U.S. Constitution Is Adopted Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Constitution of the United States of America replaced the failed Articles of Confederation, creating a new, unified nation under a tripartite federal government. Designed to create a balance of power between the government’s branches, the Constitution instituted a system of checks and balances for those branches, and while the states ceded their sovereignty to the nation, they were understood to retain all powers not explicitly granted to the nation.

Summary of Event

By the middle of the 1780’s, dissatisfaction with government under the Articles of Confederation (1781) Articles of Confederation had became evident throughout the United States. Many of those prominent in the political life of the United States—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Noah Webster, among others—in papers, letters, and conversations criticized the functioning of the Confederation Congress Confederation Congress. Specific concerns included Congress’s lack of power to tax, to regulate interstate commerce, and to force states to cooperate more effectively with the central government. All efforts to improve the Articles of Confederation seemed doomed to failure, because amendments required unanimous approval by the states. It became evident to many concerned persons that changes might best be accomplished by abandoning the Articles altogether. [kw]U.S. Constitution Is Adopted (Sept. 17, 1787) [kw]Constitution Is Adopted, U.S. (Sept. 17, 1787) Constitution, U.S. [g]United States;Sept. 17, 1787: U.S. Constitution Is Adopted[2740] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 17, 1787: U.S. Constitution Is Adopted[2740] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 17, 1787: U.S. Constitution Is Adopted[2740] Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin;U.S. Constitution [p]Madison, James Morris, Gouverneur Paterson, William Sherman, Roger Washington, George Washington, George;U.S. Constitution [p]Wilson, James

In March, 1785, a meeting of delegates from Virginia and Maryland initiated a series of meetings that culminated in the replacement of the Articles. At the March meeting, the two states worked out an agreement involving commercial regulations on the Potomac River. After the success of the meeting, Virginia called for another meeting to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, during the following year. It was hoped that the convention would provide an opportunity for those attending to discuss common problems and possible solutions. Nine states were invited, but only five sent delegates. The most important result of the Annapolis Convention (1786) Annapolis Convention was the publication of a report, probably drafted by Hamilton, Alexander Alexander Hamilton, that called for yet another convention. This one, scheduled for May, 1787, in Philadelphia, was to include delegates from all states. The purpose of the convention was to address and correct the defects in the Confederation government. Copies of the report were sent to each state legislature with a request that delegates be appointed and sent to Philadelphia.

Every state except Rhode Island honored the request and sent representatives. Seventy-four delegates were appointed to the convention, although only fifty-five attended. Thirty-nine signed the final document. The Virginia delegation was among the first to reach Philadelphia, arriving two weeks before the scheduled start of deliberations. The Virginians brought with them the outline of a plan of government that they intended to offer to the convention. The plan, considered quite controversial at the time, proposed creating a new national government. The Virginians sought a strong government that would include three branches and a sophisticated system of checks and balances. During the days before the convention began, several of the Virginia delegates, particularly James Madison, conferred with other early arrivals to hone their plan.

The convention first met on May 25 and appointed George Washington as the presiding officer. The selection was significant, because Washington was held in high regard by the American people. The presence of Benjamin Franklin, who at eighty-one years of age was the oldest delegate, also added prestige to the gathering. With two such notable figures participating, the American public anticipated notable results.

Debate, revision, and other work continued for nearly four months at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Delegates adopted a finished U.S. Constitution in September of 1787.

(C.A. Nichols & Company)

On May 29, with the convention only four days old, the Virginia delegation proposed a series of resolutions that immediately were known as the Virginia Plan Virginia Plan. Drafted largely by James Madison and introduced by Randolph, Edmund Edmund Randolph, the plan argued that, rather than merely revise the Articles of Confederation, the convention should discard them altogether and create a constitution that embodied an entirely new frame of government. The proposed government would have far more authority than did the confederated administration, and it would not be subordinate to each state government. The proposals set off a fierce debate that dominated the convention throughout most of June. On one side were delegates who endorsed the Virginia Plan. On the other side were delegates who feared that a powerful national government might jeopardize many of the rights and liberties won during the Revolutionary War.

As the debate intensified, delegates from several of the smaller states devised a series of resolutions designed to counter the Virginia Plan. Introduced by William Paterson from New Jersey, the resolutions became known as the New Jersey Plan New Jersey Plan. These proposals rejected the need for a new national government and called instead for the convention to retain, but significantly revise, the existing confederated government.

Among the more active delegates in favor of establishing a strong federal government were James Madison and Mason, George George Mason from Virginia, James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris from Pennsylvania, Dickinson, John John Dickinson from Delaware, Rutledge, John John Rutledge and Pinckney, Charles Charles Pinckney from South Carolina, and Ellsworth, Oliver Oliver Ellsworth from Connecticut. In addition to Paterson, the leading supporters of the New Jersey Plan included Roger Sherman from Connecticut, Gerry, Elbridge Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts, and Martin, Luther Luther Martin from Maryland.

For almost a month, delegates intensely deliberated over the two plans. In late June, with the convention on the verge of dissolution, Benjamin Franklin implored the delegates to find a common ground. Spurred on by Franklin’s pleas, the convention agreed to discard the Articles of Confederation and create a constitution that would embody a strong national government. With the initial differences resolved, other aspects of both the Virginia and New Jersey Plans were debated throughout the summer.

Central to the discussions was the concern of less populated states, such as Connecticut and Maryland, that they would lose all power and authority to the national government if representation within the new government were determined exclusively according to population. Responding to these concerns, proponents of the national government agreed to create a dual system of representation within Congress: Membership in the House of Representatives would be determined according to population; in the Senate, each state, regardless of the size of its population, would be given two members. It also was agreed that before a bill could become a law, both houses of Congress would have to approve it.

The agreement concerning representation within the legislative branch, sometimes referred to as the Great Compromise (1785) Great Compromise, reflected the spirit of concession that marked convention proceedings during the late summer months. Many other issues, including the length of presidential terms, the electoral procedure, the responsibilities of the judicial branch, the amendment process, and slavery within the new nation, tested the delegates’ ability to negotiate and cooperate. In the end, the document could not be considered the work of any one group or faction of delegates. It had become a synthesis of the plans of all the delegates.

In September, Gouverneur Morris, an outspoken Pennsylvania delegate, became chair of a committee that was instructed to write a final draft of the Constitution. After some preliminary discussions about style and content, the document was formally presented to the convention on September 17. Although few delegates agreed to all revisions, a large majority found the document as a whole acceptable. Signed by thirty-nine delegates, the Constitution was declared adopted “by unanimous consent.” Upon endorsement by the convention, the Constitution was submitted to each state legislature for ratification. In late June, 1788, approval by nine states, the number required for ratification, was reached and implementation of the new national government began.

Significance

Since its ratification, the U.S. Constitution has formed the highest law in the nation it created. Its system of checks and balances, designed to ensure that no portion of the government is capable of exercising power tyrannically or dominating another portion, is complemented by the Bill of Rights, ratified December 15, 1791, which helps to ensure that a majority of the people of the United States cannot rule tyrannically over a minority. These safeguards against tyranny, especially against the tyranny of the majority, form the central philosophical impetus of the Constitution and are the primary reason for its continued standing as a model for such documents throughout the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, 2002. A history of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, describing the conflicts and compromises among delegates, the disagreements between federalists and advocates of states’ rights, and the development of the document itself. Contains one hundred pages of appendices, including the full text of the Constitution and brief biographies of convention delegates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conley, Patrick, and John Kaminski, eds. The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1988. A unique look at how each state reacted to the proposed Constitutional Convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farrand, Max. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. 4 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966. The definitive set of primary source documents for the convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, Merrill. The Making of the American Constitution. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1964. A brief but excellent account of the creation of the Constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kammen, Michael. A Machine That Would Go of Itself. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Examines the cultural impact of the U.S. Constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonald, Forrest.“Novus Ordo Seclorum”: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985. Discusses the traditions and attitudes from which the Constitution was conceived.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, William. A More Perfect Union: The Making of the United States Constitution. New York: Crown, 1987. A narrative account of the events involved in the creation of the U.S. Constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1996. Examines the concerns that shaped constitutional decision making in the late 1780’s, exploring federalism, representative, executive power, rights, and other issues confronting delegates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Gordon. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. A definitive work that explores the ideological foundations of the Constitution.

Proclamation of 1763

Stamp Act Crisis

Townshend Crisis

Boston Massacre

Boston Tea Party

First Continental Congress

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Second Continental Congress

Declaration of Independence

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

Treaty of Paris

Publication of The Federalist

Washington’s Inauguration

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

John Dickinson; Benjamin Franklin; Alexander Hamilton; John Jay; Thomas Jefferson; James Madison; Gouverneur Morris; Roger Sherman; George Washington; James Wilson. Constitution, U.S.

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