U.S. Constitution: 1787-1789
The Constitution of the United States is the foundation of our Federal Government. It is often called the supreme law of the land; no law may be passed that contradicts its principles. At the same time, it is flexible and allows for changes in the Government. The Constitution is known as a “living” document because it can be amended, although in over 200 years there have only been 27 amendments.
The Constitution is organized into three parts. The first part, the Preamble, describes the purpose of the document and the Federal Government. The second part, the seven Articles, establishes how the Government is structured and how the Constitution can be changed. The third part, the Amendments, lists changes to the Constitution; the first 10 are called the Bill of Rights.
The Constitution established a Federal democratic republic. It is the system of the Federal Government; it is democratic because the people govern themselves; and it is a republic because the Government’s power is derived from its people.
The purpose of our Federal Government, as found in the Preamble of the Constitution, is to “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.” The Founding Fathers established three main principles on which our Government is based:
- Inherent rights, or rights that anyone living in America has
- Self-government, or Government by the people
- Separation of powers, or branches of Government with separate powers
After the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the states were functioning under the Articles of Confederation, but the Articles provided little guidance to the states. In September of 1786, there was a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, where representatives from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania met to see what they could do about trade barriers set up among the states. The system of government set up by the Articles of Confederation did not regulate trade among states and needed to be changed.
From Colonial Rule to Independence
For thousands of years, North America was populated mainly by Native Americans and was mostly unknown to Europe. In the 1500s, Europeans began arriving in North America; they found a land with many natural resources and began to claim parts of it. While the French moved into the north and the Spanish settled in the south and west, the British founded colonies on the east coast.
The British settlers came to these new lands for many reasons. Some wanted to make money or set up trade with their home country while others wanted religious freedom. In the early 1600s, the British king began establishing colonies in America. By the 1700s, most of the settlements had formed into 13 British colonies: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.
The colonists, or people living in the colonies, were unhappy about paying taxes without having any say in their government. This unhappiness would eventually lead to a clash between the Americans and the British and lead to the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). When the British were defeated at the end of the war, America was free to take the first steps toward creating a new system of government.
Before the American Revolutionary War, each state had its own constitution, which gave people certain rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press. During the war, the 13 colonies united to free themselves from British rule. The states were very different from each other, but they realized that in order to grow and prosper, they needed to form a union.
The states joined together to set up a central covernment. Delegates from each state met and a plan for unity was initially submitted at the Second Continental Congress on July 12, 1776. After much debate, on November 15, 1777, the states finally established a “firm league of friendship” that became known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles, however, did not go into effect until March 1, 1781.
In September of 1786, there was a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland where representatives from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania met to see what they could do about trade problems among the states. As time passed it became clear that changes to this system of government had to be made.
The Constitutional Convention
A convention of delegates from all the states except Rhode Island met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in May of 1787. Known as the Constitutional Convention, at this meeting it was decided that the best solution to the young country’s problems was to set aside the Articles of Confederation and write a new constitution. George Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention.
The delegates, or representatives for the states, debated for months over what would be included in the Constitution. Some states were in favor of a strong central government, while other states were opposed. Large states felt that they should have more representation in Congress, while small states wanted equal representation with larger ones.
Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, proposed a legislature with two parts; states would have equal representation in the Senate, and the population of states would determine representation in the House of Representatives. This created a bicameral legislative branch, which gave equal representation to each State in the Senate, and representation based on population in the House. Small states feared they would be ignored if representation was based on population while large states believed that their larger populations deserved more of a voice. Under the bicameral system, each party would be represented in a balance of power. Each state would be equally represented in the Senate, with two delegates, while representation in the House of Representatives would be based upon population. The delegates finally agreed to this “Great Compromise,” which is also known as the Connecticut Compromise.
The Constitution also created an executive branch and a judicial branch, which set up a system of checks and balances. All three branches would have a distribution of power so that no one branch could become more powerful than another. Early on, Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented the Virginia Plan, which provided for a national government with three branches. The legislative branch would make laws, the executive branch would provide leadership and enforce laws, and the judicial branch would explain and interpret laws.
Like the issue of political representation, commerce and slavery were two issues that divided the Northern and Southern states. Southern states exported goods and raw materials and feared that the Northern states would take unfair advantage. The South finally agreed not to require two-thirds passage in both houses to regulate commerce. The North agreed that the slave trade could continue until 1808. In addition, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for representation in the House of Representatives; this was known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise.”
Nationality requirements and ways to amend and ratify the Constitution were also addressed. Senators would have to be citizens for nine years and Representatives for seven years, and the President must be native-born to be eligible to hold office. In order to make changes or amendments to the Constitution, nine of the 13 states would have to vote to ratify before an amendment could become law.
The Federalist Papers: 1787-1788
Shortly after the end of the Constitutional Convention, a national debate began about whether or not to ratify the Constitution. Newspapers nationwide published essays both for and against ratification Those who supported ratification of the Constitution were known as Federalists.
The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, that appeared in New York newspapers, primarily, the Independent Journal and the New York Packet, between October of 1787 and August of 1788. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison did not sign their names to the essays; they chose to publish using assumed names such as Publius, which was a reference to a Roman consul, Publius Valerius Publicola. The essays urged New York delegates to ratify the Constitution. In 1788, the essays were published in a bound volume entitled the Federalist and eventually became known as the Federalist Papers.
Some people felt that the Constitution would give the central government too much power and would limit individual freedom. To address these fears, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison analyzed the Constitution in detail and outlined the built in checks and balances meant to divide power between the three branches of government and preserve the rights of the people and states.
Even though they did not play a significant role in New York’s decision to ratify the Constitution, the Federalist Papers remain an important collection today because they offer insight into the intentions of key individuals who debated the elements of the Constitution.
To learn more, see the Federalist Papers site at the Library of Congress.
States and Dates of Ratification
On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was finally accepted by the delegates. It did not contain any sort of Bill of Rights, even though that question had been heavily debated. Of the 42 delegates still present at the convention when it was finished, 39 signed the Constitution. Only Governor Edmund Randolph (Virginia), George Mason (Virginia), and Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts) declined to sign.
But their work was not yet done. Nine states needed to vote for the Constitution for it to be ratified, and each state was given six months to convene and vote on the proposed Constitution. On December 7, 1787, Delaware was the first state to vote in favor of, or ratify it. New Hampshire became the ninth state to accept the Constitution on June 21, 1788, thus ending government under the Articles of Confederation. It was not until May 29, 1790, that the last state, Rhode Island, finally ratified the Constitution.
The states and dates of ratification are as follows, in order of ratification:
- Delaware: December 7, 1787
- Pennsylvania: December 12, 1787
- New Jersey: December 18, 1787
- Georgia: January 2, 1788
- Connecticut: January 9, 1788
- Massachusetts: February 6, 1788
- Maryland: April 28, 1788
- South Carolina: May 23, 1788
- New Hampshire: June 21, 1788 (With this state’s ratification, the Constitution became legal.)
- Virginia: June 25, 1788
- New York: July 26, 1788
- North Caroline: November 21, 1788
- Rhode Island: May 29, 1790 (Rhode Island did not hold a Constitutional Convention.)
Ways to Amend the Constitution
Under Article V of the Constitution, there are two ways to propose amendments to the Constitution and two ways to be ratified by the states. To propose amendments, two-thirds of both houses of Congress can vote to propose an amendment, or two-thirds of the state legislatures can ask Congress to call a national convention to propose amendments. To ratify amendments, three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve them, or ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states must approve them.
The Supreme Court has said that ratification must be within “some reasonable time after the proposal.” Beginning with the 18th amendment, Congress traditionally set a definite period for ratification. In the case of the 18th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd amendments, the period set was seven years, but there has been no determination as to just how long a “reasonable time” might extend.
U.S. Constitution Facts and Figures
- The Constitutional Convention met at the State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, also known as Independence Hall.
- There were 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention; however, only 39 signed the document.
- Twelve of the thirteen states were represented; Rhode Island did not send delegates to the Convention.
- The Constitution became law on June 21, 1788, after two-thirds of the states ratified it.
- Not all the states had ratified the Constitution by April 30, 1789, when George Washington became the first President of the United States.
- George Washington was President of the Constitutional Convention.
- Benjamin Franklin, 81, was the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention; Jonathan Dayton, 26, was the youngest.
- The structure of the document has not changed since it was written.
- Of the thousands of proposals that have been made to amend the Constitution, only 33 have been sent to the States for ratification; of those, only 27 amendments have been ratified.
To learn more, and to read the full text of the Constitution, see the Constitution of the United States site at the National Archives and the United States Constitution site at the Library of Congress.