The Creation of the U.S. Constitution

Following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the newly independent American Colonies needed to form their own standard of government. In 1777, the Second Continental Congress wrote the Articles of Confederation and they were ratified March 1, 1781.

Under the Articles of Confederation, there was no central government, no executive or judicial branch. The government did not coin money, tax citizens, regulate trade, or have a military. It was up to each state to govern these things individually.

By 1787, it was apparent the new country needed a stronger form of central government. The country was bankrupt, having no treasury and extensive war debts; it had no centralized military and was open to attack; and there was no means of settling disagreement between the states.

On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia. The delegates elected George Washington of Virginia to preside over the convention. They began discussing ways to revise the Articles of Confederation to make it stronger.

Delegate Edmund Randolph, Governor of Virginia, introduced the Virginia Plan on May 29, 1787. Primarily written by James Madison, the plan outlined three branches of government, with a system of checks and balances preventing abuse of power by any one branch, as well as a bicameral legislature with representatives members based on state population.

The Virginia Plan was debated for more than two weeks, but the smaller states, fearing the loss of rights presented by a population-based legislature, wrote their own plan. William Paterson introduced the New Jersey Plan on June 15, 1787.

Under the Articles of Confederation, there was one Congress comprised of two to seven members from each state, but each state had only one vote. The New Jersey Plan was most notable for retaining an equal number of votes for each state regardless of its size and population.

Because each state had one vote, the delegates from a state had to be in agreement. Alexander Hamilton, one of three delegates from New York, was frequently overruled by the other two delegates from his state. Out of frustration, he proposed his own plan on June 18, 1787, known as the Hamilton Plan, or the British Plan, because it proposed a system of government much like Britain’s. His plan was not given serious consideration; it had been only a decade since America escaped British rule.

Heated debate continued over representation in Congress. The larger states favored the Virginia Plan, the smaller states the New Jersey Plan. By the end of June, there were serious threats to dissolve the convention without a resolution. On June 29, 1787, Roger Sherman, a well-respected delegate from Connecticut, proposed the Great Compromise: two legislative houses, one with equal representation for each state, and one with representation based on population. This solution was ultimately adopted and the convention moved forward.

The newly-drafted Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787 and sent to the state legislatures for ratification. It became effective on June 21, 1788 when it was ratified by New Hampshire, the ninth state needed to complete a three-fourths majority. The remaining states continued to hesitate because the original Constitution did not contain a Bill of Rights.

The delegates represented the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Federalists favored a strong central government that limited states rights, and the Anti-Federalists feared a too-powerful central government that would restrict state and individual liberties.

The debate for and against the inclusion of a bill of rights continued, until September of 1789 when the First Federal Congress submitted a list of twelve amendments to the states for ratification. The first two items were not ratified; the remaining ten became the Bill of Rights.

Today, the Constitution is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. This historic document has served as the foundation for the United States government for more than two hundred years.