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The Constitutional Convention (LLPH)

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how different forms of government developed and changed as a result of the Revolutionary Period
  • Explain the differing ideological positions on the structure and function of the federal government

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Constitutional Convention Lesson and after students have done The Articles of Confederation, 1781 Primary Source activity.

The 1787 Constitutional Convention traces its origins to early September 1786, when Virginia congressman James Madison and eleven other delegates interested in increasing the powers of the national government met at a tavern in Annapolis, Maryland. Although attended by representatives of only five states – New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia – the Annapolis Convention issued a report, written by Alexander Hamilton, citing “important defects in the system of the federal government” under the Articles of Confederation. Members proposed a convention in Philadelphia the following May to discuss possible improvements to the Articles. In February, Congress endorsed the idea.

Members of Congress and others were increasingly concerned that the Articles of Confederation was inadequate. The Articles placed strict limits on the power of the national government, which had a unicameral legislature of equally represented states, no independent executive, no national judiciary, no power to tax or regulate interstate commerce, and limited ability to raise armies for defense. Congress needed supermajorities to pass certain laws and unanimity to pass amendments. During the Confederation period in the 1780s, states ignored congressional requisitions for taxes, passed tariffs on each other, nearly went to war over trade and territorial disputes, and routinely overlooked the provisions of the 1783 peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.

Members of the Virginia delegation, including Washington and Madison, arrived in Philadelphia early. Believing the states were too powerful compared to the central government, they met with the Pennsylvania delegation and drafted a plan of government, largely of Madison’s design. This Virginia Plan was guided by the goal of creating a much stronger national government to govern the country more effectively.

On Friday, May 25, 1787, the delegates assembled in the Pennsylvania State House. All agreed the Articles of Confederation had numerous weaknesses that needed to be addressed, but they disagreed strongly on the appropriate solutions. First, the convention unanimously selected Washington to preside as president, and his prestige legitimized the gathering in the minds of many. The delegates then decided to allow each state delegation one vote and to conduct the proceedings in secret to allow greater candor in free and open debate.

On Tuesday, May 29, Virginian Edmund Randolph introduced the fifteen resolutions of the Virginia Plan. This plan proposed an independent executive, a national judiciary, and a bicameral Congress. Representation would be proportional to population in both houses. The plan also included a national veto over state laws to prevent injustice in the states. Finally, it proposed to send the work of the convention to popular ratifying conventions in the states rather than to state legislatures. Madison knew the Virginia Plan went beyond Congress’s instructions merely to revise the Articles, so he wanted the people’s representatives to approve it. He wanted to avoid the state legislatures, however, suspecting they would oppose the plan’s strengthening of the national government at the expense of their own governments.

The Virginia Plan immediately sparked contention over the consolidation of power in the national government and the shape of Congress. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina asked whether the plan “meant to abolish the state [governments] altogether.” Madison responded that a stronger national government was necessary to “provide for the safety, liberty, and happiness” of the people.

Although the delegates accepted a bicameral Congress without debate, they disagreed over whether the state legislatures or the people would elect its members. Madison wanted the House to be elected by popular vote, based on the principle of republican self-government. “The great fabric to be raised would be more stable and durable, if it should rest on the solid foundation of the people themselves.” Although he also continued to support a national congressional veto on the laws of the states as “absolutely necessary to a perfect system,” this clause was eventually defeated.

The large and small states, and the North and South, deadlocked over the issue of representation. The large states wanted both houses of Congress to be based on population size, whereas the smaller states (which had generally smaller populations) wanted equal representation and one vote per state. George Read of Delaware even threatened to leave the convention if proportional representation were accepted. A further split developed when the South wanted to count slaves fully as human beings for purposes of representation; the northern states argued that slaves were property and wanted to count them for taxes but not representation.

On June 15, William Paterson of New Jersey offered an alternative to the Virginia Plan that maintained state sovereignty based on the federal principle. This New Jersey Plan preserved the unicameralism, equal representation, and weak executive of the Articles. Paterson did offer to strengthen the powers of the national Congress over taxation and regulation of trade, however, as well as to make federal treaties the supreme law of the land.

The delegates made little headway in attempting to create a national executive. Rival ideas about how many individuals would serve as executive (one or many), the length of the term of office, and the mode of election (by the people, the states, or Congress) were all debated for weeks. Randolph feared a single executive would be the “fetus of monarchy” and preferred a plural executive. George Mason, also from Virginia, asked whether the convention meant “to pave the way to hereditary monarchy.” Believing that an energetic single executive would actually better prevent tyranny than a weak one, Pennsylvanian James Wilson answered that “Unity in the executive . . . would be the best safeguard against tyranny.”

The floor of the State House was not the only arena where the delegates debated their principles and tried to find common ground. They held informal discussions at dinners and in taverns in the evenings and on weekends. Still, they could find little ground for compromise, and some feared their differences might never be resolved. A special committee of eleven was appointed to break the impasse.

On Monday, July 16, the convention agreed to the special committee’s proposals in the form of the Connecticut Compromise, which created a bicameral Congress that was partly national, partly federal. The House of Representatives would be based upon proportional representation and would serve as the source of spending bills, adhering to the principle of no taxation without popular representation. Five slaves would count as three free persons for purposes of calculating representation. In the Senate, all states would have two votes, with senators elected by state legislatures. This became known as the Great Compromise.

On Thursday, July 26, the convention adjourned for several days to allow a Committee of Detail to reconcile and organize all the resolutions that had been accepted up to that point. On August 6, the committee offered a report that, during the coming month, the convention painstakingly debated line by line. For instance, the committee said Congress could never prohibit or tax the international slave trade. But Mason thought the slave trade immoral and called it a “nefarious traffic.” Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker representing Pennsylvania, said it was conducted “in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity.” John Rutledge of South Carolina countered by arguing for economic self-interest: “If the Convention thinks that [North Carolina], [South Carolina,] and Georgia will ever agree to the plan, unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is vain. The people of those states will never be such fools as to give up so important an interest.” The delegates eventually compromised and banned congressional interference with the international slave trade for only one generation, until 1808.

The convention then resolved the remaining contentious points. The executive branch would have a single president, who served a four-year term, was eligible for re-election, could veto laws passed by Congress, and would have broad powers over foreign policy and war making. The president would be elected by an electoral college, to which each state would choose, in whatever manner its legislature decided, electors equal in number to the sum of its members of the Senate and House of Representatives. In addition, a national judiciary was conceived and its jurisdiction established. On September 8, Congress appointed a Committee of Style to draft the Constitution, which enumerated the powers of Congress and was largely the work of Governor Morris.

Starting on September 12, Congress debated the wording of the Constitution for three days. The end was in sight, but Mason strenuously argued for a bill of rights to protect essential liberties and offered to draft it himself. Many delegates argued that state constitutions already had protections, and the state delegations unanimously rejected Mason’s proposal. Mason, Randolph, and Elbridge Gerry thus registered their opposition to the document by refusing to sign. Mason said he would “sooner chop off his right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.” Several delegates admitted that, although imperfect, the document was the best that could be achieved and urged their fellow delegates to sign.

From left to right, portraits are shown of George Mason, Edmund Randolph, and Elbridge Gerry.

(a) George Mason, (b) Edmund Randolph, and (c) Elbridge Gerry all refused to sign the Constitution, claiming it gave too much power to the national government.

On September 17, thirty-nine delegates from twelve states signed the Constitution as written. Besides the three who did not, some had gone home. The remaining delegates then retired to the City Tavern, where they dined together and, as Washington noted in his diary, “took a cordial leave of each other.”

The framers of the Constitution had drafted a document that created a stronger republican government embodying the principles of popular sovereignty, separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and limited government. If ratified, this “new order of the ages” would become the fundamental law of the land. But first the people’s representatives had to approve it through a deliberative process conducted in state ratifying conventions.

Watch this BRI Homework Help video on the Constitution for a comprehensive review of key issues in the development of the constitution, including representation (state vs. population and how slaves should be represented), checks and balances, federal versus state powers, and the Bill of Rights.

Review Questions

1. Which of the following was not an item for debate during the Constitutional Convention?

  1. A means to determine representation in the legislature
  2. The role and powers of the executive branch, if any
  3. The question of slavery and how slaves would count toward a state’s population
  4. The taxes each citizen would be required to pay

2. During the Constitutional Convention, states were divided in their arguments as

  1. northern versus southern states
  2. eastern versus western states
  3. states with large cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, versus those without
  4. states that were scenes of battle during the Revolution versus those that were not

3. During the Constitutional Convention, the idea to base representation on population and have ratification take place in special conventions was part of which plan?

  1. Sherman’s Great Compromise
  2. Patterson’s New Jersey Plan
  3. Madison’s Virginia Plan
  4. Jefferson’s 3/5 Plan

4. The idea to maintain the Articles of Confederation’s equal representation between the states and a very weak executive branch in this new Constitution was

  1. Sherman’s Great Compromise
  2. Paterson’s New Jersey Plan
  3. Madison’s Virginia Plan
  4. Jefferson’s 3/5 Plan

5. Who lent his prestige to the convention by acting as the leader?

  1. Benjamin Franklin
  2. Thomas Jefferson
  3. Alexander Hamilton
  4. George Washington

6. Which of the following was not a weakness of the Articles of Confederation?

  1. Inability of the federal government to levy taxes
  2. Lack of control over interstate commerce
  3. Weak legislative body requiring unanimous consent to change the Articles
  4. Strong executive branch that vetoed laws from the legislative branch

7. The primary difference between the Articles of Confederation and the proposed new Constitution was the

  1. size and strength of the federal government
  2. importance of the legislative branch
  3. inclusion of more states in the Articles
  4. role of governors in each plan

8. Which of the following statements best describes the new Constitution?

  1. A bundle of compromises between geographic and demographic factions that outlined the new government
  2. A direct reaction to monarchical rule allowing a weak executive branch with little power to levy taxes
  3. An outline of grievances against the king that articulated a new form of government for the young nation
  4. A specific formulation of how each branch of the government would interact with the others

Free Response Questions

  1. What constitutional principles were carried over from the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution? Which were addressed by the Constitution but not by the Articles of Confederation?
  2. How did the Constitutional Convention embrace the civic virtue of civil discourse?
  3. Explain how different beliefs about the role of government affected the Constitutional Convention, using political, social, or economic examples.

AP Practice Questions

“In the first place, Every general act of the Union must necessarily bear unequally hard on some particular member or members of it. Secondly the partiality of the members to their own interests and rights, a partiality which will be fostered by the Courtiers of popularity, will naturally exaggerate the inequality where it exists, and even suspect it where it has no existence. Thirdly a distrust of the voluntary compliance of each other may prevent the compliance of any, although it should be the latent disposition of all. Here are causes & pretexts which will never fail to render federal measures abortive. If the laws of the States, were merely recommendatory to their citizens, or if they were to be rejudged by County authorities, what security, what probability would exist, that they would be carried into execution? Is the security or probability greater in favor of the acts of Congs. which depending for their execution on the will of the state legislatures, wch. are tho’ nominally authoritative, in fact recommendatory only.”

James Madison, Vices of the Political System of the United States, April 1787

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. According to James Madison, which of the following statements was not a problem with the government under the Articles of Confederation?

  1. There was no mechanism to hold states accountable to enforce federal laws through sanctions or a federal judiciary.
  2. Each state was unlikely to voluntarily cooperate with federal laws, because they suspected that other states were not held to compliance.
  3. Separation of powers caused the federal legislature to become tyrannical.
  4. Congress depended on the will of the state legislatures to enforce compliance with federal laws.

2. Which of the following characteristic of the 1787 Constitution directly addressed the issues Madison outlined in the excerpt provided?

  1. The “three-fifths” compromise, which meant that five slaves would count as three freemen for purposes of representation
  2. Subordination of the laws of the states to those passed by a federal legislature, to be enforced by an executive office
  3. The bicameral legislature, featuring representation based on both population and equal representation
  4. The absence of a federal bill of rights, because many states had their own

“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years. . . . I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”

Benjamin Franklin, September 17, 1787

Refer to the excerpt provided.

3. Which of the following items discussed during the Constitutional Convention was not a “local interest,” as described by Franklin in the excerpt provided?

  1. Virginia Plan
  2. New Jersey Plan
  3. Three-fifths Compromise
  4. Supreme Court creation

4. Which of the following best represents Franklin’s intention when discussing this new Constitution?

  1. Acknowledge the compromises that were made while still advocating its acceptance
  2. Identify the weaknesses so political factions will rally against ratification
  3. Admit the document was created in secret and may require additional adjustments once public
  4. Alert foreign nations that the new U.S. government will be monarchical, just like theirs

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States. . . .

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution

Refer to the excerpt provided.

5. Taken together, these two sections of Article 1 might be applied to allow the government to do which of the following?

  1. Set up a national bank
  2. Completely abolish the state governments
  3. Immediately abolish the international slave trade
  4. Do anything that a majority of both houses of Congress approved

6. Which of these problems under the Articles of Confederation is most closely related to remedies provided in the Article 1, Sections 1 and 8 excerpts provided?

  1. The states nearly went to war over interstate trade disputes.
  2. The central government had no way to raise money for national defense.
  3. The states ignored the 1783 peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.
  4. The Congress could only amend the Articles of Confederation by a unanimous vote of all the states.

“To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting. Whereas the Delegates of the United States of America in Congress assembled did on the fifteenth day of November in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy seven, and in the Second Year of the Independence of America agree to certain articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the States of Newhampshire, Massachusetts-bay, Rhodeisland and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.”

Preamble of the Articles of Confederation, 1781

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Preamble of the United States Constitution, 1787

Refer to the excerpt provided.

7. A historian might use the excerpts provided to demonstrate

  1. an evolution in the political ideas of the Founders
  2. a continuity in the powers of American government
  3. the expansion of the United States’ physical territory
  4. commitment to gender and racial equality in America

8. What historical event relates to the change in the powers of the national government articulated in the excerpts provided?

  1. George Mason’s passionate argument that the federal government was too strong
  2. The failure of the federal government to address Shays’ Rebellion
  3. Victory at Yorktown solidifying the American triumph in the Revolution
  4. The publication of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence

Primary Sources

“Articles of Confederation. Primary Documents in American History.” Library of Congress.

“Constitution of the United States: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration.

Madison, James. “Vices of the Political System of the United States, April, 1787.”Founders Online, National Archives and Records Administration.

Madison, James. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Internet Archive.

Suggested Resources

Beeman, Richard. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York: Random House, 2009.

Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, 2002.

Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. Boston: Little Brown, 1966.

Brookhiser, Richard. James Madison. New York: Basic, 2012.

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Ellis, Joseph J. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 2015.

Farrand, Max. The Framing of t

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