They met in Philadelphia in May 1787. Fifty-five
men from 12 different states gathered, intending
to revise the Articles of Confederation. As they
began their meetings, however, Virginia Governor
Edmund Randolph presented a plan prepared by
James Madison. The plan outlined a design for
a new, centralized, strong national government.
Thus began the Constitutional Convention – the
four-month process of secret argument, debate
and compromise that produced a document that
would soon be known in all corners of the globe:
the Constitution of the United States.
Passersby might have had little idea that anything
of importance was happening at the time, and there
was no guarantee that anything significant would
be accomplished. Attendance at the Convention
reached a quorum two weeks after proceedings
began. Rhode Island refused to participate
The U.S. government was in a position of weakness
relative to the states, and had little clout in
commercial policy or taxation. It had little power
to settle conflicts between the states or to address
conflicts within the states. There was a shared
feeling that the system in place could not provide a
safeguard from popular discontent, but a range of
opinions on how to solve the problems.
Alexander Hamilton proposed a strong federal
government based on the British model – with a
president and senators elected for life, and state
governors appointed by that government.
The New Jersey delegation put forward a plan that
would have maintained Articles of Confederation
while giving Congress greater powers to raise
revenue and regulate interstate commerce. It also
imagined the executive branch as being run by
multiple individuals rather than one “president.”
Smaller states rallied around this plan.
Randolph and Madison introduced their Virginia
Plan early in the Convention, endorsing a nationalist
vision of a strong central government consisting of
a judicial, legislative, and executive branch. The
plan would have established a legislature with state
representation proportional to its population.
Each of these plans shaped the emerging debate
in the Convention about what might replace the
Articles of Confederation.
In June, delegates debated the question of
representation. Larger states were staunchly in
favor of proportional representation, while the
smaller states supported equal representation. The
delegates finally resolved the question by making
a “great compromise” to create a two-house, or
bicameral, legislature. In the upper house, each
state would have equal representation, while in
the lower the people would have proportional
Slavery was another controversial question. In
1784, Thomas Jefferson and his congressional
committee had drafted the Northwest Ordinance,
which prohibited slavery in the new territories to
the north and west of the Ohio River. This raised a
question about representation and led to another
compromise by which every five enslaved Americans
would be counted as three citizens, but only for
taxation and representation purposes. It would take
almost a century, a bloody war, and a Constitutional
amendment before slavery was abolished in the
On September 17, 1787, the final draft of the
document was read to the 42 delegates remaining
at the convention. Thirty-nine delegates affixed
their signatures to the document and notified the
Confederation Congress that their work was finished.
Then the Congress submitted the document to
the states for ratification. Argument, debate, and
The state of Delaware was first to ratify. On June 21,
1788, just nine months after the state ratification
process began, New Hampshire became the ninth
state to ratify, and the Constitution established the
U.S. government as it exists today.
Almost as soon as the Constitution was ratified,
there were calls to add amendments that would
secure basic individual rights and liberties. The first
ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were
ratified in December 1791. In the centuries since,
the Constitution has been amended more than a
dozen times and its protections and prohibitions
exhaustively debated. Although it is the world’s
oldest written constitution, the U.S. Constitution
remains very much a living document.
Suggestions for Teachers
Compare persuasive techniques and rhetorical devices used by George Mason in “Objections to the
Constitution” (Sept. 1787) and by James Madison (writing as “Publius”) in “Federalist No. X” (Nov. 1787).
Outline each man’s arguments, and then compare their ideas to the final version of the Constitution. Look
for evidence of either man’s arguments in the final version.
Read George Washington’s diary entries. Pair these with a map of the nation from that time and check
off the states as they arrive according to Washington’s entries. Discuss the definition of “quorum.” Ask
students: Why was it important to have a quorum present before the convention could proceed?
Read George Washington’s letter introducing the Constitution: What democratic principles (e.g.,
separation of powers, compromise, and government responsibilities) does he illustrate?
Analyze the cartoon “The looking glass for 1787.” (Direct students to record their thinking on the
Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool. Select questions from the Teachers Guide: Analyzing Political
Cartoons to guide and focus their thinking). What issues are raised by the cartoon? How has the artist
Read Alexander Hamilton’s speech notes. Assign students to write and deliver a speech based on the notes
and other knowledge about Hamilton’s views on democracy.
Compare the “Constitution with marginal notes by George Washington” (1787) with Jefferson’s “Notes on
the United States Constitution” (1788). What do each man’s reactions tell us about his views about the
Constitution and the newly formed government?
Use documents to trace the development of the Constitution from Articles of Confederation through Bill
of Rights. Allow students time to analyze each item and complete a close reading, and then ask students
to write the history of the development of the Constitution. Use items such as Jefferson’s chart of the
votes, various notes, and Washington’s letter presenting the Constitution to add layers of interest to the
Compare the student-prepared history to accounts from textbooks or other secondary sources. How do
they differ? How are they the same? Discuss choices made by publishers to include or omit particular
information or details.
Ask each student to select a single amendment from the 12 proposed in the draft of the Bill of Rights and
make a case to their classmates for its ratification. After the class debates each amendment and votes on
its ratification, compare the class’s list of rights with the Bill of Rights as it was eventually passed. How
would the nation be different if your class’s list of rights were in effect?