Within a decade of adopting the Articles of Confederation, it had become clear that the document needed modification. It was precisely for this reason that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called. We will assess the purpose and significance of this convention, through its summary.
Did You Know?
‘We the People of the United States’ was a last minute inclusion to the Constitution. It was previously slated to be ‘We the people of the States of …’ (the names of states).
In 1777, a committee of delegates from the thirteen original colonies drafted the Articles of Confederation―a formal document which eventually became the first Constitution of the United States. It brought together the thirteen colonies, which was a major achievement, as these colonies often found themselves at loggerheads. It had other strengths as well, but they were overshadowed by its weaknesses; the most glaring being the fact that it left little control for the federal government, and thus, put it at the mercy of the states.
Soon, it became evident that a government functioning on the basis of the Articles of Confederation was a mere spectator, with no real powers in its hands. The need of the hour was a stronger central government, and thus, there was an urgent need to revise the Articles. So, when the delegates from the five states met in Annapolis, Maryland, for the Annapolis Convention in 1786, they called for a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in May the following year.
Constitutional Convention of 1787 Summary
The Constitutional Convention was initially scheduled for May 14, 1787, but was deferred to May 25, as only the delegates from two states―Pennsylvania and Virginia―turned up on the scheduled day. It was alternately known as the Philadelphia Convention and the Grand Convention at Philadelphia―for obvious reasons―and the Federal Convention. During the first few days, rules were established for the proceedings, and George Washington was elected the president of the Convention.
Of the 74 delegates invited for the convention, only 55 turned up. Of these, only 30 delegates stayed back for the entire duration. Among those present were George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Oliver Ellsworth, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, John Dickinson, John Rutledge, etc.
While the purpose of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was to revise the Articles of Confederation, to ensure a stronger central government, a few days into it, the delegates came to a consensus that it was better to write a new constitution from scratch, instead of revising the existing document. Some delegates like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were strong proponents of this idea from the beginning. The problem though was the divide between the big states and small states.
Serious business began with the proposal of James Madison’s Virginia Plan by Edmund Randolph, the Governor of Virginia. In response to James Madison’s plan, William Paterson, representing the state of New Jersey, introduced the New Jersey Plan, but the same was rejected by the delegates. Even Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinckney, representing New Hampshire and South Carolina respectively, had presented their plans at the convention.
After three months of deliberations, Roger Sherman of Connecticut put forth the proposal that every state would have equal representation in the Senate, and in the House of Representatives, it would be proportional. It was as good as finding the middle path between the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. This came to be known as the Great Compromise, or Connecticut Compromise.
Slavery was yet another issue of contention that left the Northern and Southern states divided at the Constitutional Convention. The question was whether slaves should be taken into consideration when determining the population of a particular state, which, in turn, would affect its political representation … and if yes, how should they be counted. To resolve the issue, James Wilson―one of the delegates from Pennsylvania―proposed the Three-Fifth Compromise, which stated that three-fifth of the slave population would be considered when determining the political representation of the state.
In September, the final draft came for voting for adoption. On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention voted in favor of the Constitution, with 39 of the participating 55 delegates signing it. The state of Rhode Island had not sent any representative, while two of the three delegates from New Hampshire left the proceedings midway, leaving Alexander Hamilton as the only delegate from the Granite State. Thus, Washington quipped that the Constitution was signed by 11 states and Colonel Hamilton.
In this manner, a convention called for revising the Articles of Confederation led to the drafting of the new US Constitution, which forms the supreme law of the United States of America even today. Nobody can deny the fact that the convention served the purpose. The Articles of Confederation, no doubt had its benefits, but the weak central government resulting from it would have hindered the progress of the United States as a nation. The new constitution resulted in the formation of a federal structure, with a strong government at the center, and therein lied its significance.