The Constitutional Convention

The Articles of Confederation was the original document that the thirteen individual states agreed upon and followed. It's drafting started during the Second Continental Congress on July 12, 1776 and was sent out to the states to be ratified on November 15, 1777. The Articles were finally completely ratified by all thirteen states on March 1, 1781.

Under the Articles, the States held more power than the Federal Government and the States were individual, sovereign powers that operated under their own state constitutions. The Articles were also not a Constitution, but more of an alliance between the thirteen states.

  • The Federal Government was made up of a unicameral legislature (or Congress) which consisted of two to seven representative from each state, but each state received only one vote.
  • The Congress could declare war, sign treaties, make alliances, appoint military officers, appoint foreign ambassadors, and manage Indian affairs.
  • The Congress did not have the power to tax, only the States held that power. Congress could only ask the States for funds, barrow from foreign lands, or sell western lands.
  • In order to make amendments to the Articles, all thirteen states had ratified the amendment.

With Congress not having the ability to levy taxes, they had no way to pay soldiers of the Continental Army or pay back the war debt. As a federal government, they also could not regulate money or other issues that popped up throughout the thirteen states. One key example was Shay's Rebellion. This rebellion was caused in part due to farmers not being able to pay back their debt and having their farms taken away and then sent to jail.

It was obvious by 1787 that the Articles of Confederation were failing and that they would either need to be fixed or replaced if the States didn't want to completely unravel. In order to help prevent the worse from happening, delegates from twelve states (all but Rhode Island) met in Philadelphia State House on May 25, 1787.

The delegates at the Constitutional Convention made two decisions fairly immediately: that the Articles of Confederation have to be thrown out and a new government needed to be created and that all the delegates needed to maintain secrecy. George Washington was called from his home in Mount Vernon to reside as president of the Convention. The convention lasted until September 17, 1787. Throughout that Philadelphia summer, there were fifty-five delegates all together and thirty was the average number of delegates on any given day during the Convention. James Madison, also known as the Father of the Constitution, did not miss a single day of the Convention and was only 36 at the time.

There were two main plans that were proposed: The Virginia (or large state) Plan proposed by James Madison and The New Jersey (or small state) Plan proposed by William Patterson

  • Bicameral (2 house) Legislature with representatives elections based on population
  • Lower House - elected by the people
  • Upper House - elected by the Lower House from candidates proposed by the state governments
  • Legislative supremacy and Legislature would elect Executive and Judicial positions
  • Strong Executive and Judicial
  • Similar to Articles of Confederation, almost an amended version of them
  • Unicameral Legislature with equal representatives elected
  • State Legislatures would elect representatives
  • Congress would elect several members to preside as the Executive power
  • The Executive power would elect the Judiciary

The Connecticut Plan, or better known as The Great Compromise, proposed by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth was the governmental plan that the Convention decided to follow. The Plan was made to help appease both the large states and the small states and help them have an equal voice.

  • Three branches: Legislature, Executive, Judicial
  • Bicameral Legislature
  • Upper House (Senate) - two representatives per state
  • Lower House - number of representatives based on population
  • Strong Executive with single person in the position

With how the plan for what the Federal Government would look like, complete with checks and balances, the only next step was to decide who would be counted as part of the population. The large Southern states wanted their slaves to count and the majority of their population was made up of slave. The smaller Northern states didn't want slaves to count as part of the population count. In the end the Convention decided on what is known as the Three-Fifths Compromise and states that three out of ever five slaves would count towards a states population.

All that was left for the Congress was to send out the Constitution to all thirteen states and have the states ratify the document. It would take almost another year and the inclusion of the Bill of Rights before all thirteen states would agree to ratify the Constitution. George Washington was unanimously elected to be the first President of the United States on February 4, 1789.


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