The Convention was supposed to open on May 14, 1787. But few of the 55 delegates had arrived in Philadelphia by that date. Finally, on May 25, the Convention formally opened in Independence Hall. Twelve states had responded to the call for the Convention. Rhode Island had refused to send delegates because it did not want the national government to interfere with Rhode Island's affairs.
|Illustration from the Massachusetts treasury note of 1775 links the cause of American independence to English Magna Carta of 1215. (The American Revolution: A Picture Source Book, Dover Publications, 1975) |
Of the 55 delegates, 39 signed the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. One of the signers was John Dickinson of Delaware, who left the Convention but asked another delegate, George Read, to sign for him. William Jackson, the Convention secretary, witnessed the signatures. The delegates included some of the most experienced and patriotic men in the new republic. George Washington served as president of the Convention. Benjamin Franklin, at the age of 81, attended as a Representative of Pennsylvania. The brilliant Alexander Hamilton represented New York. James Madison of Virginia received the title of "Father of the Constitution" with his speeches, negotiations, and attempts at compromise. Madison told the delegates they were considering a plan that would "decide forever the fate of republican government." He kept a record of the delegates' debates and decisions.
|Left, James Madison, who later became the nation's fourth President, played a pivotal role at the Constitutional Convention, where he was dubbed the "Father of the Constitution." (Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Bequest of Herbert L. Pratt, Class of 1895) Right, Benjamin Franklin, representing the state of Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, was instrumental in forging the so-called Great Compromise, setting up a two-house congress. (The Library of Congress)|
Other men who had much to do with writing the Constitution included John Dickinson, Gouverneur Morris, Edmund Randolph, Roger Sherman, James Wilson, and George Wythe. Morris was probably the most influential delegate after Madison and Washington. He was given the task of putting all the Convention's resolutions and decisions into polished form. Morris actually "wrote" the Constitution. An original copy of the document is preserved in the National Archives building in Washington, D.C.
Several important figures of the time did not attend the Convention. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were absent abroad on other government duties. Samuel Adams and John Jay failed to be appointed delegates from their states. Patrick Henry refused to serve after his appointment because he opposed granting any more power to the national government. Three leading members of the convention -- Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph -- refused to sign the Constitution because they disagreed with parts of it.
THE BACKGROUND OF THE CONSTITUTION. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention relied greatly on past experience as they worked to create a new government. They recalled many important events in the development of constitutional government. These included the granting of Magna Carta, an English constitutional document, in 1215, and the meeting of the Jamestown Representative Assembly in 1619. Some of the colonies also served as examples of constitutional forms of government. Colonial governments had weaknesses but had progressed beyond other governments of their time in achieving liberty under law.
About the time of the Revolutionary War, several American states established constitutional governments. In 1777, John Jay of New York had helped write a constitution for his state. John Adams of Massachusetts had helped write the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia used many ideas and words from the constitutions of these and other states.
The delegates also drew on their own experiences. For example, Benjamin Franklin had proposed a plan at the Albany Congress of 1754 to unify the colonies under a central government. Washington remembered his own problems during the war when, as Commander-in-Chief, he had to work with the weak Confederation government. Almost every delegate to the Convention had served as a soldier or administrator of the government. The delegates often disagreed on details but were united in wanting the new government to be strong enough to rule the nation, but no so strong as to threaten the liberties of the states and of the people.
THE COMPROMISES. The task of creating a new government was not easily accomplished. Disputes among the delegates nearly ended the Convention on several occasions. For example, delegates from the large and more populous states disagreed with those from the small states about representation in the national legislature. The larger states favored the Virginia Plan, under which population would determine the number of representatives a state could send to the legislature. The smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan, which proposed that all the states would have an equal number of representatives. The Connecticut delegates suggested a compromise that settled the problem. Their plan provided for equal representation in the Senate, along with representation in proportion to population in the House of Representatives. This proposal became known as the Connecticut Compromise or the Great Compromise.
Compromises also settled conflicts over the issue of slavery. The delegates from the Northern states wanted Congress to have the power to forbid the foreign slave trade and eventually to abolish slavery. Most Southern delegates did not wish Congress to have this power. A compromise decided that Congress would not be allowed to regulate the foreign slave trade until 1808. Another compromise involved the question of how to count slaves in determining the number of congressmen a state could have. Slaves were not considered citizens, and so the Convention agreed that only three-fifths of them could be counted.
The delegates agreed that each state should hold a special convention to discuss and vote on the Constitution. They also decided that as soon as nine states had ratified (approved) the Constitution, the Constitution would take effect and they could begin to organize their new government.