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[Detail] Millions of acres, Iowa and Nebraska, 1872

Making the Constitution

One of the collection's most interesting documents from the post-Revolutionary era is the first draft of the Constitution reviewed by delegates at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia, August 1787.  The Preamble to the first draft reads:

"WE the People of the States of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity."

From "We the People of the States"

  • Compare this draft of the Preamble with the Preamble in the final version of the Constitution ratified the following year. According to the two versions of the Preamble, who was entering into an agreement to establish the Constitution? Why is this difference significant?
  • What is another important difference between the first and final drafts of the Preamble? Explain why the difference you have identified is important.
  • Read the first draft of the Constitution and compare it with the final version ratified by state conventions the following year. Make a list of at least five significant differences between the two versions. For each difference you have listed, try to develop an explanation of how the final version represents a compromise between competing interests in the states.

One of the most controversial aspects of the new Constitution submitted to the states for approval was its failure to include a bill of rights. A group of people who opposed the Constitution, called the Anti-Federalists, had varying reasons for not liking the proposed blueprint for U.S. government; they were agreed on the need for a Bill of Rights, an argument they hoped to use to defeat the new Constitution. When ratification appeared to be in danger, the Constitution's supporters agreed to propose a Bill of Rights in the first Congress convened once the Constitution was ratified. During the ratification debates, several states proposed amendments to the Constitution, many of which dealt specifically with the issue of civil liberties. The Virginia ratifying convention agreed that amendments should be adopted by the method prescribed in the Constitution and recommended 20 amendments for consideration that would establish "... a Declaration or Bill of Rights asserting and securing from encroachment the essential and unalienable rights of the people..." The Virginia also recommended 20 additional amendments related to other issues. Read the report from the Virginia convention and consider the following:

  • Which rights proposed by Virginia were included in the Bill of Rights that was eventually adopted? How might you explain the omission of some of the items?
  • What other amendments were proposed by Virginia? What experiences as colonies or under the Articles of Confederation might help explain why the Virginia convention felt some of these amendments were necessary? Have any of these issues been addressed in amendments to the Constitution?