The last week of May marks the anniversary of the first meeting of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The convention was called to address problems with the Articles of Confederation, which had been drafted in 1777 in order to provide a system for a national government. By 1779, the Articles had been ratified by all the colonies except Maryland. Maryland had initially refused to ratify the Articles due to a dispute between the various colonies about claims to the lands west of the colonies. In 1781, Maryland was finally persuaded to ratify the Articles which then served as the basis for a federal government until 1789.
The Articles of Confederation provided the new emerging country with a name, “The United States of America,” and an unicameral congress. The Articles, however, had several weaknesses, including an inability to directly raise revenue or enforce economic regulations. These weaknesses, as well as economic troubles and local uprisings in the 1780s, such as Shay’s Rebellion, contributed to interest in amending the Articles. The first steps towards amending the Articles were taken at the Annapolis Convention on September 11, 1786. The Virginia Legislature had called for a convention of all states in Annapolis to discuss interstate commerce issues but when delegates from only five states attended, the delegates decided that such problems could only be dealt with if the Articles of Confederation were revised. Three days later, on September 14,1786, Alexander Hamilton drafted a report proposing a convention of all states to revise the Articles. The resolution acknowledged the problems in the current system and proposed a remedy:
The Annapolis Report further suggested that Congress direct:
This report was transmitted to Congress and in February 1787 the Congress, following the suggestions of the Annapolis Report called for a convention to begin on May 14, 1787 “to render the constitution … adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”
Though the convention was to begin on May 14th, only eight delegates had arrived in Philadelphia, and it was not until May 25th that a sufficient number of delegates were present to begin proceedings. The convention began with the election of a president, George Washington; a secretary, William Jackson; and the nomination of a three member committee consisting of Messrs. Wythe, Hamilton and C. Pinckney, which was directed to draft the rules for the convention. A doorkeeper and messengers were also appointed. On May 28th, Mr. Wythe presented the proposed rules to the Convention and on May 29th the rules, as amended, were adopted. Also, on May 29th, Edmund Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan. Although introduced by Randolph, the plan was largely the work of another delegate, James Madison. As the work of the convention was officially to amend the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Plan began with the phrase “Resolved that the Articles of Confederation ought to be so corrected & enlarged as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution; namely, “common defence, security of liberty and general welfare.” The plan suggested, among other things, that the Congress be split into two branches, that a national executive and judiciary be established with the national legislature picking the executive.
Working rapidly, the outline on a three part system of government consisting of a legislature, executive and judiciary was agreed upon by May 30th. During the next two months, the Convention put forth and debated the general principles of the government. On July 26th, the Convention adjourned for 10 days while the five member Committee of Detail drafted a constitution based on the Convention’s work. Returning to work on August 6th, the Convention spent the next month debating and amending the proposed document. Then on September 17, 1787, the Convention completed its work and the state delegations unanimously agreed to approve the Constitution. All but three of the members then signed the Constitution, after debating this step, and Convention President Washington, transmitted the document by letter to Congress. Since the proceedings of the Convention had been secret, Washington had to explain in his letter why the Convention had drafted a document for the institution of a new system of government rather than proposals to amend the existing Articles of Confederation:
Although the proceedings of the convention were kept secret at the time, the Convention’s Secretary, William Jackson, gathered up the journals and related papers and delivered them to George Washington, who in turn delivered the papers to the Department of State in 1796. In 1818, Congress ordered that the journals be printed. After the publication of the journals in 1819, the next several decades saw publications of notes of the proceedings by various attendees, including Madison’s, which were published in 1840. Then in 1911, Max Farrand published a four volume set titled The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. This compilation brought together the journals of the convention along with Madison’s notes and the notes of various of the other delegates, including those of Rufus King. The fourth volume of the set included supplemental materials such as letters from the delegates written during the convention. Farrand’s Records is considered to be one of the best sources of information about the Constitutional Convention as it brings together in one publication the diverse materials which form the record of the Convention.
A convention of delegates from all the states except Rhode Island met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in May of 1787. Known as the Constitutional Convention, at this meeting it was decided that the best solution to the young country's problems was to set aside the Articles of Confederation and write a new constitution. George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention.
The delegates, or representatives for the states, debated for months over what would be included in the Constitution. Some states were in favor of a strong central government, while other states were opposed. Large states felt that they should have more representation in Congress, while small states wanted equal representation with larger ones.
Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, proposed a legislature with two parts; states would have equal representation in the Senate, and the population of states would determine representation in the House of Representatives. This created a bicameral legislative branch, which gave equal representation to each State in the Senate, and representation based on population in the House. Small states feared they would be ignored if representation was based on population while large states believed that their larger populations deserved more of a voice. Under the bicameral system, each party would be represented in a balance of power. Each state would be equally represented in the Senate, with two delegates, while representation in the House of Representatives would be based upon population. The delegates finally agreed to this "Great Compromise," which is also known as the Connecticut Compromise.
The Constitution also created an executive branch and a judicial branch, which set up a system of checks and balances. All three branches would have a distribution of power so that no one branch could become more powerful than another. Early on, Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented the Virginia Plan, which provided for a national government with three branches. The legislative branch would make laws, the executive branch would provide leadership and enforce laws, and the judicial branch would explain and interpret laws.
Like the issue of political representation, commerce and slavery were two issues that divided the Northern and Southern states. Southern states exported goods and raw materials and feared that the Northern states would take unfair advantage. The South finally agreed not to require two-thirds passage in both houses to regulate commerce. The North agreed that the slave trade could continue until 1808. In addition, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for representation in the House of Representatives; this was known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise.”
Nationality requirements and ways to amend and ratify the Constitution were also addressed. Senators would have to be citizens for nine years and Representatives for seven years, and the President must be native-born to be eligible to hold office. In order to make changes or amendments to the Constitution, nine of the 13 states would have to vote to ratify before an amendment could become law.