The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14

Author: Andrew W. Young  | Date: A.D. 1787

Framing of the Constitution of the United States

A.D. 1787


It was a "critical period of American history" in which the fundamental or organic law of the United States, the Federal Constitution, was formulated. That instrument has not only commanded the reverence of American patriots-statesmen and people-during a century and more; it has engaged the attentive study and aroused the respect and admiration of foreign students and critics of political institutions. After All deductions," says Bryce, it ranks above every other written constitution, for the intrinsic excellence of its scheme, its adaptation to the circumstances of the people, the simplicity, brevity, and precision of its language, its judicious mixture of definiteness in principle with elasticity in details."

The story of this Constitution is as plain and simple as any in American annals; yet its real features have sometimes been missed even by friendly commentators. It is a mistake to say, with Gladstone, that it is the greatest work ever struck off at any one time by the mind and purpose of man," for the true record of its making shows how deliberate and difficult the process was. Equally misleading is the judgment of so profound a master in legal history as Sir Henry Sumner Maine, when he says that the Constitution of the United States is a modified version of the British Constitution which was in existence between 1760 and 1787."

A juster view is held by the critical scholars of America, a view which indeed should be deducible, without need of special scholarship, from the recorded history of the Constitutional period. "The real source of the Constitution," says a living American historian, is the experience of Americans. They had established and developed admirable little commonwealths in the colonies; since the beginning of the Revolution they had had experience of State governments organized on a different basis from the colonial; and, finally, they had carried on two successive national governments, with which they had been profoundly discontented. The general outline of the new Constitution seems to be English; it was really colonial."

From the year 1775 there was a federal union in which each colony regulated its internal affairs by its own constitution, while the general affairs of the union were controlled by the Continental Congress. This mode was substantially continued after the colonies (1776-1779) became States, with new State constitutions. It was not finally superseded until the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777, had been ratified by all the separate colonies or States. Under the articles a new government went into effect March 1, 1781.

The Articles of Confederation proving inadequate to the requirements of the Federal Government, it came to be seen that a general revision of them was needed, and a convention for that purpose was called. This convention went beyond its original purpose, which proved impracticable, and took upon itself the task of framing wholly anew the present Constitution of the United States. The following accounts furnish the reader with the circumstances which directly led to the calling of the convention, and with a clear and concise report of its proceedings and the subsequent action thereon taken by the States.

ANDREW W. YOUNGTHE day appointed for the assembling of the Convention1

to revise the Articles of Confederation was May 14, 1787. Delegations from a majority of the States did not attend until the 25th, on which day the business of the convention commenced. The delegates from New Hampshire did not arrive until July 23d. Rhode Island did not appoint delegates.

A political body combining greater talents, wisdom, and patriotism, or whose labors have produced results more beneficial to the cause of civil and religious liberty, has probably never assembled. The two most distinguished members were Washington and Franklin, to whom the eyes of the convention were directed for a presiding officer. Washington, having been nominated by Lewis Morris, of Pennsylvania, was elected president of the convention. William Jackson was appointed secretary. The rules of proceeding adopted by the convention were chiefly the same as those of Congress. A quorum was to consist of the deputies of at least seven States, and all questions were to be decided by the greater number of those which were fully represented-at least two delegates being necessary to constitute a full representation. Another rule was the injunction of secrecy upon all their proceedings.

The first important question determined by the convention was, whether the confederation should be amended or a new government formed? The delegates of some States had been instructed only to amend. And the resolution of Congress sanctioning a call for a convention recommended it "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." A majority, however, considering the plan of confederation radically defective, resolved to form "a national government, consisting of a supreme judicial, legislative, and executive." The objection to the new system on the ground of previous instructions was deemed of little weight, as any plan that might be agreed on would necessarily be submitted to the people of the States for ratification.

In conformity with this decision Edmund Randolph, of Virginia, on May 29th, offered fifteen resolutions, containing the outlines of a plan of government for the consideration of the convention. These resolutions proposed: That the voice of each State in the National Legislature should be in proportion to its taxes or to its free population; that the Legislature should consist of two branches, the members of the fiat to be elected by the people of the States, those of the second to be chosen by the members of the first, out of a proper number of persons nominated by the State legislatures; and the National Legislature to be vested with all the powers of "Congress under the Confederation," with the additional power to legislate in all cases to which the separate States were incompetent; to negative all State laws which should, in the opinion of the National Legislature, be repugnant to the Articles of Union or to any treaty subsisting under them; to call out the force of the Union against any State refusing to fulfil its duty:

That there should be a national executive, to be chosen by the National Legislature, and to be ineligible a second time. The executive, with a convenient number of the national judiciary, was to constitute a council of revision, with a qualified negative upon all laws, State and national:

A national judiciary, the judges to hold their offices during good behavior.

In discussing this plan, called the "Virginia plan," the lines of party were distinctly drawn. We have already had occasion to allude to the jealousy, on the part of States, of the power of the General Government. A majority of the peculiar friends of State rights in the convention were from the small States. These States, apprehending danger from the overwhelming power of a strong national government, as well as from the combined power of the large States, represented in proportion to their wealth and population, were unwilling to be deprived of their equal vote in Congress. Not less strenuously did the friends of the national plan insist on a proportional representation. This opposition of sentiment, which divided the convention into parties, did not terminate with the proceedings of that body, but has at times marked the politics of the nation down to the present day. It is worthy of remark, however, that the most jealous regard for State rights now prevails in States in which the plan of a national government then found its ablest and most zealous advocates.

The plan suggested by Randolph’s resolutions was the subject of deliberation for about two weeks, when, having been in several respects modified in committee, and reduced to form, it was reported to the House. It contained the following provisions:

A national legislature to consist of two branches, the first to be elected by the people for three years; the second to be chosen by the State legislatures for seven years, the members of both branches to be apportioned on the basis finally adopted; the Legislature to possess powers nearly the same as those originally proposed by Edmund Randolph. The executive was to consist of a single person to be chosen by the National Legislature for seven years, and limited toga single term, and to have a qualified veto; all bills not approved by him to be passed by a vote of three-fourths of both Houses in order to become laws. A national judiciary to consist of a supreme court, the judges to be appointed by the second branch of the Legislature for the term of good behavior, and of such inferior courts as Congress might think proper to establish.

This plan being highly objectionable to the State rights party, a scheme agreeable to their views was submitted by Wilham Paterson, of New Jersey. This scheme, called the "New Jersey plan," proposed no alteration in the constitution of the Legislature, but simply to give it the additional power to raise a revenue by duties on foreign goods imported, and by stamp and postage taxes; to regulate trade with foreign nations and among the States; and, when requisitions made upon the States were not complied with, to collect them by its own authority. The plan proposed a federal executive, to consist of a number of persons selected by Congress; and a federal judiciary, the judges to be appointed by the executive, and to hold their offices during good behavior.

The Virginia and New Jersey plans were now (June 19th) referred to a new committee of the whole. Another debate arose, in which the powers of the convention was the principal subject of discussion. It was again urged that their power had been, by express instruction, limited to an amendment of the existing confederation, and that the new system would not be adopted by the States. The vote was taken on the 19th, and the propositions of William Paterson were rejected; only New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voting in the affirmative; seven States in the negative, and the members from Maryland equally divided.

Randolph’s propositions, as modified and reported by the committee of the whole, were now taken up and considered separately. The division of the Legislature into two branches, a House of Representatives and a Senate, was agreed to almost unanimously, one State only, Pennsylvania, dissenting; but the proposition to apportion the members to the States according to population was violently opposed. The small States insisted strenuously on retaining an equal vote in the Legislature, but at length consented to a proportional representation in the House on condition that they should have an equal vote in the Senate.

Accordingly, on June 29th, Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut, offered a motion, "that in the second branch, each State shall have an equal vote." This motion gave rise to a protracted and vehement debate. It was supported by Messrs. Ellsworth; Baldwin, of Georgia; Bradford, of Delaware, and others. It was urged on the ground of the necessity of a compromise between the friends of the confederation and those of a national government, and as a measure which would secure tranquillity and meet the objections’ of the larger States. Equal representation in one branch would make the government partly federal, and a proportional representation in the other would make it partly national. Equality in the second branch would enable the small States to protect themselves against the combined power of the large States. Fears were expressed that without this advantage to the small States, it would be in the power of a few large States to control the rest. The small States, it was said, must possess this power of self-defence, or be ruined.

The motion was opposed by Messrs. Madison, Wilson, of Pennsylvania; King, of Massachusetts, and Dr. Franklin. Mr. Madison thought there was no danger from the quarter from which it was apprehended. The great source of danger to the General Government was the opposing interests of the North and the South, as would appear from the votes of Congress, which had been divided by geographical lines, not according to the size of the States. James Wilson objected to State equality; that it would enable one-fourth of the Union to control three-fourths. Respecting the danger of the three larger States combining together to give rise to a monarchy or an aristocracy, he thought it more probable that a rivalship would exist between them than that they would unite in a confederacy. Rufus King said the rights of Scotland were secure from all danger, though in the Parliament she had a small representation. Dr. Franklin, now in his eighty-second year, said, as it was not easy to see what the greater States could gain by swallowing up the smaller, he did not apprehend they would attempt it. In voting by States-the mode then existing-it was equally in the power of the smaller States to swallow up the greater. He thought the number of representatives ought to bear some proportion to the number of the represented.

On July 2d the question was taken on Mr. Ellsworth’s motion, and lost: Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland voting in the affirmative; Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in the negative; Georgia divided. It will be remembered that the delegates from New Hampshire were not yet present, and that Rhode Island had appointed none. This has been regarded by some at a fortunate circumstance, as the votes of these two small States would probably have given an equal vote to the States in both Houses, if not have defeated the plan of national government.

The excitement now became intense, and the convention seemed to be on the point of dissolution. Luther Martin, of Maryland, who had taken a leading part in advocating the views of the State rights party, said each State must have an equal vote, or the business of the convention was at an end. It having become apparent that this unhappy result could be avoided only by a compromise, Roger Sherman, of Connecticut, moved the appointment of a committee of conference, to consist of one member from each State, and the motion prevailed. The convention then adjourned for three days, thus giving time for consultation, and an opportunity to celebrate the anniversary of independence.

The report of this committee, which was made on July 5th, proposed: (1) That in the first branch of the Legislature each State should have one representative for every forty thousand inhabitants (three-fifths of the slaves being counted); that each State not containing that number should be allowed one representative; and that money bills should originate in this branch; (2) that in the second branch each State should have one vote. These propositions were reported, it is said, at the suggestion of Dr. Franklin, one of the committee of conference.

The report, of course, met with greater favor from the State rights party than from their opponents. The equal vote in the Senate continued to receive the most determined opposition from the National party. In relation to the rule of representation in the first branch of the Legislature, also, a great diversity of opinion prevailed. The conflicting interests to be reconciled in the settlement of this question, however, were those of the Northern and Southern, commercial and planting, rather than the imaginary interests of small and large States.

In settling a rule of apportionment, several questions were to be considered: What should be the number of representatives in the first branch of the Legislature? Ought the number from each State to be fixed, or to increase with the increase of population? Ought population alone to be the basis of apportionment, or should property be taken into account? Whatever rule might be adopted, no apportionment founded upon population could be made until an enumeration of the inhabitants should have been taken. The number of representatives was, therefore, for the time being, fixed at sixty-five, and apportioned as directed by the Constitution.

In establishing a rule of future apportionment, great diversity of opinion was expressed. Although slavery then existed in all the States except Massachusetts, the great mass of the slave population was in the Southern States. These States claimed a representation according to numbers, bond and free, while the Northern States were in favor of a representation according to the number of free persons only. This rule was forcibly urged by several of the Northern delegates. Mr. Paterson regarded slaves only as property. They were not represented in the States; why should they be in the General Government? They were not allowed to vote; why should they be represented? It was an encouragement of the slave trade. Said Mr. Wilson: "Are they admitted as citizens? Then why not on an equality with citizens? Are they admitted as property? Then why is not other property admitted into the computation?" A large portion of the members of the convention, from both sections of the Union, aware that neither extreme could be carried, favored the proposition to count the whole number of free citizens and three-fifths of all others.

Prior to this discussion, a select committee, to whom this subject had been referred, had reported in favor of a distribution of the members on the basis of wealth and numbers, to be regulated by the Legislature. Before the question was taken on this report, a proviso was moved and agreed to that direct taxes should be in proportion to representation. Subsequently a proposition was moved for reckoning three-fifths of the slaves in estimating taxes, and making taxation the basis of representation, which was adopted, New Jersey and Delaware against it, Massachusetts and South Carolina divided; New York not represented, her three delegates being all absent. Yates and Lansing, both of the State rights party, considering their powers explicitly confined to a revision of the confederation, and being chagrined at the defeat of their attempts to secure an equal vote in the first branch of the Legislature, had left the convention, not to return. From that time (July 11th) New York had no vote in the convention. Alexander Hamilton had left before the others, to be absent six weeks; and though he returned and took part in the deliberations, the State, not having two delegates present, was not entitled to a vote. On the 23d Gilman and Langdon, the delegates from New Hampshire, arrived, when eleven States were again represented.

The term of service of members of the first branch was reduced to two years, and of those of the second branch to six years; one-third of the members of the latter to go out of office every two years; the representation in this body to consist of two members from each State, voting individually, as in the other branch, and not by States, as under the confederation. Sundry other modifications were made in the provisions relating to this department.

The reported plan of the executive department was next considered. After much discussion, and several attempts to strike out the ineligibility of the executive a second time, and to change the term of office and the mode of election, these provisions were retained.

The report of the committee of the whole, as amended, was accepted by the convention, and, together with the New Jersey plan, and a third drawn by Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, was referred to a committee of detail, consisting of Messrs. Rutledge, Randolph, Gorham, Ellsworth, and Wilson, who, on August 6th, after an adjournment of ten days, reported the Constitution in proper form, having inserted some new provisions and altered certain others. Our prescribed limits forbid a particular account of the subsequent alterations which the Constitution received before it was finally adopted by the convention. There is one provision, however, which, as it forms one of the great "Compromises of the Constitution," deserves notice.

To render the Constitution acceptable to the Southern States, which were the principal exporting States, the committee of detail had inserted a clause providing that no duties should be laid on exports, or on slaves imported; and another, that no navigation act might be passed except by a two-thirds vote. By depriving Congress of the power of giving any preference to American over foreign shipping, it was designed to secure cheap transportation to Southern exports. As the shipping was principally owned in the Eastern States, their delegates were equally anxious to prevent any restriction of the power of Congress to pass navigation laws. All the States, except North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, had prohibited the importation of slaves; and North Carolina had proceeded so far as to discourage the importation by heavy duties. The prohibition of duties on the importation of slaves was demanded by the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, who declared that, without a provision of this kind, the Constitution would not receive the assent of these States. The support which the proposed restriction received from other States was given to it from a disposition to compromise, rather than from an approval of the measure itself. The proposition not only gave rise to a discussion of its own merits, but revived the opposition to the apportionment of representatives according to the three-fifths ratio, and called forth some severe denunciations of slavery.

Rufus King, in reference to the admission of slaves as a part of the representative population, remarked: "He had not made a strenuous opposition to it heretofore because he had hoped that this concession would have produced a readiness, which had not been manifested, to strengthen the General Government. The report of the committee put an end to all these hopes. The importation of slaves could not be prohibited; exports could not be taxed. If slaves are to be imported, shall not the exports produced by their labor supply a revenue to help the government defend their masters? There was so much inequality and unreasonableness in all this that the people of the Northern States could never be reconciled to it. He had hoped that some accommodation would have taken place on the subject; that at least a time would have been limited for the importation of slaves. He could never agree to let them be imported without limitation, and then be represented in the National Legislature. Either slaves should not be represented, or exports should be taxable."

Gouverneur Morris pronounced slavery "a nefarious institution. It was the curse of Heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other States having slaves. Travel through the whole continent, and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The admission of slaves into the representation, when fairly explained, comes to this, that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina, who goes to the coast of Africa in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow-creatures from their dearest connections, and damns them to the most cruel bondage, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind, than the citizen of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.

"And what is the proposed compensation to the Northern States for a sacrifice of every principle of right, every impulse of humanity? They are to bind themselves to march their militia for the defence of the Southern States, against those very slaves of whom they complain. The Legislature will have indefinite power to tax them by excises and duties on imports, both of which will fall heavier on them than on the Southern inhabitants; for the Bohea tea used by a Northern freeman will pay more tax than the whole consumption of the miserable slave, which consists of nothing more than his physical subsistence and the rag which covers his nakedness. On the other side, the Southern States are not to be restrained from importing fresh supplies of wretched Africans, at once to increase the danger of attack and the difficulty of defence; nay, they are to be encouraged to it by an assurance of having their votes in the National Government increased in proportion, and, at the same time, are to have their slaves and their exports exempt from all contributions to the public service." Gouverneur Morris moved to make the free population alone the basis of representation.

Roger Sherman, who had on other occasions manifested a disposition to compromise, again favored the Southern side. He "did not regard the admission of the negroes as liable to such insuperable objections. It was the freemen of the Southern States who were to be represented according to the taxes paid by them, and the negroes are only included in the estimate of the taxes."

After some further discussion the question was taken upon Morris’ motion, and lost, New Jersey only voting for it.

With respect to prohibiting any restriction upon the importation of slaves, Luther Martin, of Maryland, who moved to allow a tax upon slaves imported, remarked: "As five slaves in the apportionment of representatives were reckoned as equal to three freemen, such a permission amounted to an encouragement of the slave trade. Slaves weakened the Union which the other parts were bound to protect; the privilege of importing them was therefore unreasonable. Such a feature in the Constitution was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character."

John Rutledge "did not see how this section would encourage the importation of slaves. He was not apprehensive of insurrections, and would readily exempt the other States from every obligation to protect the South. Religion and humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principIe with nations. The true question at present is, whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union? If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of slaves, which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers."

Oliver Ellsworth said: "Let every State import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery is a consideration belonging to the States. What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the States are the best judges of their particular interests."

Charles Pinckney said: "South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave trade. If the States be left at liberty on this subject, South Carolina may, perhaps, by degrees, do of herself what is wished, as Maryland and Virginia already have done."

Roger Sherman concurred with his colleague Mr. Ellsworth. "He disapproved of the slave trade; but as the States now possessed the right, and the public good did not require it to be taken away, and as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, he would leave the matter as he found it. The abolition of slavery seemed to be going on, and the good sense of the several States would probably, by degrees, soon complete it."

George Mason said: "Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce a pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren, from a lust of gain, had embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the right to import, that was the case of many other rights now to be given up. He held it essential, in every point of view, that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery."

Ellsworth, not well pleased with this thrust at his slave-trading friends at the North by a slaveholder, tartly replied: "As I have never owned a slave, I cannot judge of the effects of slavery on character; but if slavery is to be considered in a moral light, the convention ought to go further, and free those already in the country." The opposition of Virginia and Maryland to the importation of slaves he attributed to the fact that, on account of their rapid increase in those States, "it was cheaper to raise them there than to import them, while in the sickly rice-swamps foreign supplies were necessary. If we stop short with prohibiting their importation, we shall be unjust to South Carolina and Georgia. Let us not intermeddle. As population increases, poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country."

Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia repeated the declaration that "if the slave trade were prohibited, these States would not adopt the Constitution." "Virginia," it was said, "would gain by stopping the importation, she having slaves to sell; but it would be unjust to South Carolina and Georgia to be deprived of the right of importing. Besides, the importation of slaves would be a benefit to the whole Union: The more slaves, the more produce, the greater carrying trade, the more consumption, the more revenue."

The injustice of exempting slaves from duty, while every other import was subject to it, having been urged by several members in the course of the debate, Charles Pinckney expressed his consent to a tax not exceeding the same on other imports, and moved to refer the subject to a committee. The motion was seconded by John Rutledge, and, at the suggestion of Gouverneur Morris, was so modified as to include the clauses relating to navigation laws and taxes on exports. The commitment was opposed by Messrs. Sherman and Ellsworth; the former on the ground that taxes on slaves imported implied that they were property; the latter from the fear of losing two States. Edmund Randolph was in favor of the motion, hoping to find some middle ground upon which they could unite. The motion prevailed, and the subject was referred to a committee of one from each State. The committee retained the prohibition of duties on exports; struck out the restriction on the enactment of navigation laws; and left the importation of slaves unrestricted until the year 1800; permitting Congress, however, to impose a duty upon the importation.

The debate upon this report of the "grand committee" is condensed, by Hildreth, into the two following paragraphs:

"Williamson declared himself, both in opinion and practice, against slavery; but he thought it more in favor of humanity, from a view of all circumstances, to let in South Carolina and Georgia on these terms, than to exclude them from the Union. Sherman again objected to the tax, as acknowledging men to be property. Gorham replied that the duty ought to be considered, not as implying that men are property, but as a discouragement to their importation. Sherman said the duty was too small to bear that character. Madison thought it `wrong to admit, in the Constitution, the idea that there could be property in man’; and the phraseology of one clause was subsequently altered to avoid any such implication. Gouverneur Morris objected that the clause gave Congress power to tax freemen imported; to which George Mason replied that such a power was necessary to prevent the importation of convicts. A motion to extend the time from 1800 to 1808, made by Pinckney, and seconded by Gorham, was carried against New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia; Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire voting this time with Georgia and South Carolina. That part of the report which struck out the restriction on the enactment of navigation acts was opposed by Charles Pinckney in a set speech, in which he enumerated five distinct commercial interests: the fisheries and West India trade, belonging to New England; the interest of New York in a free trade; wheat and flour, the staples of New Jersey and Pennsylvania; tobacco, the staple of Maryland and Virginia and partly of North Carolina; nce and indigo, the staples of South Carolina and Georgia. The same ground was taken by Williamson and Mason, and very warmly by Randolph, who declared that an unlimited power in Congress to enact navigation laws would complete the deformity of a system having already so many odious features that he hardly knew if he could agree to it. Any restriction of the power of Congress over commerce was warmly opposed by Gouverneur Morris, Wilson, and Gorham, Madison also took the same side. Charles C. Pinckney did not deny that it was the true interest of the South to have no regulation of commerce; but considering the commercial losses of the Eastern States during the Revolution, their liberal conduct toward the views of South Carolina in the vote just taken, giving eight years’ further extension to the slave trade-and the interest of the weak Southern States in being united with the strong Eastern ones, he should go against any restriction on the power of commercial regulation. `He had himself prejudices against the Eastern States before he came here, but would acknowledge that he found them as liberal and candid as any men whatever.’ Butler and Rutledge took the same ground, and the same report was adopted, against the votes of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, add Georgia.

"Thus, by an understanding, or, as Gouverneur Morris called it, `a bargain,’ between the commercial representatives of the Northern States and the delegates of South Carolina and Georgia, and in spite of the opposition of Maryland and Virginia, the unrestricted power of Congress to pass navigation laws was conceded to the Northern merchants; and to the Carolina rice-planters, as an equivalent, twenty years’ continuance of the African slave trade. This was the third `Great Compromise’ of the Constitution. The other two were the concessions to the smaller States of an equal representation in the Senate, and, to the slave-holders, the counting of three-fifths of the slaves in determining the ratio of representation. If this third compromise differed from the other two by involving not only a political but a moral sacrifice, there was this partial compensation about it, that it was not permanent, like the others, but expired at the end of twenty years by its own limitation."

Of the important subjects remaining to be disposed of, that of the executive department was, perhaps, the most difficult. The modified plan of Edmund Randolph left the executive to be elected by the Legislature for a single term of seven years. The election was subsequently given to a college of electors, to be chosen in the States in such manner as the legislatures of the States should direct. The term of service was reduced from seven years to four years, and the restriction of the office to a single term was removed. Numerous other amendments and additions were made in going through with the draft. This amended draft was referred, for final revision, to a committee consisting of Messrs. Hamilton, Johnson, G. Morris, Madison, and King. Several amendments were made even after this revision; one of which was the substitution of a two-thirds for the three-fourths majority required to pass bills against the veto of the President. Another was a proposition of Mr. Gorham, to reduce the minimum ratio of representation from forty thousand, as it stood, to thirty thousand, intended to conciliate certain members who thought the House too small. This was offered the day on which the Constitution was signed. General Washington having briefly addressed the convention in favor of the proposed amendment, it was carried almost unanimously.

The whole number of delegates who attended the convention was fifty-five, of whom thirty-nine signed the Constitution. Of the remaining sixteen, some had left the convention before its close; others refused to give it their sanction. Several of the absentees were known to be in favor of the Constitution.

Some, as has been observed, were opposed to the plan of a national government, contending for the preservation of the confederation, with a mere enlargement of its powers; others, though in favor of the plan adopted, believed too much power had been given to the General Government. Some thought that not only the powers of Congress, but those of the executive, were too extensive; others that the executive was "weak and contemptible," and without sufficient power to defend himself against encroachments by the Legislature; others, still, that the executive power of the nation ought not to be intrusted in a single person. Although some deprecated the extensive powers of the Federal Government as dangerous to the rights of the States, "ultra democracy" seems to have had no representatives in the convention; while, on the other hand, there were not a few who thought it unsafe to trust the people with a direct exercise of power in the General Government.

Sherman and Gerry were opposed to the election of the first branch of the Legislature by the people; as were some of the Southern delegates. Others, among whom were Madison, Mason, and Wilson, thought no republican government could be permanent in which the people were denied a direct voice in the election of their representatives. Hamilton, though in favor of making the first branch elective, proposed that the Senate should be chosen by the people, and the executive by electors, chosen by electors, who were to be chosen by the people in districts; Senators and the President both to hold their offices during good behavior. He was also, as were a few others, in favor of an absolute executive veto on acts of the Legislature. He, however, signed the Constitution, and urged others to do the same, as the only means of preventing anarchy and confusion. While the proposed Constitution was in every particular satisfactory to none, very few were disposed to jeopardize the Union by the continuance of a system which all admitted to be inadequate to the objects of the Union. To the hope, therefore, of finding the new plan an improvement on the old, and of amending its defects if any should appear, is to be attributed the general sanction which it received.

It is indeed remarkable that a plan of government, containing so many provisions to which the most strenuous opposition was maintained to the end, should have received the signatures of so large a majority of the convention. Perhaps there never was another political body in which views and interests more varied and opposite have been represented or a greater diversity of opinion has prevailed. Nor is it less remarkable that a system deemed so imperfect, not only by the mass of its framers, but by a large portion of the eminent men who composed the State conventions that ratified it, should have been found to answer so fully the purpose of its formation as to require, during an experiment of more than sixty years, no essential alteration; and that it should be esteemed as a model form of republican government by the enlightened friends of freedom in all countries.

Not a single provision of the Constitution, as it came from the hands of the framers, except that which prescribed the mode of electing a President and Vice-President, has received the slightest amendment. Of the twelve articles styled "amendments," the first eleven are merely additions; some of which were intended to satisfy the scruples of those who objected to the Constitution as incomplete without a bill of rights, supposing their common-law rights would be rendered more secure by an express guarantee; others are explanatory of certain provisions of the Constitution which were considered liable to misconstruction. The twelfth article is the amendment changing the mode of electing the President and Vice-President.

In the differences of opinion between the friends and opponents of the Constitution originated the two great political parties into which the people were divided during a period of about thirty years. It is generally supposed that the term "Federalist" was first applied to those who advocated the plan of the present Constitution. This opinion, however, is not correct. Those members of the convention who were in favor of the old plan of union, which was a simple confederation or federal alliance of equal independent States, were called "Federalists," and their opponents "Anti-Federalists." After the new Constitution had been submitted to the people for ratification, its friends, regarding its adoption as indispensable to union, took the name of "Federalists," and bestowed upon the other party that of "Anti-Federalists," intimating that to oppose the adoption of the Constitution was to oppose any union of the States.

The new Constitution bears the date September 17, 1787. It was immediately transmitted to Congress, with a recommendation to that body to submit it to State conventions for ratification, which was accordingly done. It was adopted by Delaware, December 7th; by Pennsylvania, December 12th; by New Jersey, December 18th; by Georgia, January 2d, 1788; by Connecticut, January 9th; by Massachusetts, February 7th; by Maryland, April 28th; by South Carolina, May 23d; by New Hampshire, June 21st, which, being the ninth ratifying State, gave effect to the Constitution. Virginia ratified June 27th; New York, July 26th; and North Carolina, conditionally, August 7th. Rhode Island did not call a convention.

In Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York the new Constitution encountered a most formidable opposition, which rendered its adoption by these States for a time extremely doubtful. In their conventions were men on both sides who had been members of the national convention, associated with others of distinguished abilities. In Massachusetts there were several adverse influences which would probably have defeated the ratification in that State had it not been accompanied by certain proposed amendments to be submitted by Congress to the several States for ratification. The adoption of these by the convention gained for the Constitution the support of Hancock and Samuel Adams; and the question on ratification was carried by one hundred eighty-seven against one hundred sixty-eight.

In the Virginia convention the Constitution was opposed by Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and George Mason, the last of whom had been one of the delegates to the constitutional convention. On the other side were John Marshall, Edmund Pendleton, James Madison, George Wythe, and Edmund Randolph, the three last also having been members of the national convention. Randolph had refused to sign the Constitution, but had since become one of its warmest advocates. In the convention of this State, also, the ratification was aided by the adoption of a bill of rights and certain proposed amendments, and was carried, eighty-eight yeas against eighty nays.

In the convention of New York the opposition embraced a majority of its members, among whom were Yates and Lansing, members of the general convention, and George Clinton. The principal advocates of the Constitution were John Jay, Robert R. Livingston, and Alexander Hamilton. Strong efforts were made for a conditional ratification, which were successfully opposed, though not without the previous adoption of a bill of rights and numerous amendments. With these, the absolute ratification was carried, thirty-one to twenty-nine.

The ratification of North Carolina was not received by Congress until January, 1790; and that of Rhode Island not until June of the same year.

After the ratification of New Hampshire had been received by Congress, the ratifications of the nine States were referred to a committee, who, on July 14, 1788, reported a resolution for carrying the new government into operation. The passage of the resolution, owing to the difficulty of agreeing upon the place for the meeting of the first Congress, was delayed until September 13th. The first Wednesday in January, 1789, was appointed for choosing electors of President, and the first Wednesday in February for the electors to meet in their respective States to vote for President and Vice-President; and the first Wednesday, March 4th, as the time, and New York as the place, to commence proceedings under the new Constitution.


Commissioners were appointed by the Legislatures of Virginia and Maryland, early in 1785, to form a compact relative to the navigation of the Potomac and Pocomoke rivers and Chesapeake Bay. The commissioners, having met in March in that year, felt the want of more enlarged powers, and particularly of powers to provide for a local naval force, and a tariff of duties upon imports. Upon receiving their recommendation, the Legislature of Virginia passed a resolution for laying the subject of a tariff before all the States composing the Union. Soon afterward, in January, 1786, the Legislature adopted another resolution, appointing commissioners, "who were to meet such as might be appointed by the other States in the Union, at a time and place to be agreed on, to take into consideration the trade of the United States; to examine the relative situation and trade of the States; to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial relations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony; and to report to the several States such an act, relative to this great object, as, when unanimously ratified by them, will enable the United States in Congress assembled to provide for the same."

These resolutions were communicated to the States, and a convention of commissioners from five States only, viz., New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia, met at Annapolis in September, 1786. After discussing the subject, they deemed more ample powers necessary, and, as well from this consideration as because a small number only of the States was represented, they agreed to come to no decision, but to frame a report to be laid before the several States, as well as before Congress. In this report they recommended the appointment of commissioners from all the States, "to meet at Philadelphia, on the second Monday of May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States; to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled as, when agreed to by them, and afterward confirmed by the legislature of every State, will effectually pro vide for the same."

On receiving this report the Legislature of Virginia passed an act for the appointment of delegates to meet such as might be appointed by other States, at Philadelphia. The report was also received in Congress, but no step was taken until the Legislature of New York instructed its delegation in Congress to move a resolution recommending to the several States to appoint deputies to meet in convention for the purpose of revising and proposing amendments to the Federal Constitution. On February 21, 1787, a resolution was accordingly moved and carried in Congress recommending a convention to meet in Philadelphia, on the second Monday of May ensuing, "For the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures, such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union." The alarming insurrection then existing in Massachusetts, without doubt, had no small share in producing this result. The report of Congress on that subject at once demonstrates their fears and their political weakness.

At the time and place appointed the representatives of twelve States assembled. Rhode Island alone declined to appoint any on this momentous occasion. After very protracted deliberations, the convention finally adopted the plan of the present Constitution on September 17, 1787; and by a contemporaneous resolution, directed it to be "laid before the United States in Congress assembled," and declared their opinion "that it should afterward be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each State by the people thereof, under a recommendation of its legislature for their assent and ratification"; and that each convention assenting to and ratifying the same should give notice thereof to Congress. The convention, by a further resolution, declared their opinion that as soon as nine States had ratified the Constitution, Congress should fix a day on which electors should be appointed by the States which should have ratified the same, and a day on which the electors should assemble and vote for the President, and the time and place of commencing proceedings under the Constitution; and that after such publication the electors should be appointed, and the Senators and Representatives elected. The same resolution contained further recommendations for the purpose of carrying the Constitution into effect.

The convention, at the same time, addressed a letter to Congress, expounding their reasons for their acts, from which the following extract cannot but be interesting: "It is obviously impracticable [says the address] in the federal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all. Individuals entering into society must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was increased by a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests. In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view that, which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each State in the convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude than might have been otherwise expected. And thus the Constitution which we now present is the result of the spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession, which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable."

Congress, having received the report of the convention on September 28, 1787, unanimously resolved "that the said report, with the resolutions and letter accompanying the same, be transmitted to the several legislatures in order to be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each State by the people thereof, in conformity to the resolves of the convention, made and provided in that case."

Conventions in the various States which had been represented in the general convention were accordingly called by their respective legislatures; and the Constitution having been ratified by eleven out of the twelve States, Congress, on September 13, 1788, passed a resolution appointing the first Wednesday in January following for the choice of electors of President; the first Wednesday of February following for the assembling of the electors to vote for a President; and the first Wednesday of March following, at the then seat of Congress (New York) the time and place for commencing proceedings under the Constitution. Electors were accordingly appointed in the several States, who met and gave their votes for a President; and the other elections for Senators and Representatives having been duly made, on Wednesday, March 4, 1789, Congress assembled under the new Constitution and commenced proceedings under it.

A quorum of both Houses, however, did not assemble until April 6th, when, the votes for President being counted, it was found that George Washington was unanimously elected President, and John Adams was elected Vice-President.

On April 30th President Washington was sworn into office, and the government then went into full operation in all its departments.

North Carolina had not, as yet, ratified the Constitution. The first convention called in that State, in August, 1788, refused to ratify it without some previous amendments and a declaration of rights. In a second convention, however, called in November, 1789, this State adopted the Constitution. The State of Rhode Island had declined to call a convention; but finally, by a convention held in May, 1790, its assent was obtained; and thus all the thirteen original States became parties to the new government.

Thus was achieved another and still more glorious triumph in the cause of national liberty than even that which separated us from the mother-country. By it we fondly trust that our republican institutions will grow up, and be nurtured into more mature strength and vigor; our independence be secured against foreign usurpation and aggression; our domestic blessings be widely diffused, and generally felt; and our nation, as a people, be perpetuated, as our own truest glory and support, and as a proud example of a wise and beneficent government, entitled to the respect, if not to the admiration, of mankind.

Let it not, however, be supposed that a Constitution, which is now looked upon with such general favor and affection by the people, had no difficulties to encounter at its birth. The history of those times is full of melancholy instruction on this subject, at once to admonish us of past dangers, and to awaken us to a lively sense of the necessity of future vigilance. The Constitution was adopted unanimously by Georgia, New Jersey, and Delaware. It was supported by large majorities in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina. It was carried in the other States by small majorities; and especially in Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia by little more than a preponderating vote. Indeed, it is believed that in each of these States, at the first assembling of the conventions, there was a decided majority opposed to the Constitution. The ability of the debates, the impending evils, and the absolute necessity of the case seem to have reconciled some persons to the adoption of it, whose opinions had been strenuously the other way.

"In our endeavors," said Washington, "to establish a new general government, the contest, nationally considered, seems not to have been so much for glory as for existence. It was for a long time doubtful whether we were to survive, as an independent republic, or decline from our federal dignity into insignificant and withered fragments of empire."

1Called the "Constitutional Convention."ED.


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Chicago: Andrew W. Young and Joseph Story, "Framing of the Constitution of the United States," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2022,

MLA: Young, Andrew W., and Joseph Story. "Framing of the Constitution of the United States." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Young, AW, Story, J, 'Framing of the Constitution of the United States' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 14. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2022, from