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The Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, on November 15, 1777, but the states did not ratify them until March 1, 1781. The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments. Once peace removed the rationale of wartime necessity the weaknesses of the 1777 Articles of Confederation became increasingly apparent. Divisions among the states and even local rebellions threatened to destroy the fruits of the Revolution. Nationalists, led by James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Wilson, almost immediately began working toward strengthening the federal government. They turned a series of regional commercial conferences into a national constitutional convention at Philadelphia in 1787.

“An opinion begins to prevail that a general convention for revising the articles of Confederation would be expedient.”

John Jay to George Washington, March 16, 1786

Benjamin Franklin’s Proposed Plan of Confederation, 1775

Shortly after the revolutionary war began at Concord and Lexington, Benjamin Franklin submitted this plan for a united colonial confederation or American republic to the Continental Congress on July 21, 1775.

Thomas Jefferson, a fellow delegate, annotated his copy of Franklin’s plan, which began a national debate on the creation of an American Republic.

Benjamin Franklin. Plan for a Confederation, July 21, 1775. Printed document annotated by Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (46.01.01) [Digital ID#s us0046a_2, us0046a, us0046a_1]

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Writing the Articles of Confederation

In 1781, James Madison (1751–1836) asked Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) for his account of those tumultuous pivotal days in which the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were drafted. Recognizing the importance of the process for the Revolution and for posterity, Thomas Jefferson prepared his notes of the proceedings in Congress, June 7–August 1, 1776. On this page, Jefferson’s notes reflect his interest in Article XVII, about representation in Congress.

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  • Thomas Jefferson. Notes on Debates in the Continental Congress, June 7–August 1, 1776 [ante 1781]. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (046.05.01) [Digital ID#s us0046_05p1, us0046_05a]

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  • Thomas Jefferson. “Notes of Proceedings in Congress on Drafting the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” [July 12–August 1, 1776]. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (046.03.00) [Digital ID# us0046_03p1]

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Articles of Confederation Ratified

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first constitution of the United States. After more than a year of consideration, it was submitted to the states for ratification in 1777, but not enough states approved it until 1781. The Articles provided for a weak executive branch, no national power of taxation, and voting by states. On November 5, 1781, John Hanson (1715–1783) of Maryland was elected the first president under the Articles of Confederation.

[United States Continental Congress]. Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States of. . . . Williamsburg, Virginia: J. Dixon & W. Hunter, 1778. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (048.04.00) [Digital ID# us0048_04]

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Articles of Confederation Ratified

After Maryland’s ratification established the Articles of Confederation as the first United States constitution, Thomas Rodney (1744–1811), a delegate to the Continental Congress from Delaware, recorded in his diary on March 1, 1781, that “the Completion of this grand Union & Confederation was announced by Firing thirteen Cannon on the Hill” in Philadelphia. John Hanson (1715–1783), a delegate from Maryland, was elected the first president of the confederation government.

Thomas Rodney. Diary entry, March 1, 1781. Rodney Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (48.00.00) [Digital ID# us0048, us0048_1, us0048_2, us0048_3, us0048_4]

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Confederation Congress Elects Its First President

In this November 5, 1781 letter, Charles Thomson (1729-1824), secretary of the Continental Congress, informs George Washington that John Hanson (1715–1783), a delegate from Maryland, was elected the first president of Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Washington was in York, Virginia, overseeing the final details of the Cornwallis Surrender and preparing the army for their move North. Some people claim that John Hanson rather than George Washington should be considered the first president.

Letter from Charles Thomson to George Washington, November 5, 1781. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (48.01.00) [Digital ID# us0048_01]

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Thomas Jefferson on Black Education

Robert Pleasants (1723–1801), a Virginia Quaker who had recently freed his own eighty slaves, wrote to Thomas Jefferson asking his support for education for slave children in order to prepare them for freedom. Responding to his letter, Jefferson suggested that private efforts would be inadequate and that state support would be necessary to provide education for slaves “destined to be free.”

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Robert Pleasants, [August 27, 1796]. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (048.03.00) [Digital ID# us0048_03]

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Northwest Ordinance Prohibits Slavery

When the Confederation Congress began planning the organization of the territories north and west of the Ohio River, Thomas Jefferson and his congressional committee moved against mainstream eighteenth-century thought to draft regulations that prohibited in the territories slavery or involuntary servitude except for convicted criminals. Although Jefferson envisioned that the prohibition would go into effect in 1800, the final ordinance of 1787 contained an immediate ban.

Committee of Congress. Draft Report of Northwest Ordinance, March 1784. Broadside with emendations by Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (49.00.00) [Digital ID# us0049]

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New States in the West and Northwest

While Congress considered an ordinance to govern the newly won territory west of the Appalachian Mountains and northwest of the Ohio River, Thomas Jefferson outlined plans for the boundaries of six unnamed new states, which he ironically referred to as “New Colonies.”

Thomas Jefferson. Plan for Boundaries in Western Territory, [1784]. Manuscript document. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (49.01.00) [Digital ID# us0049_01]

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Congress Drafts Northwest Ordinance

When the Confederation Congress began planning the organization of the territories north and west of the Ohio River, Thomas Jefferson and his congressional committee acted outside of mainstream eighteenth-century thought in drafting regulations to immediately prohibit slavery or involuntary servitude for anyone except convicted criminals. The final plan for western territories in 1787 did prohibit slavery.

Printed draft of the Northwest Ordinance of 1784. Virginia Gazette, May 15, 1784. Serial and Government Publications Division Library of Congress (049.02.00) [Digital ID# us0049_02p1]

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Call to Revise Articles of Confederation

In this 1786 letter to George Washington, John Jay (1745–1829), a Continental Congress delegate from New York and later the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, expressed what most U.S. leaders had come to believe: that “an opinion begins to prevail that a general convention for revising the articles of Confederation would be expedient.” It was clear that George Washington was the fulcrum around which plans to revise or even replace the articles often revolved.

Letter from John Jay to George Washington, March 16, 1786. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (50.00.00) [Digital ID# us0050]

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“The Source of the Evil is the Nature of the Government”

With these words, Henry Knox (1750–1806), George Washington’s former artillery commander, described to Washington an uprising of indebted farmers and laborers in Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays in 1786 and 1787. Shays’ Rebellion was caused by excessive land taxation, high legal costs, and economic depression following the American Revolution, which threatened the stability of the Confederation. The protest was one of several that exposed the need to curb the excesses and inequities of state governments and led men such as Knox and Washington to seek remedies in a stronger national government.

Letter from Henry Knox to George Washington, December 17, 1786. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (50.01.00) [Digital ID#s us0050_01p1, us0050_01p2, us0050_01p3]

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Revolt in Massachusetts

Abigail Adams (1744–1818) predicted that the 1786 rebellion in Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays (ca. 1741–1825) “will prove sallutary to the state at large,” even though it was led by “ignorant, wrestless desperadoes, without conscience or principals.” Many in the United States believed a strong national government was needed to prevent such local uprisings against legitimate government. Shays and Job Shattuck (1736–1819), both veterans of the Revolutionary Army and leaders of the 1786 rebellion, are depicted in this scene.

Letter from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 29, 1787. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (050.02.01) [Digital ID#s us0050_02p1, us0050_02p2]

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Madison and Washington Consider Confederation

In 1785, James Madison and George Washington were in the midst of a written conversation about ways to create a stronger national government. Both men believed that the confederation government might have to sink lower before the time would be right for a successful “meeting of Politico-Commercial Commssrs. from all states”a meeting that would occur in Philadelphia two years later.

Letter from James Madison to George Washington, December 9, 1785. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (51.00.00) [Digital ID#s us0051, us0051_1, us0051_2, us0051_3]

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Annapolis Meeting Leads to a Broader National Convention

In September 1786, delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland, ostensibly to discuss barriers to trade under the Articles of Confederation. The commissioners decided that not enough states were represented to make any substantive agreement. Despite the failure of the “Annapolis Convention” to attract broad support, the nationalist delegates who had attended it, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, pressed on with a recommendation for a national convention to address defects in the Articles of Confederation.

Letter from James Madison to James Monroe, September 11, 1786. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress   (51.01.00) [Digital ID# us0051_01]

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Financial Crisis Fears

In 1786 James Monroe (1758–1831), then a congressman from Virginia, expressed fears that the rejection of efforts to grant a national impost for revenue “endangers the govt” and “will most probably induce a change of some kind.” These fears of economic instability and lack of operating funds for the national government fueled calls for a national convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Letter from James Monroe to James Madison, September 12, 1786. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (051.02.00) [Digital ID# us0051_02p1]

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Washington and Madison Plan for a New Government

In this letter written in 1787 on the eve of the federal Constitutional Convention, James Madison warns George Washington of the dangers from both temporizers and radicals. Madison also sketches his plans for a new federal government and constitution to be formulated in Philadelphia. Proportional representation and a national legislative veto over state laws were just two of Madison’s major proposals.

Letter from James Madison to George Washington, April 16, 1787. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (52.00.02) [Digital ID#s us0052_2, us0052, us0052_1, us0052_3, us0052_4, us0052_5]

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Setting for the Creation of the Federal Constitution

Delegates to the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the instrument of government in the East Room on the first floor of the Pennsylvania State House, which is known as Independence Hall because the American Declaration of Independence was adopted here on July 4, 1776. In order to secure secrecy the delegates took an oath and met behind closed doors and windows with pulled drapes.

John Rubens Smith. Sketch of the State House In Philadelphia, [1829]. Pencil drawing. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (53.01.00) [Digital ID# LC-USZ62-113780]

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Independence Hall

Delegates to the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the instrument of government in the East Room on the first floor of the Pennsylvania State House (known today as Independence Hall) on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. The delegates took an oath of secrecy and met behind closed doors and windows with pulled drapes throughout the often hot and humid Delaware Valley summer.  This engraving shows a view of the State House from High Street.

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  • William Birch & Son. “High Street, from Ninth Street,” from The City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, As it Appeared in the Year 1800. . . . Hand-colored engraving. Springland, Pennsylvania: William Birch and Son, 1800. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (54.00.02) [Digital ID# us0054_04]

  • William Birch & Son. “State-house with a View of Chestnut Street, Philadelphia” from The City of Philadelphia . . . Hand-colored engraving. Philadelphia: William Birch & Son, 1800. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (54.00.00) [Digital ID# us0054]

  • William Birch & Son. “Back of the State-house,” from The City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, As it Appeared in the Year 1800. . . . Hand-colored engraving. Springland, Pennsylvania: William Birch and Son, 1800. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (54.00.01) [Digital ID# us0054_1]

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Articles of Confederation Emerge from Congress in 1777

After undergoing more than a year of planning and compromise in the Continental Congress, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States was finally ready to be sent to the states for ratification. Nearly four years would pass before all thirteen states had ratified the document—Maryland being the last to ratify on March 1, 1781—and it was put into action. The Articles provided for a one-house legislature, a weak executive, no national power of taxation, a lack of standard currency, and voting by state—flaws that would eventually lead to its failure.

United States Continental Congress. Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States. . . . Lancaster: Francis Bailey, 1777. Pamphlet. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (048.05.00) [Digital ID# us0048_05]

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Congress Adopts the Northwest Ordinance

The Northwest Ordinance, adopted by the Confederation Congress on July 13, 1787, established a precedent for the organization of territories outside of the nation’s original thirteen states. A minimum of five territories or states were to be created. Each was to have a republican government with an executive, legislative council (upper house), assembly, and judiciary. Not only was the territory north and west of the Ohio River to be settled by Americans and admitted into full statehood in the union, but the Ordinance stipulated that those territories would be free from slavery or involuntary servitude and have a bill of rights.

United States Continental Congress. Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the U.S. Northwest of the Ohio. New York, 1787. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (049.04.00) [Digital ID# us0049_04]

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Congress Adopts the Northwest Ordinance

The Northwest Ordinance, adopted by the Confederation Congress on July 13, 1787, established a precedent for the organization of territories outside of the nation’s original thirteen states. A minimum of five territories or states were to be created. Each was to have a republican government with an executive, legislative council (upper house), assembly, and judiciary. Not only was the territory north and west of the Ohio River to be settled by Americans and admitted into full statehood in the union, but the Ordinance stipulated that those territories would be free from slavery or involuntary servitude and have a bill of rights. Nathan Dane (1752–1835), who authored the clause prohibiting slavery, annotated this copy.

United States Continental Congress. An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the U.S. Northwest of the Ohio. New York: 1787. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (049.03.00) [Digital ID# us0049_03]

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Crucible for the Creation of the American Republic

Philadelphia, site of both Continental Congresses, was one of the most urban, advanced cities in America in the eighteenth century. Originally drawn by George Heap (1714–1752), a surveyor and mapmaker in Philadelphia, and Nicolas Scull (1687–1762), Surveyor General of the Province of Pennsylvania, this map was engraved and published by Matthäus Albrect Lotter (1741–1810), and shows streams, roads, and names of the landowners in the vicinity of Philadelphia. The bottom of the map contains an illustration of the State House, home of the second Continental Congress and the Federal Convention of 1787.

Matthäus Albrect Lotter. A Plan of the City and Environs of Philadelphia. [Augsburg: M.A. Lotter, 1777]. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (053.03.00) [Digital ID# ar132200]

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Fear of Wasting George Washington’s Political Capital

James Madison expressed a fear that George Washington would waste his political capital by attending an “abortive” convention. Madison wondered if Washington should hold off on his appearance until some progress had been made, suggesting that Benjamin Franklin might provide “sufficient dignity into the Chair” of the convention until the proper time. Washington had left Virginia by the time Edmund Randolph received this letter and arrived in Philadelphia in time to help Madison and other members of the Virginia delegation to draft a proposed plan of government, known as the “Virginia Plan.”

Letter from James Madison to Edmund Randolph, April 15, 1787. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (052.02.00) [Digital ID# us0052_02]

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Fear of Wasting Washington’s Political Capital

James Madison worried that George Washington would waste his political capital by attending an “abortive” convention. He thought Washington should delay his appearance until some progress at the Constitutional Convention had been made and suggested that in the meantime, Benjamin Franklin might provide “sufficient dignity into the Chair.” Before Madison could address the matter, however, Washington had already left for Philadelphia, as indicated by this letter from John Dawson (1762–1814), a fellow Virginian, who realized the high stakes of the convention.

Letter from John Dawson to James Madison, April 15, 1787. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (052.03.00) [Digital ID# us0052_03]

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Not Worth a Continental

During the American Revolution the Continental Congress issued paper currency to finance the Revolutionary War. These notes, called “Continentals,” had no backing in gold or silver, but were instead backed by the “anticipation” of tax revenues. Easily counterfeited and without solid backing, the notes quickly lost their value, so that the term “not worth a Continental” became common slang. After the war Congress and the state governments continued to produce money contributing to what Madison referred to as the “mortal diseases” of the government under the Articles of Confederation and resulting in calls for a new federal constitution to strengthen the national government.

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  • United States Continental Congress. Paper currency, 1775–1777. Printed by Hall and Sellers; Rhode Island. Paper Currency, 1786. Printed by Southwick and Barber. Marian Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136.00.00) [Digital ID # us0136]

  • United States Continental Congress. Paper currency, 1775–1777. Printed by Hall and Sellers; Rhode Island. Paper Currency, 1786. Printed by Southwick and Barber. Marian Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136.01.00) [Digital ID# us0136_01]

  • United States Continental Congress. Paper currency, 1775–1777. Printed by Hall and Sellers; Rhode Island. Paper Currency, 1786. Printed by Southwick and Barber. Marian Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136.02.00) [Digital ID# us0136_02]

  • United States Continental Congress. Paper currency, 1775–1777. Printed by Hall and Sellers; Rhode Island. Paper Currency, 1786. Printed by Southwick and Barber. Marian Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136.03.00) [Digital ID# us0136_03]

  • United States Continental Congress. Paper currency, 1775–1777. Printed by Hall and Sellers; Rhode Island. Paper Currency, 1786. Printed by Southwick and Barber. Marian Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136.04.00) [Digital ID# us0136_04]

  • United States Continental Congress. Paper currency, 1775–1777. Printed by Hall and Sellers; Rhode Island. Paper Currency, 1786. Printed by Southwick and Barber. Marian Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (136.05.00) [Digital ID# us0136_05]

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Plans to Revise the Articles of Confederation

Rufus King (1755–1827), a member of the Confederation Congress and a delegate to the Federal Constitution Convention of 1787, expressed concern for a 1785 Massachusetts legislative call for a national convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. In his letter to Nathan Dane (1752–1835), a Massachusetts delegate to the Confederation Congress and architect of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, King correctly predicted that any new government would be less republican and that the larger states would want more control of the new government. The Massachusetts delegates refused to submit the request to Congress or to the other states.

Letter from Rufus King to Nathan Dane, September 17, 1785. Manuscript. Nathan Dane Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (051.03.00) [Digital ID# us0051_03p2]

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Washington Voices Doubts About a “general Convention”

In early 1786 George Washington (1732–1799) recognized that the Articles of Confederation needed to be revised, but he still harbored doubts about calling a “general Convention.” Despite his fears that a bad solution or a failed attempt to change the Articles might worsen America’s economic and political conditions, Washington believed that “something must be done, or the fabrick must fall.”

Letter from George Washington to John Jay, May 18, 1786. Letter book. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (050.03.00) [Digital ID# us0050_03]

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