The Constitutional Convention

Unsuccessful Efforts to Amend the Articles

Before giving up on the Articles of Confederation, there were several attempts to amend and improve them. In 1786, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina called for the Confederal Congress to revise the Articles so that the national government could better lead the nation. In response, the Congress appointed a committee for that purpose which drafted several amendments to the Articles. Most significantly, the proposed amendments would have given the Congress the exclusive authority to regulate interstate commerce. They would have further empowered the Congress to punish members for poor attendance at legislative sessions. The amendments, however, were rejected and the governmental structure established by the Articles remained unaltered.

As problems between debtors and creditors and interstate trade became more serious (see "Transition to Self Rule"), however, calls for revising the Articles grew louder. In February of 1787, the Confederal Congress called for a convention to be held in May of that same year at Philadelphia. While the Confederal Congress explicitly endorsed the convention for the "sole purpose of proposing amendments" to the Articles of Confederation, it unwittingly set the stage for its own dissolution and the creation of an entirely new government for the young nation.

The Constitutional Convention

Twelve of the thirteen colonies (Rhode Island refused to participate) appointed delegates to the convention.1 The Convention, however, got off to a slow start. Several days after the Convention was scheduled to begin, a sufficient number to form a quorum was finally assembled on May 25, 1787. On that day, twenty-nine delegates from nine states were present at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. At various points throughout the Convention, fifty-five of the more than seventy appointed delegates attended the Convention. Those present, however, did not let the absence of some dissuade them. They undertook the work at hand, quickly deciding to meet in private to promote the free flow of debate and the exchange of ideas. (PHOTO at Right: Independence Hall, Philadelphia)

Those in attendance at the Convention include such notable figures as George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.2 The delegates included Revolutionary War veterans, farmers, merchants, lawyers and bankers. While some have argued that the delegates were primarily motivated by their own economic interests to attend the Convention and draft the document they did,3 a more careful analysis suggests that they were men with profound civic interests as well.4 Indeed, the economic interests they sought to promote would prove not only to benefit themselves but the nation as a whole. It was a group, however, that was clearly interested in bringing more order and stability to the nation. As such, the work of the delegates might be seen as promoting the interests of the creditors of the day more than those of the debtors. (Undoubtedly, this is the major reason Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the Convention.)

James MadisonWhile the reputations of Washington and Franklin gave credibility to the Convention, it was James Madison who was the Convention's dominant figure. The primary author of the Virginia Plan, which was the framework on which the Constitution was based, Madison set the tone for the Convention in its early days and was a key contributor to the debates at each important juncture. Throughout the Convention Madison's was the "clearest and the strongest voice" arguing that a stronger central government was essential to the nation's ability to govern itself. Because of his role at the Convention and in the ratification debates that followed, Madison is often referred to as the "Father of the Constitution." (PHOTO at Right: James Madison)

The Substance of the Debate

The first major hurdle the Convention faced was deciding how to proceed based on the instructions they had been given by the Confederal Congress. Having been specifically charged by the Confederal Congress to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation, many delegates believed it would be a breach of their duty to do away with the Articles altogether and create a framework for a new government. As they discussed the problems that plagued the Confederation, however, it quickly became clear to a majority of the delegates that simply amending the Articles would not suffice. Sensing that the Convention had such inclinations, Patrick Henry, who was opposed to efforts to bolster the national government, had boycotted the proceedings declaring that he "smelled a rat." In any case, having made the decision to abolish the Articles, the work of the Convention began in earnest.

Another major problem faced by the delegates threatened to make irrelevant any progress the Convention was able to make toward the formulation of a new government for the young nation. Under the Articles of Confederation, the unanimous consent of all the states was required to make changes to the Articles. With Rhode Island absent and its later cooperation unlikely, unanimity would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Before the Convention ended, the delegates determined that the Constitution could be ratified by nine of the thirteen states. While this agreement made ratification easier, it also raised the possibility of as many as four states being left out of the new "union."

Also worth noting was the decision to meet in secret. The delegates new that if news of their decision to abolish the Articles of Confederation became public, the opposition to such a decision would likely disrupt the work of the Convention. Better to draft a proposal for a new government first and then announce their recommendation to do away with the Confederation. Then the people could consider such a dramatic change with a clear alternative in hand.

While each of these decisions was significant in its own right, they paled in comparison to the Convention's two most divisive points of debate--representation and slavery. Indeed, delegates from the smaller states and from some of the Southern states threatened to walk out of the Convention if their demands with regard to representation and slavery were not met. For the Convention to succeed, these two issues would have to be resolved.


When Edmund Randolph, the Governor of Virginia, presented Madison's Virginia Plan, the delegates from the small states objected strongly to the scheme of representation in the Plan's proposed legislative branch. The Virginia Plan, which called for the creation of a new national government with separate executive, legislative and judicial branches, created a bicameral legislature, or a legislature with two houses--a House of Representatives and a Senate. It wasn't the notion of two separate houses, though, that bothered the small state delegates. It was that the number of a state's representatives in each house would be based on its population.

Under the Articles of Confederation, States were the fundamental unit of political organization and power. As such, they had been viewed as equal to each other, regardless of their population, and each state was accorded one vote in the Confederal Congress. Madison's plan, however, was based on the notion that the power and authority of the government was derived directly from the people and, therefore, the degree of authority each state surrendered to the national government was in direct proportion to its population. Madison and other supporters of the Virginia Plan--primarily delegates from the larger states--argued that it was unjust for a small number of people, from states such as Delaware, to have the same number of representatives as a much larger number of people, from states like New York. The delegates from the small states, however, argued that by basing representation in both houses on the population of each state, the interests of the smaller states would be trampled upon by a large-states dominated Congress.

In response to the scheme of representation outlined in the Virginia Plan, the smaller states proposed the New Jersey Plan which called for the equal representation of each state in both houses of the new Congress. The large state delegates were just as opposed to this plan as the small state delegates had been to the Virginia Plan. For a time, the Convention was at an impasse on the issue of representation and the Convention was even in danger of dissolving over the issue. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, however, is credited with proposing what has come to be called the Great Compromise of the Convention. Under this plan, the representation of states in the Senate would be equal--each state would choose two Senators, regardless of its population. In the House of Representatives, however, the number of Representatives elected in each state would depend on population. To further emphasize the importance of states as distinct political entities with special status under the new Constitution, the Convention also provided that Senators would be chosen by the legislatures of the several states and not be elected directly by the people, as House members would be.5 The agreement literally saved the Constitutional Convention.


While the compromise on representation was a critical turning point at the Convention, the issue of slavery was just as important. While Northerners were, to varying degrees, opposed to the South's "peculiar institution," Southerners believed that their economic well-being depended on the slave trade. They declared that they would walk out of the Convention before they consented to a government that disallowed slavery. Similar objections from the South had been raised during the deliberations of Second Continental Congress. The Declaration of Independence had originally included a rejection of slavery as immoral, but Southern state delegates refused to sign it until the statement was removed.

Once again, the rest of the delegates were forced to choose between condemning slavery outright or condoning it so the broader interests of the nation could be pursued. It was not an easy choice.

On the issue of slave trade, the proposal was made that slaves could be "imported" for twenty years after the Constitution was ratified, after which bringing new slaves into the country would be illegal. Of this provision, Madison originally remarked:

Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the National character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.6

To secure the support of the Southern states for the Constitution, however, it was a compromise that Madison later embraced. In The Federalist No. 42, he wrote:

It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period it will receive considerable discouragement from the Federal government and be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppression of their European brethren!

Also at issue was how slaves were to be counted for purposes of representation and taxation. Delegates from the Southern states wanted slaves to be counted for the purposes of allotting congressional seats to the states, but not for the purposes of levying taxes. This, of course, was not acceptable to the Northern states who were not inclined to let the South have it both ways. They would either have to count them for both purposes or for neither. Once again, the convention was at an impasse. It was the second major compromise of the summer that salvaged the Convention once again. Under the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise, slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a person for both purposes. While seemingly an arbitrary number, by counting only three out of every five slaves, there would be a rough balance in representation between the Northern and Southern states in the new Congress. This was important to the Southern delegates because they feared that a North-dominated Congress would outlaw slavery as one of its first items of business.

While it is easy to second-guess the decisions made about slavery at the Constitutional Convention, the delegates left with no illusions that the slavery question had been permanently solved. Instead, it had been put off until a later date. Indeed, given the violence with which the Southern states opposed the abolition of slavery during the Civil War, it is certain that the United States of America, as it was established by the 1787 Constitution, would have never existed if compromises on slavery had not been made.

Drafting the Final Document

After two months of debate and revisions, the delegates had agreed on the basic framework of the new government that would replace the Confederation. On July 26, 1787, they were ready to put it in writing. The Convention selected a "Committee on Detail" to put all of the decisions of the convention into one cohesive document. Having done so, the Convention adjourned for two weeks.

The members of the Committee took their work seriously. Armed with the various resolutions presented throughout the Convention, the Articles of Confederation, the constitutions of the several states and assorted other documents, they convened to write the Constitution of the United States of America. Edmund Randolph wrote the first draft, which the committee then discussed and modified. Another draft was written by James Wilson and copies were printed for all of the the Convention delegates.

Five weeks later, on September 17, the Convention appointed a "Committee of Style" to write the final version of the Constitution. Most of the final writing was done by Gouverneur Morris, often referred to as the "penman of the Constitution." In mid-September, after making some last modifications, the Convention approved the Constitution and the delegates signed it. It was then sent, along with a Letter of Transmittal, to the Confederal Congress which quickly forwarded it to the state legislatures for ratification. It was not a foregone conclusion, however, that the Constitution would be ratified. The same arguments that threatened to derail the Convention itself would soon resurface as opponents of the document tried to prevent its ratification.

1. Two of the delegates from New York left on July 10, 1787, leaving Alexander Hamilton as the only delegate from his state. Consequently, he could not cast votes for his state for the remainder of the Convention. The New Hampshire delegates did not arrive until July 23, 1787. Given these events, there were never more than eleven states voting on any question at the Convention.
2. Thomas Jefferson, serving as the American Minister to France, and John Adams, serving as the Ambassador to Great Britain, did not attend the Convention.
3. Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1935).
4. Robert E. Brown, Charles Beard and the Constitution: A Critical Analysis of "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution" (Princeton University Press, 1956).
5. This provision would later be altered by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
6. James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), 530.