement for change. Although about half of the population lived in the three largest states, they were hamstrung by the per-state voting laws which greatly favored smaller states.
The Virginia Plan proposed two legislative bodies and a system of courts to oversee legal matters. Power would flow from the first branch which would select the second branch and both would select the judges and the president. What made the plan controversial was the fact that the number of members of the first branch, the future House of Representatives, was to be decided by the number of free men in each state. The question of how slaves should be considered in calculating the number of representatives for each state would lead to the infamous 3/5ths Compromise. The cost of Southern support was to count each slave as 3/5ths of a person, meaning states with very large slave populations would gain many representatives.
The smaller states countered the Virginia Plan with the New Jersey Plan. The latter plan looked to revise rather than replace the Articles of Confederation. The main points of the plan were to have a single legislative body and to retain the per-state voting and the 9-of-13-states agreement for bills to pass. By July, little progress had been made and some delegates were threatening to dissolve the convention without passing a resolution.
To save the convention, the greatly respected elder statesman Benjamin Franklin offered a compromise: two legislative branches, one determined by proportional representation and the other by states. Franklin himself was more in favor of a single body chosen by the people but realized a compromised solution was better than none at all. On July 16th, the compromise was passed by a narrow margin.
At the end of July, the delegates took an 11-day break and a small committee of five delegates from across the Union compiled the first draft of the Constitution. The convention rejoined on the 6th of August and debated the new document before them. By this point of the convention there was a great feeling of urgency to wrap things up and a tendency to defer finer details of the discussion to committees.
The addition of a Bill of Rights was proposed but rejected very late in the convention. Crucially, the convention added the mechanism for amending the constitution at a later date.
For the final draft of the Constitution, the Committee of Style condensed 23 articles into 7 and greatly streamlined the text. The best-known example was the preamble of the Constitution. What now reads as “We the people of the United States …” had initially been “We the people of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, etc.” The document was written in broad terms, avoiding too much detail and allowing for interpretation. It was written to provide checks and balances and to avoid any one branch of the government from having too much power.
Unsurprisingly, with such an array of conflicting interests and priorities among the delegates present, the final document was deeply controversial. Some even called for another convention the following year but this was sharply rejected by those who had toiled for four months to complete the Constitution. 39 delegates chose to affix their name to the final draft, accepting the compromises and imperfections as necessary evils to maintain the Union. Eventually, all thirteen original states ratified the Constitution from December 1787 to May 1790. Rhode Island, absent from the convention, was the last state to ratify, passing by just two votes.
Twelve amendments came in the first fifteen years following the ratification of the Constitution. The first ten are amongst the most important rights in the United States today. Free speech, legal protections, and other key liberties came not with the original document but in the amendments which followed. Of course, the lofty ideals about rights and liberty were not realized when a substantial proportion of the population was born into slavery. The 3/5ths Compromise empowered the slave slates for decades after the Constitution was signed and the failure to address the elephant in the room in the 18th century, helped create the conditions for the bloodiest war in American history in the 19th. But that’s a topic for another lesson.
One of the most controversial parts of the Constitution, especially in more recent years, is in the election of the President of the United States. The 12th amendment of 1804 resolved the matter of electing the President and Vice President. The President of the United States is elected not by the people directly but by the Electors of the Electoral College. This mechanism has so far allowed four presidents to win the presidency without winning the popular vote.
The Constitution of the United States is a remarkably durable document, skillfully written with scope for change, allowing it to retain its relevance for more than two centuries. As we have seen with this overview, there were a huge number of challenges to overcome from the outset. The weakness of the Articles of Confederation required substantial revision to create a new type of government for an emerging nation. Over the course of four months in the summer of 1787, at the same site where the Declaration of Independence was written, the Constitution of the United States was drafted. Significant compromises were made and a high price was paid to get the Constitution through, but the delegates who made up the convention ultimately succeeded in their goal in creating a new form of government.
Before we go, let’s look at a few review questions:
1. Which state did not attend the convention?
- North Carolina
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
The answer is D, Rhode Island. There were several reasons Rhode Island did not attend, the most notable being its staunch adherence to the Articles of Confederation.
2. Which of the following powers did the government lack under the terms of the Articles of Confederation?
- To raise taxes
- To negotiate trade
- To declare war
- None of these
The answer is A, to raise taxes. The states were given the power to tax under the Articles of Confederation, not the government.
3. What was the main aim of the Virginia Plan?
- Lowering taxes
- A standing army
- Proportional representation
- State representation
The answer is C, Proportional representation. The Virginia Plan looked to revise the disproportionate influence smaller states enjoyed under the Articles of Confederation.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!