September 17, 1787, the U. S. Constitution Was Signed ~ 235 Years Ago

On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the Constitution of the United States. The next step was to have nine of the 13 U. S. states ratify it, but that process was not so easy.

Prior to this document being written, the U. S. had accepted the Articles of Confederation. “The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first written constitution of the United States. Written in 1777 and stemming from wartime urgency, its progress was slowed by fears of central authority and extensive land claims by states. It was not ratified until March 1, 1781. 

“Under these articles, the states remained sovereign and independent, with Congress serving as the last resort on appeal of disputes. Significantly, The Articles of Confederation named the new nation “The United States of America.” Congress was given the authority to make treaties and alliances, maintain armed forces and coin money. However, the central government lacked the ability to levy taxes and regulate commerce, issues that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 for the creation of new federal laws under The United States Constitution.” (History.com)

As the Articles of Confederation did not prove to be a strong enough document to keep the fledging country together, in 1786, five states’ delegates met in Annapolis, Maryland. After long and often heated discussions, the other states were ask to send delegates to a new convention in Philadelphia, one meant to create a more important and more powerful centralized government.

At the first meeting in May 1786, all states were represented, except Rhode Island, which chose not to participate in the initial process. The group quickly determined the Articles of Confederation were not strong enough to meet their needs; therefore, they began to draft a new document. George Washington served as the elected president of the convention.

The delegates designed a government with a system of checks and balances. One of the main sticking points was how many representatives would be chosen to serve in Congress for each state. Naturally, the states with the most population preferred to have the number of delegates chosen based on population. the lesser populated states wished for the same number of delegates from each state (equal representation).

“On May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph of the Virginia delegation proposed the creation of a bicameral legislature. Under his proposal, membership in both houses would be allocated to each state proportional to its population. Candidates for the lower house would be nominated and elected by the people of each state, while candidates for the upper house would be nominated by the state legislatures of each state and then elected by the members of the lower house. This proposal was known as the Virginia Plan.

“Less populous states like Delaware were afraid such an arrangement would result in their voices and interests being drowned out by the larger states. Many delegates also felt that the Convention did not have the authority to completely scrap the Articles of Confederation, as the Virginia Plan would have done. In response, on June 15, 1787, William Paterson of the New Jersey delegation proposed a legislature consisting of a single house. Each state was to have equal representation in this body, regardless of population. The New Jersey Plan, as it was called, would have left the Articles of Confederation in place but would have amended them to somewhat increase Congress’s powers.[Yale Avalon Project]

“At the time of the convention, the South was growing more quickly than the North, and southern states had the most extensive Western claims. South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia were small in the 1780s, but they expected growth and thus favored proportional representation. New York was one of the largest states at the time, but two of its three representatives (Alexander Hamilton being the exception) supported an equal representation per state, as part of their desire to see maximum autonomy for the states. New York’s two other representatives departed the convention before the representation issue was voted upon, leaving Alexander Hamilton, and New York State, without a vote in the issue.”

“James Madison and Hamilton were two of the leaders of the proportional representation group. Madison argued that a conspiracy of large states against the small states was unrealistic as the large states were so different from each other. Hamilton argued that the states were artificial entities made up of individuals and accused small state representatives of wanting power, not liberty. For their part, the small state representatives argued that the states were, in fact, of a legally equal status and that proportional representation would be unfair to their states. Gunning Bedford Jr. of Delaware notoriously threatened on behalf of the small states, “the small ones w[ould] find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice”. Elbridge Gerry ridiculed the small states’ claim of sovereignty, saying “that we never were independent States, were not such now, & never could be even on the principles of the Confederation. The States & the advocates for them were intoxicated with the idea of their sovereignty.” [Yale Avalon Project]

On June 19, 1787, the delegates rejected the New Jersey Plan and voted to proceed with a discussion of the Virginia Plan. The small states became increasingly discontented, and some threatened to withdraw. On July 2, 1787, the Convention was deadlocked over giving each state an equal vote in the upper house, with five states in the affirmative, five in the negative, and one divided.

What was to become known as the Connecticut Compromise saved the day, so to speak. The Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise of 1787 or Sherman Compromise) was an agreement reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that in part defined the legislative structure and representation each state would have under the United States Constitution. It retained the bicameral legislature as proposed by Roger Sherman, along with proportional representation of the states in the lower house or House of Representatives, and it required the upper house or Senate to be weighted equally among the states; each state would have two representatives in the Senate. [Connecticut Compromise]

With all those details complete, on September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was signed. It still was not yet a binding document, for Article VII required nine of the 13 states must first ratify it to make it legal.

In early December of 1787, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Georgia ratified the document. Five states of the nine required were in place.

Massachusetts barely ratified it because, as written, the constitution did not protection the rights we Americans felt important at the time: those of freedom of speech, religion, and press. A compromise was reached in which amendments would be added to cover what had been previously omitted. Therefore, in February 1788, Massachusetts became the sixth state to ratify the Constitution.

Maryland and South Carolina followed suit. In June 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. Enough had agreed to proceed. The government under the U. S. Constitution officially began on March 4, 1789.

Other states also ratified the document.

June 1789 – Virginia was the 10th state added.

July 1789 – New York was the 11th state added.

September 25, 1789 – the first Congress of the United States adopted 12 amendments to the Constitution. The first Ten are what we in the U. S. called The Bill of Rights. Ten amendments were ratified in 1791.

November 1789 – North Carolina was the 12th state added.

Rhode Island was the only state remaining who did not agree to the ratification. Rhode Island was concerned with federal control of currency and remained unsatisfied with the compromise on the issue of slavery. After the U. S. government threatened to sever commercial enterprise with the state, Rhode Island agreed to the ratification by barely two “yes” votes more than the “nays.” This occurred in May 1790. All thirteen states were joined together.

The U. S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution in operation in the world.

The Bill of Rights

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to September 17, 1787, the U. S. Constitution Was Signed ~ 235 Years Ago

  1. Kevin Lindsey says:

    Thanks for this article. Recalling the important events like this and the discussions and compromises that made us who we are as a nation are so important. As has been said, if you don’t know where you came from how can you know where you are going? Thanks!

    • “If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”

      ― Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

  2. Mirta Ines Trupp says:

    Thank you for posting this important piece. As an immigrant, I admire, respect and hold dear the founders and the constitution of our great nation.

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