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The Constitutional Convention

Shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, American leaders realized that the nation needed a new, stronger Constitution. But what would the new system of government look like? 


  • Between May and September 1787, delegates from 12 states convened in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, which had proven insufficient to cope with the challenges facing the young nation.
  • The convention was the site of spirited debate over the size, scope, and structure of the federal government, and its result was the United States Constitution.
  • The notorious Three-Fifths Compromise apportioned representation to the southern slaveholding states in a scheme that counted five enslaved men and women as three.

Creating a new government

From May 25 to September 17, 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states convened in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. Rhode Island was the only state that refused to send representatives to the convention, which assumed as its primary task the revision or replacement of the Articles of Confederation.
Though the Articles of Confederation had provided the framework for governance since the declaration of the American Revolution against Britain, many of the fledgling nation’s political leaders agreed that the creation of a stronger central government was essential to the development of the power and potential of the United States. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government lacked the power of taxation, had no authority to regulate commerce, and was impotent to resolve conflicts arising between states.
Seeking to bolster the authority of the federal government, the delegates gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and elected George Washington to preside over the convention.
One of the most spirited debates at the convention regarded the composition of the legislative branch of government. Should the legislature be unicameral—consisting of one house—or bicameral—consisting of two houses? Perhaps more importantly, how should representation in the legislature be apportioned?
James Madison proposed the Virginia Plan, which called for a bicameral legislature in which representation would be based on population. The larger states supported this plan, because it would accord them greater representation based on their more numerous populations. However, the smaller states opposed it, and submitted a competing proposal, the New Jersey Plan. According to this scheme, which was basically inherited from the Articles of Confederation, the legislature would be unicameral and each state would have a single vote.
John Vanderlyn, portrait of James Madison, 1816. Image credit: The White House Historical Association

Drafting the Constitution

The delegates ultimately combined elements of both plans in what became known as the Connecticut Compromise. The legislative branch would be bicameral, consisting of an upper house—the Senate—and a lower house—the House of Representatives. Representation in the House would be based on population, and each state was allotted two seats in the Senate. The office of the president would constitute the executive authority and was to be chosen by the electoral college.
The structure of government would be federalist in nature, consisting of three independent branches: the legislature, Congress; the executive, the president: and the judicial, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court would adjudicate disputes between states, and Congress was authorized to levy taxes, declare war, raise an army, regulate interstate commerce, and draft laws consistent with the purpose of exercising these powers.
The compromise also addressed another major point of contention between northern and southern states over the issue of slavery. Should enslaved people be counted for the purpose of a state’s representation in Congress? And if so, how? The northern states did not think enslaved people should be counted at all, while the southern slaveholding states thought they should. The Three-Fifths Compromise established that enslaved men and women would be represented in the House at a ratio of 3 to 5 of their actual numbers. Thus, every five individuals would count as three for the purposes of both legislative representation and taxation.
The Three-Fifths Compromise was one of the most notorious provisions of the Constitution. For delegates from the northern states, many of whom were morally opposed to the institution of slavery, the compromise was viewed as a necessary evil in order to secure the ratification of the Constitution since the southern states had threatened to refuse to ratify the document if the interests of southern slaveholders were not protected therein.

Ratifying the Constitution

Before the Constitution could take effect, it had to be ratified—formally approved by the assemblies of at least nine of the 12 states that had sent delegates to the convention.
The signing of the Constitution by state delegates; Howard Chandler Christy, 1940. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ironically enough, after the acrimonious debates over legislative representation, the small states were the first to ratify the Constitution. The most serious opposition to ratifying the document came from the larger states of Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. These states were home to large rural populations that sympathized with the plight of farmers like Daniel Shays, who had spearheaded a rebellion against what he perceived as the unjust economic policies and political corruption of the Massachusetts state legislature.
According to many of the Constitution’s opponents, it would create a large, intrusive, and much too powerful federal government that would inevitably recreate the tyranny that the Patriots had fought against in the American Revolution. In order to combat this opposition and get the Constitution ratified, a series of amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, was appended to the document to ensure that the federal government would respect the natural rights of citizens.

What do you think?

If you had been a delegate at the Constitutional Convention, would you have supported the New Jersey Plan or the Virginia Plan?
Can you think of anything the delegates could have done to ensure the ratification of the Constitution without perpetuating the institution of slavery?
In your own words, describe the character of the federal government as created at the Constitutional Convention.

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