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When delegates to the Constitutional Convention began to assemble at Philadelphia in May 1787, they quickly resolved to replace rather than merely revise the Articles of Confederation. Although James Madison is known as the “father of the constitution,” George Washington’s support gave the convention its hope of success.

Division of power between branches of government and between the federal and state governments, slavery, trade, taxes, foreign affairs, representation, and even the procedure to elect a president were just a few of the contentious issues.  Diverging plans, strong egos, regional demands, and states’ rights made solutions difficult. Five months of debate, compromise, and creative strategies produced a new constitution creating a federal republic with a strong central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments.

Ten months of public and private debate were required to secure ratification by the minimum nine states. Even then Rhode Island and North Carolina held out until after the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

“For we are sent hither to consult not contend, with each other; and Declaration of a fix’ Opinion, and of determined Resolutions never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us.”

Benjamin Franklin, Speech in Congress, June 11, 1787

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The Virginia Plan

The Virginia delegates to the Constitutional Convention, led by James Madison (1741–1836) and George Washington (1732–1799), prepared a plan of government that provided for proportional representation in a bicameral (two-house) legislature and a strong national government with veto power over state laws. Virginia’s governor, Edmund Randolph (1753–1813), who ultimately refused to sign the Constitution, presented the plan to the convention on May 29, 1787.  The plan, designed to protect the interests of the large states in a strong, national republic, became the basis for debate.

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  • “The Virginia Plan of Government” in James Madison’s notes. Notes of Debates in the Federal Constitutional Convention, May 29, 1787. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (056.01.02) [Digital ID# us0056_01]

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  • “The Virginia Plan of Government” in James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention, May 29, 1787. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (056.01.01) [Digital ID# us0056_01p01]

    Read the transcript

  • The Virginia Plan of Government, May 1787. Manuscript in the hand of George Washington. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (56.00.00) [Digital ID#s us0056, us0056_1, us0056_2]

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The New Jersey Plan

The New Jersey delegates to the Constitutional Convention, led by William Paterson (1745–1806) proposed an alternative to the Virginia Plan on June 15, 1787.  The New Jersey Plan was designed to protect the security and power of the small states by limiting each state to one vote in Congress, as under the Articles of Confederation. Its acceptance would have doomed plans for a strong national government and minimally altered the Articles of Confederation.

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Franklin Soothes Anger

When delegates at the Federal Constitutional Convention became frustrated and angry because of the contentious issue of proportional representation in the new national legislature, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) urged “great Coolness and Temper.”  James Wilson (1742–1798) from Pennsylvania reading Franklin’s speech, told the delegates “we are sent here to consult, not to contend, with each other.”  As the eldest delegate at the convention, Franklin acted on several occasions to restore harmony and good humor to the proceedings.

Benjamin Franklin. Draft speech, [June 28, 1787]. Manuscript. Benjamin Franklin Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (058.01.01) [Digital ID# us0058_01p2, us0058], us0058_1, us0058_01p1]

Read the transcript

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“Great Compromise” Saves the Convention

By mid-July the representation issue had the Constitutional Convention teetering on the brink of dissolution. Finally, delegates made a “great compromise,” to create a bicameral (two-house) legislature with the states having equal representation in the upper house or senate and the people having proportional representation in the lower house, where all money bills were to originate.

James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention, July 16, 1787. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (59) [Digital ID#s us0059tt_1, us0059tt_2, us0059tt_3]

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William Paterson Defends New Jersey Plan

William Paterson (1745–1806) presented a plan of government to the Convention that came to be called the “New Jersey Plan.” Paterson wanted to retain a unicameral (one-house) legislature with equal votes of states and have the national legislature elect the executive. This plan maintained the form of government under the Articles of Confederation while adding powers to raise revenue and regulate commerce and foreign affairs.

William Paterson. Notes for Speeches in Convention, June 16, 1787. Manuscript. William Paterson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (59.01.00) [Digital ID# us0059_01p1]

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Committee of Detail

John Rutledge (1739–1800) of South Carolina chaired the five-member Committee of Detail assigned on July 23, 1787, to take the nineteen resolutions adopted by the Convention, a plan presented by South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney (1757–1824), the rejected New Jersey Plan, as the basis for producing a draft constitution. The Committee of Detail draft boldly refocused the convention. The multiple annotations by Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) of New York illustrate the hard work remaining for the delegates.

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  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Detail, ca. August 6, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (061.03.00) [Digital ID# us0061_03]

  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Detail, ca. August 6, 1787. Printed document with annotations by James Madison. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (61.02.00) [Digital ID# us0061_02]

  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Detail, August 6–September 8, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (61.01.00) [Digital ID# us0061_01]

  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Detail, ca. August 6, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Convention Secretary William Jackson. William Johnson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (61) [Digital ID# us0061]

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Report of the Committee of Style

William Samuel Johnson (1727–1819) chaired the Committee of Style, James Madison (1751–1836), Rufus King (1755–1827), and Alexander Hamilton gave the Constitution its substance. Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816), a delegate from Pennsylvania, is credited with providing the preamble phrase We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union—a dramatic change from the opening of the previous version. This simple phrase anchored the new national government in the consent of the people rather than a confederation of states.

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  • Draft United States Constitution: Reports of the Committee of Style, September 8–15, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (062.04.01) [Digital ID# us0062_04]; us0062_04p1, us0062_04p2, us0062_04p3

  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Style, September 8–15, 1787. Printed document with annotations by James Madison. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (062.03.00) [Digital ID#s us0062_03p1 us0062_03p2, us0062_03p3, us0062_03p4]

  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Style, September 8–15, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Convention Secretary William Jackson. William Samuel Johnson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (62.02.00)
    [Digital ID#s us0062_02p1; us0062_02p2, us0062_02p3, us0062_02p4]

  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Style, September 8–15, 1787. Printed document with annotations by Alexander Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (62.01.00) [Digital ID#s us0062_01p1, us0062_01p2, us0062_01p3, us0062_01p4]

  • Draft United States Constitution: Report of the Committee of Style, September 8–12, 1787. Printed document with annotations by George Washington and Convention Secretary William Jackson. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (62) [Digital ID#s us0062, us0062_1, us0062_2, us0062_3]

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Washington’s Frustrations at the Convention

George Washington, president of the Federal Constitutional Convention, revealed few of the personal conflicts and compromises of the delegates in his daily diary. However, even the unflappable Washington exposed his frustrations when he noted on September 17, 1787, that all delegates to the convention had signed the Constitution except “Govr. [Edmund] Randolph and Colo. [George] Mason from Virginia & Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry from Massachusetts.”

George Washington diary entry, September 17, 1787. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (063.01.00) [Digital ID#s us0063_01, us0063]

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“Monarchy or a Republic?”

As the Constitutional Convention adjourned, “a woman [Mrs. Eliza Powell] asks Dr. Franklin well Doctor what we got a republic or a monarchy? A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.” Although this story recorded by James McHenry (1753–1816), a delegate from Maryland, is probably fictitious, people wondered just what kind of government was called for in the new constitution.

James McHenry. Diary, September 18, 1787. Manuscript. James McHenry Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (63.02.00) [Digital ID# us0063_02p1]

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Opposition to the Constitution

As the convention concluded, George Mason (1725–1792) continued to fear an ultra-national constitution and the absence of a bill of rights. On the eve of the Constitution’s adoption on September 17, 1787, Mason noted these major objections on the version of his copy of the Committee of Style draft. Mason sent copies of his objections to friends, from whence they soon appeared in the press.

George Mason. “Objections to the Constitution of Government Formed by the Convention,” ca. September 17, 1787. Manuscript document. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (64.00.01) [Digital ID#s us0064_1, us0064]

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Madison Defends Constitution

In the ensuing debate over adoption of the Constitution, James Madison teamed with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of New York to write a masterful dissection and analysis of the system of government presented in the Constitution. The eighty-five articles were originally published in New York newspapers as arguments aimed at anti-Federal forces in that state, but their intended scope was far larger. Madison's Federalist No. X explains what an expanding republic might do if it accepted the basic premise of majority rule, a balanced government of three separate branches, and a commitment to balance all the diverse interests through a system of checks and balances.

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The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five newspaper essays published anonymously but were in fact written in defense of the Constitution by James Madison, John Jay (1745–1829), and Alexander Hamilton. This collected volume was once owned by Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, whose sister gave it to Thomas Jefferson. Here Jefferson attempts to determine the authorship of each essay.

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Jefferson’s Concern about Method of Electing President

Because they were serving as American ministers abroad during the constitutional debates John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not involved in the Constitutional Convention. Neither saw major flaws in the new constitution. However, Jefferson thought that the legislature would be too restricted and greatly feared that the manner of electing the president would weaken the office. Jefferson asserted that the United States president “seems a bad edition of a Polish King, a reference to the custom in eighteenth-century Poland of electing kings, which undercut royal authority.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, November 13, 1787. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (67) [Digital ID# us0067]

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Early Optimism of Acceptance of New Constitution

Samuel Powel (1739–1793), a Philadelphia political leader, reflects the early optimism for the quick acceptance of the new federal Constitution. Such optimism proved premature as anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution mounted stiff opposition in key states, such as New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia, but its proponents ultimately prevailed.

Letter from Samuel Powel to George Washington, November 13, 1787. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (67.01.00) [Digital ID# us0067_01p1]

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Conflict in Ratification of the Constitution

The process of state ratification of the United States Constitution was a divisive one. This satirical, eighteenth-century engraving touches on some of the major issues in the Connecticut politics on the eve of ratification. The two rival factions shown are the “Federals,” supporters of the Constitution who represented the trading interests and were for tariffs on imports, and the “Antifederals,” those committed to agrarian interests and more receptive to paper money issues. Although drawn to portray events in Connecticut, the concepts could be applied throughout the nation.

Amos Doolittle. The Looking Glass for 1787. [New Haven]: 1787. Engraving with watercolor. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (68) [Digital ID# ppmsca-17522]

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New York Parade to Support the New Federal Constitution

On July 23, 1788, a New York City parade of ten divisions of artisans and professionals preceded by the firing of ten guns was designed to pressure the New York Ratification Convention. Just days later New York became the eleventh state to ratify the new federal Constitution on July 26, 1788.

Order of procession, in honor of the Constitution of the United States . . . by order of the Committee of Arrangements, Richard Platt, chairman,  July 23 [1788]. New York: 1788.  Printed broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (68.01.00)  [Digital ID# us0068_02]

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Alexander Hamilton Defends the New Constitution

The Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five newspaper essays published anonymously, were in fact written in defense of the Constitution by James Madison (1751–1736), John Jay (1745–1829), and Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804). In this essay Hamilton opens his argument in support of a strong executive branch with: “the election of the president is pretty well guarded. I venture somewhat further; and hesitate to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent. It unites in an eminent degree all the advantages; the union of which was to be desired.” This collected volume was owned and annotated by James Madison.

[Alexander Hamilton]. Number LXVIII. The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution. 2 vols. New York: J. and A. McLean, 1788. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (66.01.00) [Digital ID# us0066_01]

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Convention Rejects Franklin’s Proposed Daily Prayer

Responding to the divisive tension among the delegates that threatened to jeopardize the purpose of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin proposed that a clergyman lead a daily prayer to provide divine guidance in resolving differences. The delegates declined the proposal, citing the numerous religious sects represented in the Convention and a lack of funds to pay a chaplain.

Benjamin Franklin. Draft of a speech, June 28, 1787. Manuscript. Benjamin Franklin Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (058.01.02) [Digital ID# us0058_01p2]

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Federal Constitution Ratified by Virginia

Before the newly proposed Constitution could become the supreme law of the United States, it would require the ratification of nine states. New Hampshire and Virginia became the ninth and tenth states to approve the document. Supporters of the Constitution used these state ratifications to pressure the remaining states to approve and join the establishment of the new federal republic. New York followed suit in July 1788, but Rhode Island and North Carolina did not ratify until after the formation of the new government in 1789.

“Ratification of the New Constitution by the Convention of Virginia” in Supplement to the Independent Journal, July 2, 1778. New York: J. and A. McLean. Broadside. Constitutional Convention Broadside Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (071.03.00) [Digital ID# us0071_03]

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James Madison Defends the Constitution

The Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five newspaper essays published anonymously, were in fact written in defense of the Constitution by James Madison, John Jay (1745–1829), and Alexander Hamilton. In this essay, Madison argues against the criticism that a republic can not govern a large territory. “A democracy consequently will be confined to a small spot,” wrote Madison, but “A republic may be expanded over a large region.”

[James Madison]. Number XIV. The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution. 2 vols. New York: J. and A. McLean, 1788. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (066.02.00) [Digital ID# us0066_02]

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Madison Responds to Paterson’s New Jersey Plan

William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan proposed a unicameral (one-house) legislature with equal votes of states and an executive elected by a national legislature. This plan maintained the form of government under the Articles of Confederation while adding powers to raise revenue and regulate commerce and foreign affairs. James Madison commented on Paterson’s proposed plan in his journal that he maintained during the course of the proceedings. Madison’s notes, which he refined nightly, have become the most important contemporary record of the debates in the Convention.

James Madison. Notes of Debates in the Federal Constitutional Convention, June 16, 1787. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (059.00.02) [Digital ID# us0059p3]

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Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia

The Pennsylvania State House (known today as “Independence Hall”) in Philadelphia was the site of American government during the revolutionary and early national years. The national Congress held most of its sessions there from 1775 to 1800. Within its walls the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and the Constitution of the United States was debated, drafted, and signed. This print depicts the back of the building, with citizens and Native Americans walking on the lawn.

William Birch & Son. “Back of the State House, Philadelphia,” from The City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, As it Appeared in the Year 1800. . . . Etching. Philadelphia: 1800, restrike printed in 1840. Marian S. Carson Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (055.02.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-24335]

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Philadelphia, Birthplace of the Constitution

Philadelphia, the largest city in the American colonies, and its adjacent rural areas are depicted on this 1752 map. The first illustration of the city’s State House, later called Independence Hall, dominates the upper portion of the map. The map also identifies the owners of many individual properties. Philadelphia was, in essence, the capital of the United States during the Revolutionary War, and the State House was home to the second Continental Congress and the Federal Convention of 1787.

A Map of Philadelphia and Parts Adjacent with a Perspective View of the State House. Philadelphia: N[icholas] Scull and G[eorge] Heap; L[awrence] Hebert sculpt., 1752. Hand colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (055.01.00) [Digital ID# ct000294]

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