HISTORY OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES
On September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was created. Though it would take until
- June 21, 1788, to be ratified and until
- March 4, 1789, to be effective
In a very real sense, it was the founding document of the federal governmental system of the United States of America. Even to a greater extent than the Declaration of Independence, which was more of a “bill of divorcement” from England, the Constitution described how the United States would operate as a nation.
Purpose of the Constitution
The Philadelphia Convention, later called the Constitutional Convention, was called ostensibly to amend the Articles of Confederation that had been in effect as the operational government document between 1781–89. But that effort was not realistic. Alexander Hamilton had called these Articles “imbecilic.” The Articles gave little power to the central government and were too weak to regulate conflicts between the states.
The Confederation Congress could make decisions but lacked enforcement powers; it could print money, but it was worthless, and there was inconsistent taxation from the states to support the federal government. States could make their own trade agreements with other countries. As I’ve written, it was America’s experiment with a limited democracy, but it was deemed unsatisfactory. Instead, the Constitution empowered a representative republic.
Rather than “fix” the Articles, delegates decided to create a new government at the Convention held at the Pennsylvania State House. War of Independence General George Washington of Virginia was elected President of the Convention. Foreshadowing?
Creation of the Constitution
The document was developed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by 55 delegates to a Constitutional Convention, but the creation was not without contention.
The Federalists, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, using the pseudonym Publius, wrote the Federalist Papers primarily to support the adoption of the Constitution in places like New York, where Anti-Federalists held sway. These Federalist Papers have frequently served as a commentary or interpretation of the Constitution.
Federalists, including George Washington, argued for a strong central government. At the same time, Anti-Federalists like Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and later Thomas Jefferson feared the document would lead to the suppression of state and individual rights. Major states like Virginia would only sign if there were the inclusion of a “Bill of Rights.”
After almost four months of deliberation, the United States Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, when 39 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention endorsed the Constitution created during the Convention. Nevertheless, the action of the Convention was recorded to appear unanimous with the formula:
Done in convention by the unanimous consent of the states present
Preamble to the Constitution
The first line of the document states its source, purpose, and goal:
We the People of the United States, in Order to
form a more perfect Union,
insure domestic Tranquility,
provide for the common defense,
promote the general Welfare, and
secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This was unique: it established a “Constitutional Presidential Republic” unlike other such Constitutions. It did not recognize a king but found its source, as Abraham Lincoln would say almost a century later in his Gettysburg Address:
“government of the people, by the people, for the people…”
Unlike England’s government, the U.S. was to have a system of “checks and balances” comprised of three branches of the federal government with separate powers: Executive (Presidency), Legislative (Congress), and Judicial (Supreme Court).
Similar to the bicameral Parliament the Framers had known from England, with its House of Lords and a House of Commons, the United States was to have a Senate and a House of Representatives. But how this was arrived at was a matter of compromise.
- James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” had proposed the “Virginia Plan,” or large state plan, calling for the legislature to be based on population quotas: the larger the state, the more representatives in Congress.
- William Patterson proposed the “New Jersey Plan,” which favored the smaller states, with an equal number of legislators from each state in a single house.
- Roger Sherman, one of the “Committee of Five” who compiled the Declaration of Independence, proposed the “Great Compromise Proposal,” which broke the loggerhead: the Senate would be based on an equal number of state representatives. In contrast, the House of Representatives would be based on the population ratio.
Amendments to the Constitution
While the original Constitution contained 7 Articles between the Preamble and the closing endorsement with date, location, and signatures — it made provision in Article Five for amendments. Without changing the original text, the Amendments could take from 100 days to almost four years to ratify.
Trivia: the 27th Amendment took almost 203 years before the states ratified it. Passed in 1992, it prevents members of Congress from granting themselves pay raises during the current session. Instead, any raises that are adopted must take effect during the next session of Congress.
Read: the background of the 19th Amendment
The first ten amendments, known collectively as the “Bill of Rights” or codicils to the original Constitution, were hotly debated between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Addressing the objections of the Anti-Federalists, who were concerned about governmental overreach, George Mason of Virginia suggested the addition of the Bill of Rights to guarantee personal freedoms and rights.
In a little-known footnote, Virginia required the Bill of Rights before signing the Constitution partly because most of the state was non-Anglicans, meaning the Church of England. John Leland, a Baptist leader who knew both Jefferson and Patrick Henry well, spearheaded an effort for the promise of religious tolerance. Henry had expressed opposition to the Constitution because the document “squinted toward monarchy” and guaranteed no religious liberty.
The ten Bill of Rights were approved by the newly appointed President of the United States, George Washington, approved by Congress on September 23, 1789, and then passed to the states for ratification. The Bill of Rights started with the First Amendment, which stated
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Along with the other nine Rights, they would limit the government’s authority in judicial proceedings and, more importantly, assert that all powers not explicitly granted to the federal government were to remain reserved to either the states or the people. The debate raged between 1787 and 1788. Of course, Alexander Hamilton opposed these amendments. Though Madison initially opposed the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution, he gradually understood the importance of doing so during the often contentious ratification debates. Thomas Jefferson, writing to Madison from France, said:
“Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.”
Most states finally ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791. Only Massachusetts and Connecticut declined, embracing religious limitations into the 1800s, supporting the Congregational church as the established church in those two states.
The final religious disestablishment nationwide in 1833 at the state level meant a free-market ecclesiastical society with no governmental support for one variety over another.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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