Four years after the United States won its independence from England, delegates convened in Philadelphia to compose a new U.S. Constitution.  The current constitution, The Articles of Confederation, ratified several months before the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, provided for a loose confederation of U.S. states, which totally were sovereign in most of their affairs. On paper, Congress Assembled, central government of all “These United States” (as opposed to “The United States”, had the power to govern foreign affairs, conduct war, and regulate currency.  In practice these powers were sharply limited because Congress was given no authority to enforce its laws.  Requests to the states for money or troops were simply ignored. By 1786, it was apparent that the union would soon break up if the Articles of Confederation were not amended or replaced. Five states met in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the issue, and all the states were invited to send delegates to a new constitutional convention to be held in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787.

Fifty-five delegates, representing all of the states except Rhode Island, attended the convention.  Philadelphia, the biggest city in the United States and geographically central to the 13 States was chosen as the location for discussions on how to amend the Articles of Confederation.  The convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787, at the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall). During these three months of debate, the delegates discussed all the problems that had arisen under the Articles of Confederation such as the need to pay off the war debt from the American Revolutionary War (which required a federal authority to tax), how to regulate commerce between the states, how to deal with foreign policy problems such as opening the Mississippi River to American navigation and expelling British troops from several forts in the Northwest Territory, and the injustices of the state governments acting through unchecked legislatures against the broader national interests.

This was not the first meeting of a Constitutional Convention to discuss these issues.  In in September 1786, an earlier convention that met in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss giving Congress control of commerce.  Disputes over territory, war pensions, taxation, and trade threatened to tear the country apart.  Several of the States were on the brink of economic disaster and potential internal warfare. Vast lands in the Northwest Territories were ceded by Britain as part of the Treaty of Versailles and several states had overlapping claims (some even claimed parts of existing states creating huge territorial disputes) the central government had little power to settle these quarrels.  Ultimately this congress resolved that the problems with the Articles of Confederation were unfixable and a new constitution was required. 

The 1787 Constitutional Convention devised a new federal system, characterized by a system of checks and balances, which shifted the center of power from States, strengthening the federal government.  This new constitution created separate, coequal executive, legislative, and judicial branches so that no function within the government would be able to enact laws or drive policies independently (thus avoiding the tyranny that caused the American Revolution).  These systems and structures were similar to the governing principles adopted independently in each of the States but the delegates remaind divided over the issue of state representation in Congress and slavery.  The more populated states sought proportional legislation while the smaller states feared their needs would be underrepresented and wanted equal representation. Eventually these problems were resolved by creating a bicameral legislature with proportional representation, the House of Representatives, and equal representation of the states in the Senate.  Slavery was allowed but those slaves were counted at a lower rate (three fifths) when determining representation. 

Despite all these agreements and compromises, several states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document, as it failed to reserve un-delegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press.  In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which Massachusetts and other states would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, and it was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789.  By November 1789, twelve of the thirteen States had ratified the U.S. Constitution.  Only Rhode Island, which opposed federal control of currency and was critical of compromise on the issue of slavery, resisted ratifying the Constitution until the U.S. government threatened to sever commercial relations with the state.  On September 25, 1789, the first Congress adopted 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution–the Bill of Rights–and sent them to the states for ratification. Ten of these amendments were ratified in 1791.

The resulting United States Constitution is currently the world’s oldest written national constitution which is still in use.  Other countries have copied this system. The American “experiment” in republican or representative democracy is the most enduring democracy in history.  After being ratified by the American people, the Constitution began operation in 1789 in New York City with the convening of the First Congress and the inauguration of George Washington as the first president.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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