U.S. Constitution

Signing the U.S. Constitution, September 17, 1787
Signing the U.S. Constitution, September 17, 1787

External challenges had motivated previous unsuccessful attempts at creating a union between the 13 English North American colonies. But neither these, nor the First Continental Congress that convened in

Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, aimed at founding an independent republic. Rather, they were concerned with restoring the rights of the colony in face of British pressure.

When the Second Continental Congress met in May 1775, matters had changed radically. A trade war had broken out with the mother country, and colonial militia had clashed with British regulars. The Declaration of Independence followed on July 4, 1776. John Dickinson of Philadelphia submitted the first draft of a constitution. The Continental Congress felt it gave too much power to the central government.

Congress adopted the final document, known as the Articles of Confederation, on November 15, 1777. While each state held one vote, Congress was given the power to declare war, negotiate peace, make treaties with foreign nations, decide over interstate disputes, print and borrow money.

Further it regulated relations with Native Americans and postal services. For all practical reasons, sovereignty still rested with the states, so did power in all matters not explicitly delegated to the central government. Revision of the Articles required a unanimous vote in Congress; important laws needed approval from at least nine of the 13 states to become effective.

In 1780, the confederacy faced bankruptcy, and George Washington’s troops were on the verge of disintegration. The Bank of the United States was chartered in 1781, but the plans of Congress to raise revenue through taxes and tariffs were thwarted by the states.

Land sales west of the Appalachians and public loans provided temporary solutions, but the crisis exposed the major intertwined weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation: lack of power to impose taxation and the extensive sovereignty of the states at the expense of Congress.

The national debt and war created a nationalist faction in American politics, with Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay demanding a stronger central government. Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts added to the emergency.

Merchants in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania resisted to protect their own state tariffs and protective subsidies. While the planters of Virginia were eager to keep import taxes low, their concern over the war chest added to the ideological inclination toward a strengthening of the federal authority.

On the initiative of the Virginia legislature, the Annapolis Convention in 1786 was summoned to discuss federal finances, but the issues discussed soon widened in scope. The basic problem was in the provisions of the Articles, and the Congress approved the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, convened on May 15, 1787.

Part of the impetus for reform came from Shays’s Rebellion. As the war debt from the Revolution trickled down to individuals, small farmers were often forced to sell their land to pay taxes and were thus unable to continue making a living.

The rebellion was put down by a militia raised and organized as a private army. The lack of federal response to the situation created more aggressive calls for reform to the federal government to prevent such situations in the future.

The basis for the revision of the Constitution was to be James Madison’s Virginia Plan; Madison, together with Alexander Hamilton, had led the Annapolis Convention, recommending a wider revision of the Constitution. Madison’s political thinking had a big influence on the convention.

Constitutional Convention

Fifty-five delegates from 12 states attended the Constitutional Convention; Rhode Island opposed any revision and provided no delegates. Among those present, apart from Madison and Hamilton, were Washington (who served as the president of the convention) and numerous other central figures of the Revolution: Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, James Wilson, and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania; Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut; and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina.

It fell to the aging Franklin, Madison, John Dickinson, and Roger Sherman to keep the convention together during heated debates. The delegates were mostly merchants and planters, a feature that many historians have seen as favoring a federal government that secured property rights and debtors’ interests.

In addition to the provisions given in the Articles of Confederation, the constitutional draft ensured sovereignty of the federal over the state levels, the former were empowered to raise revenue and provided direct citizenship to the United States. The proposals for a central government provided a system of checks and balances between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, inspired by French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu.

An electorate picked the executive by popular vote, but there were significant disputes over the nature of the legislative branch. Madison’s Virginia plan offered a bicameral solution, where the House of Representatives was elected by popular vote, in which each state had a proportional number of seats. The House would then elect a Senate.

Madison’s plan would safeguard the more populous states against irresponsible spending of the smaller ones. The smaller states rallied around the New Jersey Plan providing for a unicameral legislative with equal representation among the states, fearing abuse of power from the larger states.

The Great Compromise, proposed by a subcommittee, offered the final solution, in which the House of Representatives was to be elected by popular vote where each state has a representation in proportion to its population, while there would be equal representation in the Senate.

To ease the concern of larger states, revenue bills could only be passed in the House. The judiciary was to ensure that neither federal nor state legislation nor the executive were in conflict with the Constitution.


Contrary to the wishes of many delegates and the provisions of many early constitutions of other nations, suffrage was not contingent on income or property, neither was eligibility to run for public office. The issue of slavery was largely avoided. A 20-year clause was added concerning the question of fugitive slaves.

However, in the question of population in relation to representation, slaves and indentured servants were to count as three-fifths of a full citizen. The Constitution further prescribed that two-thirds majority was required in Congress for the repeal of a presidential veto, an amendment to the Constitution, and consent of the Senate to treaties was needed.

Federal law would overrule state legislation. A system of courts would safeguard against breaches of the Constitution, and the states were obliged to enforce federal proscriptions. Pierce Butler, delegate of South Carolina, summed up the feelings of his colleagues at the end of the convention when he cited the ancient founder of Solon, who claimed not to have given the Athenians the best government he could devise but the best they would receive. In this lay the idea that the new Constitution was the best the convention could agree upon and the best the states would accept.

On September 17, 1787, the Convention adjourned, and the struggle for ratification commenced, which needed consent by nine of the 13 states. First, James Madison promised amendments—later known as the Bill of Rights—to the draft that would safeguard the rights of citizens and states against the abuse of federal power.

It ensured freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, safety of life and property, legal protection, and that powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government rested with the states.

In order to convince the reluctant citizens of New York, Jay, Madison, and Hamilton wrote a series of essays called The Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788. Not only did they produce an influential vehicle of opinion, they also provided subsequent generations with valuable insights into the political thought of the founding fathers of the United States. The ratifying conventions in the states met between December 1787 and June 1788 and were much more broadly composed than the convention itself, including farmers and artisans.

The struggle proved particularly hard in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Virginia and New York also were slow to ratify the Constitution. The last states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, finally and most reluctantly ratified in 1789 and 1790, respectively. Besides differences in opinion over what would provide the most efficient and just type of government, economic self-interest and reluctance to give up control marked the debate.