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Collection Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789

Creating a Constitution

[Detail] First Draft of the Report of the Committee of Five of the Federal Convention
Philadelphia: s.n., 1787. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called to revise the ailing Articles of Confederation. However, the Convention soon abandoned the Articles, drafting a new Constitution with a much stronger national government. Nine states had to approve the Constitution before it could go into effect. After a long and often bitter debate, eleven states ratified the Constitution, which instituted a new form of government for the United States.

Congress Tries to Revise the Articles of Confederation

In May 1786, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that Congress revise the Articles of Confederation. Congress responded by appointing a committee to draft amendments to the Articles. On August 7, 1786, the committee produced these amendments, written chiefly by committee chairman Pinckney.

Among many changes, the amendments would have granted Congress exclusive power over commerce, and outlined punishments for poor attendance by members of Congress. Although the most ambitious effort to revise the Articles of Confederation, the amendments were never acted upon; a new convention meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, seemed likely to devise a plan for granting Congress power over trade.

A View of the Federal Hall of the City of New York, as Appeared in the Year 1797. Henry R. Robinson, Lithograph, 1847.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-1799.

The Constitutional Convention Drafts a New Constitution

On July 26, 1787, after two months of fierce debate over the structure and powers of a new federal government, the Constitutional Convention was ready to commit its resolutions to writing. Appointing a "committee of detail" to draft a written constitution, the Convention adjourned until August 6.

To prepare themselves, the committee first studied the Convention's resolutions, state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, and other applicable reports and documents. Then, Edmund Randolph of Virginia wrote out a rough draft of a constitution, which the committee then discussed. James Wilson revised Randolph's draft, the committee reviewed it, and a clean copy was sent to prominent Philadelphia printers John Dunlap and David Claypoole. The Convention told them to print just enough copies for use by the delegates; the draft was to be kept secret to avoid controversy.

The Constitutional Convention Completes a New Constitution

After five weeks of debate over the committee of detail's draft Constitution, the Constitutional Convention appointed a committee of style to prepare a final version; Gouverneur Morris, later known as the "penman of the Constitution," did most of the work. On September 17, 1787, after several days of further revision, the Constitutional Convention voted in favor of the Constitution. The states were left to accept or reject this new plan of government. Delegate James Madison, one of the Constitution's most fervent advocates, felt that the success or failure of the American Constitution "would decide forever the fate of republican government."

The Continental Congress Institutes a New Government

As the states considered the proposed Constitution, Congress assembled, but with a new government in the making, the old government had little to do. As one delegate wrote: "To your demand to know what we are doing in Congress? I answer -- Nothing. To your enquiry what we have done? I answer -- almost nothing... The States have been in such a flutter about the New, that they have hardly paid attention to the old Government." On July 2, 1788, Congress received the momentous news that New Hampshire had just become the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, making it the law of the land.

Congress responded by appointing a committee to schedule the first federal elections and fix the date when the new government would begin operation in New York City. This was the last major act of the Continental Congress.

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