History of the United States Constitution

History of the United States Constitution

The United States Constitution was written in 1787, but it did not take effect until after it was ratified in 1789, when it replaced the Articles of Confederation. It remains the basic law of the United States. The United States Constitution also remains the oldest in existence.

The first state to ratify the Constitution was Delaware; the last of the original thirteen to ratify was Rhode Island; since only nine were required, this was two years after it went into effect. When the U.S. Constitution was presented to the states, many people chose to be either Federalists or Anti-Federalists. Virginia and many other states were against the Constitution because there was no bill of rights included in it. James Madison was known as the "Father of the Constitution", and he and Alexander Hamilton were two Federalists who supported the Constitution and explicated it in the Federalist papers (1788). On the other side George Mason, an Anti-Federalist, opposed the Constitution.


Declaration of Independence

On June 4, 1776, a resolution was introduced in the Second Continental Congress declaring the union with Great Britain to be dissolved, proposing the formation of foreign alliances, and suggesting the drafting of a plan of confederation to be submitted to the respective states. Independence was declared on July 4, 1776; the preparation of a plan of confederation was postponed. Although the Declaration was a statement of principles, it did not create a government or even a framework for how politics would be carried out. It was the Articles of Confederation that provided the necessary structure to the new nation during and after the American Revolution. The Declaration, however, did set forth the ideas of natural rights and the social contract that would help form the foundation of constitutional government.

Moves toward a Constitution

Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation

The early government's successes include winning the Revolutionary War; negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the Revolutionary War; the Northwest Ordinance, which created the Northwest Territory; and the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set up procedures for the admission of new states. However, weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation became apparent before the Revolution ended. The Articles left most of the power in the state governments due to fears of recreating a strong central power like the British Monarchy. The need for a revenue stream was widely conceded. Under the articles, Congress lacked authority to levy taxes. Instead, it could request the states to contribute money to the common treasury, which was not sufficient for the federal government. To remedy this deficit, Congress appealed to the states for power to lay duties and secure the public debts. Twelve states agreed to such an amendment, but Rhode Island refused to consent, thereby defeating the proposal.[1] However, Congress did borrow money and sell western lands to raise some money.

The need for super majorities was a second weakness in the Articles of Confederation. Not only did all amendments have to be ratified by each of the thirteen states, but all important legislation needed the approval of at least nine states. With several delegates often being absent, one or two states were often able to defeat legislative proposals of major importance.

The period between the end of the war in 1783 and the drafting of the Constitution in 1786 has been seen by some historians as one of weakness, dissension, and turmoil,[2] and by others as stable and prosperous.[3] Under the Articles of Confederation, there was neither an executive branch to enforce the laws nor a national court system to interpret them. The Congress was the sole organ of the national government, but it had no power to force the states to do anything against their will. It could theoretically declare war and raise an army, but it could not force any state to meet its assigned quota for troops or for the arms and equipment needed to support them. It looked to the states for the income needed to finance its activities, but it could not punish a state for not contributing its share for the federal budget. Control of taxation and tariffs was left to the states, and each state could issue its own currency. In disputes between states, and quarrels over state boundaries, Congress played the role of mediator and judge but could not require states to accept its decisions.[4] Without the power to collect taxes, the government plunged into debt. At the same time, seven of the thirteen states printed large quantities of paper money— which was high in face value, but low in real purchasing power— to pay Revolutionary War veterans, various creditors, and settle debts between small farmers and large plantation owners.[5]

In contrast to the other state legislatures, the Massachusetts legislature imposed a tightly limited currency and high taxes, which triggered formation of a small army of farmers led by Daniel Shays, a former Revolutionary War army captain. The incident came to be known as Shays' Rebellion. In a bid to take over the Massachusetts statehouse, Shays and others demanded that foreclosures and unfair court proceedings be dropped. Troops were called out and they quickly suppressed the rebellion, but nationalists asked what would happen if a revolt got out of control. George Washington warned, "There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to."[6]

The absence of a single, uniform, and stable currency also disrupted trade among the states and with other countries. Not only did the value of paper currency vary from state to state, but some states, such as New York and Virginia, levied duties on products entering their ports from other states, thereby provoking retaliatory actions. The states could assert, as had the federal superintendent of finance, that their public credit was gone. To compound their problems, these newly independent states, having separated violently from Britain, no longer received favored treatment at British ports. When U.S. minister John Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785, the British refused because the individual states would not be bound by it.[7]

The weak central government also lacked the power to back its policies with military strength. As a result, it was inevitably handicapped in foreign affairs. The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the new nation's Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. To make matters worse, British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish officers to the south supplied arms to various Native American tribes, which allowed them to attack American settlers. The Spanish, who controlled Florida and Louisiana, as well as all territory west of the Mississippi River, also refused to allow western American farmers to use the port of New Orleans to ship produce.[8]

Other imperfections in the Articles of Confederation proved embarrassing as well. Congress could, for example, negotiate treaties with foreign powers, but all treaties had to be ratified by the states. Even when a treaty was approved, Congress lacked the authority to secure obedience. Congress could not act directly upon the States nor upon individuals. Under such circumstances, foreign nations doubted the value of treaties with the new confederation. Furthermore, Congress had no authority to regulate foreign or interstate commerce. Legislation in this field, subject to insignificant exceptions, was left to the individual States. Disputes between States with common interests in the navigation of certain rivers and bays were inevitable. Discriminatory regulations were followed by reprisals.[9]

Although there were signs of returning prosperity in some areas of the fledgling nation, domestic and foreign problems continued to grow. It became increasingly clear to many nationalists that the confederation's central government was not strong enough to establish a sound financial system, regulate trade, enforce treaties, or go to war when needed.[10]

Mount Vernon Conference

Virginia, recognizing the need for an agreement with Maryland respecting the navigation and jurisdiction of the Potomac River, appointed, in June 1784, four commissioners to "frame such liberal and equitable regulations concerning the said river as may be mutually advantageous to the two States." Maryland, in January 1785, responded to the Virginia resolution by appointing a like number of commissioners[1] "for the purpose of settling the navigation and jurisdiction over that part of the bay of Chesapeake which lies within the limits of Virginia, and over the rivers Potomac and Pocomoke" with full power on behalf of Maryland "to adjudge and settle the jurisdiction to be exercised by the said State, respectively, over the waters and navigations of the same."

At the invitation of George Washington, the commissioners met at his Mount Vernon home, and, in March 1785, drafted a compact which, in many of its details relative to the navigation and jurisdiction of the Potomac, is still in force.[2] More importantly, the commissioners submitted to their respective states a report in favor of a convention of all the states "to take into consideration the trade and commerce" of the Confederation. Virginia, in January 1786, advocated such a convention, authorizing its commissioners to meet with those of other States, at a time and place to be agreed on "to take into consideration the trade of the United States, to examine the relative situations and trade of the said State, to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony, and to report to the several States, such an act relative to this great object, as when unanimously ratified by them, will enable the United States in Congress, effectually to provide for the same."

Grand Committee

In August 1786, the Grand Committee of the Confederation Congress proposed amendments to the Articles of Confederation in order to strengthen them, particularly with respect to trade and commerce.[11]

Annapolis Convention

This proposal for a general trade convention was seemingly met with general approval; nine States appointed commissioners. Under the leadership of the Virginia delegation, which included Randolph and Madison, Annapolis was accepted as the place and the first Monday in September 1786 as the time for the convention. The attendance at Annapolis proved disappointing. Only five States, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, were represented; delegates from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Rhode Island failed to attend. Because of the small representation, the Annapolis Convention did not deem “it advisable to proceed on the business of their mission.” After an exchange of views, the Annapolis delegates unanimously submitted to their respective States a report in which they suggested that a convention of representatives from all the States meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May (May 13) 1787 to examine the defects in the existing system of government and formulate "a plan for supplying such defects as may be discovered."[3]

The Virginia legislature acted promptly upon this recommendation and appointed a delegation to go to Philadelphia. Within a few weeks, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Delaware, and Georgia also made appointments. New York and several other States hesitated on the ground that, without the consent of the Continental Congress, the work of the convention would be extra-legal; that Congress alone could propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation. George Washington was quite unwilling to attend an irregular convention, making congressional approval of the proposed convention highly important. After some hesitancy, Congress approved the suggestion for a convention at Philadelphia "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union."

Therefore, the remaining States, Rhode Island excepted, appointed in due course delegates to the Convention, and Washington accepted membership on the Virginia delegation.

Philadelphia Convention

On February 21, 1787, Congress resolved: "It is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." On the appointed day, May 14, few representatives were present. The Convention (also known as the Philadelphia Convention) only obtained a quorum—delegates of twelve of the states were there —on May 25.

The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation. They represented a wide range of interests, backgrounds, and stations in life, although many shared a common background: the vast majority of them were wealthy landowners and all were white males. All agreed, however, on the central objectives expressed in the preamble to the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.

The primary aim of the Constitution was to create a strong elected government that was responsive to the will of the people, although there is some controversy over this. Many of the Founding Fathers believed that the new government needed to be insulated from the will of the people, hence the design of such features as the Electoral College or the election of Senators by the state legislatures. The concept of sovereignty of the people in a republic was new, a key ingredient of republicanism in the United States. By the time the Constitution was adopted, Americans had considerable expertise in the art of self-government. Long before independence was declared, the colonies were functioning governmental units controlled by the people. By 1777, ten of the thirteen states had adopted their own constitutions and most states had a governor elected by the state legislature which was elected by popular vote. Every state but Pennsylvania had a bicameral legislature as well.

The Articles of Confederation had tried to unite these self-governing states. The Constitution, by contrast, established a strong central, or federal, government with broad powers to regulate relations between the states and with sole responsibility in such areas as foreign affairs and defense.

Drafting the Constitution

The sense of potential disaster and the need for drastic change pervaded the Constitutional Convention that began its deliberations on May 25, 1787. All of the delegates were convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the weaker Congress established by the Articles of Confederation.

On May 29, Edmund Randolph, on behalf of the Virginia delegation, submitted fifteen propositions as a plan of government to the convention. Despite the fact that the delegates were limited by the instructions of their State legislatures to a revision of the Articles, Virginia had really recommended a new instrument of government. For example, a provision was made in the Virginia Plan for the separation of the three branches of government; under the Articles executive, legislative, and judicial powers were vested in the Congress. Furthermore, the legislature was to consist of two houses rather than one.

Constitution 150th Anniversary, image taken from Christy painting

On May 30, the Convention devolved into a committee of the whole to consider the fifteen propositions of the Virginia Plan seriatim. These discussions continued until June 13, when the Virginia resolutions in amended form were reported out of committee.

The delegates agreed that the new government would be composed of three separate branches, based on ideals enumerated in John Locke's Two Treatises of Government: legislative, judicial, and executive, each with distinct powers to balance those of the other two branches. It was also agreed that the legislative branch, like the British Parliament, and the state legislatures (except Pennsylvania's), should consist of two houses.

Beyond this point, however, there were sharp differences of opinion that at times threatened to disrupt the convention and cut short its proceedings before a constitution was drafted. The Virginia Plan provided for proportional representation in both houses, which dissatisfied the smaller states.

The large states argued in favor of proportional representation in the legislature, so that each state would have voting power equal to its population, calling equal representation per state, "confessedly unjust." The small states, fearing domination by the large ones, insisted on equal representation per state.

At the time of the convention, the South was growing more quickly than the North, and Southern states had the most extensive Western claims. South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia were small in the 1780s, but they expected growth, and thus favored proportional representation. New York was one of the largest states at the time, but two of its three representatives (Hamilton being the exception) favored an equal representation per state, as part of their desire to see maximum autonomy for the states. (The two representatives other than Hamilton left the convention before the representation issue was resolved, leaving Hamilton, and New York state, without a vote.)

James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were two of the leaders of the proportional representation group. Madison argued that a conspiracy of large states against the small states was unrealistic as the large states were so different from each other. Hamilton argued that the states were artificial entities made up of individuals, and accused small state representatives of wanting power, not liberty. (see History of the United States Senate).

For their part, the small state representatives argued that the states were, in fact, of a legally equal status, and that proportional representation would be unfair to their states. Gunning Bedford, Jr. of Delaware notoriously threatened on behalf of the small states, "the small ones w[ould] find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice."

Therefore, on June 14, when the Convention was ready to consider the report on the Virginia plan, William Paterson of New Jersey requested an adjournment to allow certain delegations more time to prepare a substitute plan. The request was granted, and, on the next day, Paterson submitted nine resolutions embodying important amendments to the Articles of Confederation, which was followed by vigorous debate. On June 19, the delegates rejected the New Jersey Plan and voted to proceed with a discussion of the Virginia Plan. The small States became increasingly discontented and some threatened to withdraw. On July 2, the Convention was deadlocked over giving each State an equal vote in the upper house, with five States in the affirmative, five in the negative, and one divided.

The problem was referred to a committee consisting of one delegate from each State to reach a compromise. On July 5, the committee submitted its report, which became the basis for the “Great Compromise" of the Convention. The report recommended that in the upper house each State should have an equal vote and in the lower house, each State should have one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants, counting slaves as three-fifths of an inhabitant, and that money bills should originate in the lower house (not subject to amendment by the upper chamber).

After six weeks of tumult, North Carolina switched its vote to equal representation per state and Massachusetts abstained, and a compromise was reached, being called the "Great Compromise." In the "Great Compromise", every state was given equal representation, previously known as the New Jersey Plan, in one house of Congress, and proportional representation, known before as the Virginia Plan, in the other. In the Senate, every state would have two seats. In the House of Representatives, the number of seats would depend on population. Because it was considered more responsive to majority sentiment, the House of Representatives was given the power to originate all legislation dealing with the federal budget and revenues/taxation.

When, on July 12, the motion of Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania that direct taxation should also be in proportion to representation was adopted, the crisis had been successfully surmounted. A compromise spirit began to prevail; however, the small States were not willing to support a strong national government.

The Great Compromise ended the rift between the large and small states, and throughout the summer, the delegates worked out numerous other compromises. Some delegates, fearful of giving too much power to the people, argued for indirect election of all federal officials; others wanted as broad an electoral base as possible. Some wanted to exclude the western territories from eventual statehood; others saw the future strength of the nation in the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. There were sectional interests to be balanced by the three fifths compromise; differing views to be reconciled on the term, powers, and method of selection of the president; and conflicting ideas on the role of the federal judiciary.

The high quality of the delegates to the convention eased the way to compromise. Only a few of the great leaders of the American Revolution were absent: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both future presidents, were serving as America's envoys to France and Britain, respectively; John Jay was busy as secretary of foreign affairs of the Confederation, although he later wrote some of the Federalist Papers. A handful of others, including Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry, chose not to participate, believing that the existing governmental structure was sound. Of those in attendance, the best known by far was George Washington, commander of American troops and hero of the Revolution, who presided over the convention. Benjamin Franklin, the scientist, scholar, and diplomat, was also there. Therefore, there were such outstanding men as James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant young lawyer and soldier from New York.

Even the youngest delegates, still in their twenties and thirties, had already displayed political and intellectual gifts. As Thomas Jefferson in Paris wrote to John Adams in London, "It really is an assembly of demigods."

Debates on the Virginia resolutions continued. The 15 original resolutions had been expanded into 23. Since these resolutions were largely declarations of principles, on July 24, a committee of five (John Rutledge of South Carolina, Edmund Randolph of Virginia, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania) was elected to draft a detailed constitution embodying the fundamental principles that had thus far been approved. The Convention adjourned from July 26 to August 6 to await the report of this "Committee of Detail". This committee, in preparing its draft of a Constitution, turned for assistance to the State constitutions, to the Articles of Confederation, to the various plans that had been submitted to the Convention and other available material. Overall, the report of the committee conformed to the resolutions adopted by the Convention, though on many clauses the members of the committee left the imprint of their individual and collective judgments. In a few instances, the committee avowedly exercised considerable discretion.

Some of the ideas the Constitution embodied were new, but many were drawn from Classical Antiquity and the British governmental tradition of mixed government, which was practiced in 12 of the 13 states and was advocated by the writings of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. The United States Constitution was partly based on ideas from the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, such as Article 39 from the British Magna Carta of 1215, which states:

"No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land."

The British Bill of Rights also acted as a source of ideas for the United States Constitution. For example, like the British Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution requires jury trials, contains a right to bear arms, and prohibits excessive bail and of "cruel and unusual punishments".

The Declaration of Independence also acted as an important guide, keeping the minds of the delegates fixed on the ideas of self-government and preservation of fundamental human rights. The writings of such European political philosophers as Montesquieu and John Locke were influential. What they sought to create was a balanced government of checks and balances.

From August 6 to September 10, the report of the committee of detail was discussed, section-by-section, and clause-by-clause. Details were attended to, further compromises were affected. Toward the close of these discussions, on September 8, another committee of five (William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, Alexander Hamilton of New York, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, James Madison of Virginia, and Rufus King of Massachusetts.) was appointed “to revise the style of and arrange the articles which had been agreed to by the house.”

On Wednesday, September 12, the report of the "committee of style" was ordered printed for the convenience of the delegates. For three days, the Convention compared this report with the proceedings of the Convention. The Constitution was then ordered engrossed on Saturday, September 15, and the work was done by Jacob Shallus.

The Convention met on Monday, September 17, for its final session. Several of the delegates were disappointed in the result. A few deemed the new Constitution a mere makeshift, a series of unfortunate compromises. Some delegates left before the ceremony, and three of those remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Of the thirty-nine who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied, and their views were ably summed up by Benjamin Franklin, who said, "There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them." He would accept the Constitution, however, "because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

An amendment was agreed upon to change "the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every forty thousand" to "the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand." A paragraph making clear this change and a few minor modifications was appended to the document by Shallus, and attested to by secretary William Jackson.

The advocates of the Constitution, realizing the impending difficulty of obtaining the consent of the States to the new instrument of Government, were anxious to obtain the unanimous support of the delegations from each State. It was feared that many of the delegates would refuse to give their individual assent to the Constitution. Therefore, to ensure the action of the Convention appeared unanimous, Gouverneur Morris devised the formula “Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the States present the 17th of September...In witness where of we have here unto subscribed our names.” Thirty-nine of the forty-two delegates present there upon “subscribed” to the document.


The 13 colonies in 1775

It was within the power of the old congress to expedite or block the ratification of the new Constitution. The document that the Philadelphia Convention presented was technically only a revision of the Articles of Confederation. But the last article of the new instrument provided that when ratified by conventions in nine states (or 2/3 at the time), it should go into effect among the States so acting.

Then followed an arduous process of ratification of the Constitution by specially constituted conventions. The need for only nine states was a controversial decision at the time, since the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of all the states. However, the new Constitution was ratified by all thirteen states, with Rhode Island signing on last in May 1790.

Three members of the Convention—Madison, Gorham, and King—were also Members of Congress. They proceeded at once to New York, where Congress was in session, to placate the expected opposition. Aware of their vanishing authority, Congress, on September 28, after some debate, unanimously decided to submit the Constitution to the States for action. It made no recommendation for or against adoption.[12]

Two parties soon developed, one in opposition, the Antifederalists, and one in support , the Federalists, of the Constitution, and the Constitution was debated, criticized, and expounded clause by clause. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, under the name of "Publius, wrote a series of commentaries, now known as the Federalist Papers, in support of the new instrument of government; however, the primary aim of the essays was for ratification in the state of New York, at that time a hotbed of anti-federalism. These commentaries on the Constitution, written during the struggle for ratification, have been frequently cited by the Supreme Court as an authoritative contemporary interpretation of the meaning of its provisions. The closeness and bitterness of the struggle over ratification and the conferring of additional powers on the central government can scarcely be exaggerated. In some states, ratification was effected only after a bitter struggle in the state convention itself. In every state, the Federalists proved more united, and only they coordinated action between different states, as the Anti-federalists were localized and did not attempt to reach out to other states.

Delaware, on December 7, 1787, became the first State to ratify the new Constitution, with its vote being unanimous. Pennsylvania ratified on December 12, 1787, by a vote of 46 to 23 (66.67%). New Jersey ratified on December 19, 1787, and Georgia on January 2, 1788, both with unanimous votes.

The requirement of ratification by nine states, set by Article Seven of the Constitution, was met when New Hampshire voted to ratify, on June 21, 1788.

In New York, fully two thirds of the convention delegates were at first opposed to the Constitution. Hamilton led the Federalist campaign, which included the fast-paced appearance of the Federalist Papers in New York newspapers. An attempt to attach conditions to ratification almost succeeded, but on July 26, 1788, New York ratified, with a recommendation that a bill of rights be appended. The vote was close—yeas 30 (52.6%), nays 27—due largely to Hamilton's forensic abilities and his reaching a few key compromises with moderate anti-Federalists led by Melancton Smith. Opposition to ratification was led by Governor George Clinton; the opposition also suggested that New York reserve the right to withdraw if the Constitution were not amended. Hamilton wrote Madison, as Secretary of the Virginia ratifying convention, and received the reply:

I am sorry that your situation obliges you to listen to
propositions of the nature you describe. My opinion is that a reservation of
a right to withdraw if amendments be not decided on under the form of the
Constitution within a certain time, is a conditional ratification, that it
does not make N. York a member of the New Union, and consequently that she
could not be received on that plan. Compacts must be reciprocal, this
principle would not in such a case be preserved. The Constitution requires
an adoption in toto, and for ever. It has been so adopted by the other
States. An adoption for a limited time would be as defective as an adoption
of some of the articles only. In short any condition whatever must viciate
the ratification. What the New Congress by virtue of the power to admit new
States, may be able & disposed to do in such case, I do not enquire as I
suppose that is not the material point at present. I have not a moment to
add more than my fervent wishes for your success & happiness.

This idea of reserving right to withdraw was started at Richmd. & considered
as a conditional ratification which was itself considered as worse than a

The Continental Congress— which still functioned at irregular intervals— passed a resolution on September 13, 1788, to put the new Constitution into operation.

Ratification of the Constitution
  Date State Votes
Yes No
1 December 7, 1787 Delaware 30 0
2 December 12, 1787 Pennsylvania 46 23
3 December 18, 1787 New Jersey 38 0
4 January 2, 1788 Georgia 26 0
5 January 9, 1788 Connecticut 128 40
6 February 6, 1788 Massachusetts 187 168
7 April 28, 1788 Maryland 63 11
8 May 23, 1788 South Carolina 149 73
9 June 21, 1788 New Hampshire 57 47
10 June 25, 1788 Virginia 89 79
11 July 26, 1788 New York 30 27
12 November 21, 1789 North Carolina 194 77
13 May 29, 1790 Rhode Island 34 32

The New Government

The process of organizing the government began soon after ratification by Virginia and New York. On September 13, 1788, Congress fixed the city of New York as the seat of the new government. (The capital was moved to Philadelphia in 1790 and to Washington D.C., in 1800.) It set Wednesday, January 7, 1789 as the day for choosing presidential electors; Wednesday, February 4 for the meeting of the electors to select a president, and Wednesday, March 4 for the opening session of the new Congress and the beginning of the first presidential term. Thus, March 4, 1789 became inauguration day.

Under the Constitution, each state legislature had the power to decide how presidential electors, as well as representatives and senators, would be chosen. Some states opted for direct elections by the people, others for election by the legislature, and a few for a combination of the two. Rivalries were intense; delays in setting up the first elections under the new Constitution were inevitable. New Jersey, for example, chose direct elections but neglected to set a time for closing the polls, which stayed open for three weeks.[citation needed]

By March 4, 1789, when the first Congress opened, only 13 of the 59 representatives and 8 of the 22 senators had arrived in New York City. (Seats allotted to North Carolina and Rhode Island were not filled until those states ratified the Constitution.) A quorum was finally attained in the House on April 1 and in the Senate on April 6. On April 1, the House elected a Speaker, and on April 6, the Senate elected its President pro tempore. The two houses then met jointly to count the electoral vote.

George Washington was unanimously elected the first president, and John Adams of Massachusetts, the vice president. Adams arrived in New York on April 21, and was sworn into office on the same date. Washington arrived in New York on April 23, and was sworn into office on April 30, 1789. The business of setting up the new government was completed.

Bill of Rights

The Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1789. In 1789, James Madison proposed twelve amendments to the First Congress. Congress approved these amendments as a block in September 1789 and eleven states had ratified ten of them by the end of 1791. These ten amendments are known collectively as the United States Bill of Rights.

Much of the initial resistance to the Constitution came, not from those opposed to strengthening the federal union, but from statesmen who felt that the rights of individuals must be specifically spelled out. One of these was George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was a forerunner of the Bill of Rights. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Mason refused to sign the document because he felt it did not protect individual rights sufficiently. Indeed, Mason's opposition nearly blocked ratification by Virginia. Because of similar feelings in Massachusetts, that state recommended with its ratification the addition of specific guarantees of individual rights. By the time the First Congress convened, sentiment for adoption of such amendments was nearly unanimous, and the Congress lost little time in drafting them.Many anti-Fedralist had sharply criticized the constitution drafted at Philadelphia for its failure to provide guarantees of individual rights such as freedom of religion and trail by jury.

Subsequent amendments

Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights cover a wide range of subjects. One of the most far-reaching is the fourteenth, ratified in 1868, which establishes a clear and simple definition of citizenship and guarantees equal treatment under the law. In essence, the Fourteenth Amendment required the states to abide by the protections of the Bill of Rights. Other amendments have limited the judicial power of the national government; changed the method of electing the president; forbidden slavery; protected the right to vote against denial because of race, color, sex (gender), or previous condition of servitude; extended the congressional power to levy taxes to individual incomes; and instituted the election of U.S. senators by popular vote.

The most recent amendments include the twenty-second, limiting the president to two terms in office; the twenty-third, granting citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote for the President and the Vice President; the twenty-fourth, giving citizens the right to vote regardless of failure to pay a poll tax; the twenty-fifth, providing for filling the office of vice president when it becomes vacant in midterm; the twenty-sixth, lowering the voting age to 18; and the twenty-seventh, concerning the compensation of U.S. senators and representatives.

Criticism of the Constitution

In the 1840-1860 era abolitionists denounced the Constitution because it protected slavery—requiring for example that runaways be recaptured and returned. William Lloyd Garrison famously denounced the Constitution as "a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell."[14]

In the early twentieth century, when the Supreme Court routinely struck down state laws limiting what sort of work contract women could make as unconstitutional (see Lochner era), the Constitution was criticized for being such a seemingly inflexible document that it put the government at the beck and call of big business.[15]

In his 2007 book A More Perfect Constitution, Professor Larry J. Sabato contended that the constitution was in need of an overhaul. He argued that only a national constitutional convention could bring the document up to date and settle many of the issues that have arisen over the past two centuries.[16]

See also


  1. ^ The colonists, for example, claimed the right "to life, liberty, and property", "the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects within the realm of England"; the right to participate in legislative councils; "the great and inestimable privilege of being tried by their peers of the vicinage, according to the course of [the common law of England]"; "the immunities and privileges granted and confirmed to them by royal charters, or secured by their several codes of provincial laws"; "a right peaceably to assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the king." They further declared that the keeping of a standing army in the colonies in time of peace without the consent of the colony in which the army was kept was "against law"; that it was "indispensably necessary to good government, and rendered essential by the English constitution, that the constituent branches of the legislature be independent of each other"; that certain acts of Parliament in contravention of the foregoing principles were "infringement and violations of the rights of the colonists." Text in C. Tansill (ed.), Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States, H. Doc. No. 358, 69th Congress, 1st sess. (1927), 1. See also H. Commager (ed.), Documents of American History (New York; 8th ed. 1964), 82.
  2. ^ Text in Tansill, op. cit., 10.
  3. ^ Id., 19.
  4. ^ Id., 21.
  5. ^ George Mason, Edmund Randolph, James Madison, and Alexander Henderson were appointed commissioners for Virginia; Thomas Johnson, Thomas Stone, Samuel Chase, and Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer for Maryland.
  6. ^ Text of the resolution and details of the compact may be found in Wheaton v. Wise, 153 U.S. 155 (1894).
  7. ^ Tansill, op. cit., 38.
  8. ^ Id., 39.


  1. ^ Morris (1987) ch 3-4.
  2. ^ Morris (1987); Nevins (1924)
  3. ^ Jensen (1950)
  4. ^ Morris 1987)
  5. ^ E. James Ferguson, The Power of The Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790 (1961)
  6. ^ Quoted in James Thomas Flexner, George Washington and the New Nation: 1783-1793 (1970) 3:100
  7. ^ Morris (1987)
  8. ^ Morris (1987)
  9. ^ Morris (1987)
  10. ^ Morris (1987)
  11. ^ http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1587
  12. ^ Morris (1987) pp 298-99.
  13. ^ Madison to Hamilton, July 20, 1789
  14. ^ Phillip Shaw Paludan, A covenant with death: the Constitution, law, and equality in the Civil War era (1975) pp 2-4
  15. ^ Michael J. Phillips, The Lochner court, myth and reality: substantive due process from the 1890s to the 1930s (2001), preface
  16. ^ Sabato, A More Perfect Constitution (2007)

Primary sources

  • Bailyn, Bernard, ed. The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle for Ratification. Part One: September 1787 to February 1788 (The Library of America, 1993) ISBN 0-940450-42-9
  • Bailyn, Bernard, ed. The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle for Ratification. Part Two: January to August 1788 (The Library of America, 1993) ISBN 0-940450-64-X
  • Max Farrand, ed. Records of the Federal Convention (1911)
  • Madison, James. Jonathan Elliot's Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Vol. 3: Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 as Reported by James Madison. 1989. 811 pp.
  • Pole, J. R., ed. The Federalist Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005. 512 pp.

Scholarly Studies

  • Adair, Douglass [author]; Colbourn, Trevor [editor]. Fame and the Founding Fathers: Writings of Douglass Adair. W. W. Norton for Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1974; reprint ed., Liberty Fund, 1998. Collection of essays by one of the most influential scholars on the intellectual origins of the Constitution.
  • Adams, Willi Paul. The First American Constitutions. University of North Carolina Press, 1980; revised and expanded edition, Madison House, 2000. Focusing on the state constitutions framed in the era of Revolutionary constitutionalism and their relationship to the Constitution of 1787.
  • Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. 2002. 310 pp. broad and accessible overview
  • Bernstein, Richard B., with Rice, Kym S. Are We to Be a Nation? The Making of the Constitution. Harvard University Press, 1987, 324 pp. Broad-focus overview, written for scholars and general readers alike, of the "age of experiments in government" spanning the period from the early 1750s through the early 1790s, and giving careful attention to the intellectual context and origins of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
  • Bernstein, Richard B. Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It? Times Books, 1993; paperback, University Press of Kansas, 1995. 398 pp. History of the Constitution's amending process, focusing on the links between the Constitution and American national identity and values.
  • Collier, Christopher. All Politics Is Local: Family, Friends, and Provincial Interests in the Creation of the Constitution. U. Press of New England, 2003. 224 pp.
  • Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln. Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. 1986. 331 pp.
  • Currie, David P. The Constitution in Congress: Democrats and Whigs, 1829-1861. U. of Chicago Press, 2005. 346 pp.
  • Jensen, Merrill; The New Nation a History of the United States During the Confederation 1781-1789 (1950)
  • Johnson, Allen. Union and Democracy." Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915.
  • Kernell, Samuel, ed. James Madison: The Theory and Practice of Republican Government. 2003. 381 pp.
  • Kyvig, David. Explicit & Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995. University Press of Kansas, 1996. Bancroft-Prize-winning history of the Constitution's amending process.
  • Levy, Leonard W.; Karst, Kenneth; and Mahoney, Dennis, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Constitution 4 vol (1986).
  • McDonald, Forrest. We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution. University of Chicago Press, 1958.
  • McDonald, Forrest. E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790. Reprint Edition, Liberty Fund.
  • McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. University Press of Kansas, 1995.
  • McGuire, Robert A. To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution. 2003. 395 pp.
  • Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789. 1987. 416 pp. political and economic survey of 1780s and writing of Constitution
  • Nevins, Allan. The American States During and After the Revolution, 1775-1789 (1924) (ISBN 0-678-00510-9)
  • Robertson, David Brian. "Madison's Opponents and Constitutional Design." American Political Science Review 2005 99(2): 225-243. ISSN 0003-0554. Abstract: Understanding what James Madison's opponents sought, and won, at the Constitutional Convention revises an understanding of the founders' original intentions for the durable framework that has structured American political development. The Constitution is the by-product of expedient accommodations forced on Madison. Madison sought broad national authority independent of state governments and a swift victory for population-based congressional representation. Delegates from economically disadvantaged states opposed these plans, seeking instead to nationalize only selective public goods, to maintain most state policy autonomy, and to minimize contingencies imposed by other governments. Connecticut's delegates, particularly Roger Sherman, played a pivotal role in spoiling Madison's agenda and altering his substantive plans for constitutional design. Madison's convention opponents are responsible for a Constitution that nationalized only enumerated public goods and imposed potentially high transaction costs on any further nationalization of policy authority. They helped make federalism a lasting political weapon used to win substantive policy outcomes.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1969. Massive, Bancroft-Prize-winning examination of the intellectual, constitutional, and political history of the new nation from the opening of the American Revolution to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

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