Drafting the Constitution
Even with the hard-fought victory over Britain, the survival of the young nation was still in doubt. The economy remained in shambles, there was rampant civil unrest, states were bickering with each other, and the nation lacked the ability to defend itself against foreign powers. It became apparent to the Founding Fathers that the Articles would have to be dramatically altered or replaced if the new nation was to survive.
In September of 1786, representatives from five states gathered in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss amending the Articles of Confederation. Not long after convening, however, the group realized it would require delegates from all thirteen states to give the matter proper attention, so they decided to meet again in Philadelphia the following year.
Fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to attend) arrived in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, with the purpose of creating a new and better government. The convention lasted the entire summer and was conducted in secret, as participants sought an honest exchange of ideas and compromise. As the first order of business, the delegates unanimously voted George Washington convention chair. It would be the only unanimous agreement all summer.
Virginia and New Jersey Plans
Shortly after the convention convened, Virginians James Madison and Edmund Randolph, two of the most well respected attendees, submitted a constitutional proposal called the Virginia Plan, which was a radical departure from the Articles of Confederation. At the heart of the Virginia plan was a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature with the lower house chosen by the people and the upper house chosen by the lower house. The plan also called for a national executive and judiciary, both of which were to be selected by the legislature. The Virginia Plan was a bold attempt at creating a strong central government.
Delegates suffered through brutal working conditions in the East Room at the Pennsylvania State House. With secrecy at a premium, these distinguished Americans were forced to deliberate with closed windows for the duration of the summer — one of the hottest on record. The only reprieve from the suffocating heat was an occasional after-hours deliberation at the Indian Queen, a popular local tavern.
While delegates from the large states supported the Virginia Plan, representatives from the smaller states cried foul as it became apparent that the larger states would dominate the national legislature (the number of legislative representatives would be determined by population). Other delegates feared that such a strong central government would snuff out states' rights and restrict individual liberty. After weeks of heated debate, William Patterson of New Jersey hastily submitted an alternative document dubbed the New Jersey Plan. The New Jersey Plan wasn't so much a new proposal as it was a modification of the Articles of Confederation. It called for a unicameral legislature with equal representation for each state regardless of population, a weak two-person executive branch, and a single judiciary body. Small-state delegates and weak-government proponents rallied around the New Jersey Plan, while big-state members stood firmly opposed.
The Great Compromise
Delegates were at a stalemate over the two proposals. In late July, Roger Sherman of Connecticut broke the impasse with a compromise known as the Connecticut Plan. Sherman's compromise was mostly a patchwork of both proposals. It adopted the bicameral legislature approach of the Virginia Plan (with its population-based lower chamber), and the independent upper chamber (with equal representation) of the New Jersey Plan. Small-state delegates were satisfied with the equal representation of the upper chamber (Senate), while big-state representatives took solace in the population-based lower chamber (House). A Great Compromise had been reached.
With the framework of the Constitution in place, the delegates found common ground on the remaining issues. After rancorous debate, it was decided that the slave trade would remain legal until 1808 — a twenty-one-year “winding down” period — and that escaped slaves would be returned to their owners. It was believed that slavery would eventually wind down of its own volition.
Another issue related to slavery was how to count slaves for the census. Southerners wanted people of color counted equally in determining representation in Congress (because most slaves resided in the South), while northerners argued that they shouldn't be counted at all. The delegates eventually agreed on the “three-fifths” compromise, which stated that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a free person. This decision, combined with the failure to abolish slavery, marks the greatest shortcoming of the Constitution.
The Constitution of the United States is the oldest written constitution still in use, and one of the shortest, coming in at approximately 7,000 words. The original Constitution is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
The delegates also came to agreement in selecting the chief executive. Many were opposed to having the president elected by the people, who were viewed as uneducated and uniformed. Others were adamant that the president should be chosen directly by the people. To solve the problem, the delegates came up with the Electoral College, which called for a separate body of “electors” — selected by each state's legislature — to ultimately vote for the president.
On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine of the remaining forty-two delegates signed the Constitution (some of the original fifty-five left early). The only remaining question was, would it be ratified?