Creating the United States Constitution
America’s search for a plan of national government was a slow, difficult process. Compromise, cooperation, and creativity were required as the Americans moved from being colonials in a patriarchal monarchy to citizen-leaders in a representative republic of federal states.
Most of this process took place in the midst of a long, revolutionary war. Not only were these “the times that try men’s souls,” in the words of Thomas Paine, they were also the times that tested Americans’ intellects and practical political skills in creating a strong, national, republican government.
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Road to the Constitution
The Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, on November 15, 1777, but the states did not ratify them until March 1, 1781. The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments. Once peace removed the rationale of wartime necessity the weaknesses of the 1777 Articles of Confederation became increasingly apparent. Divisions among the states and even local rebellions threatened to destroy the fruits of the Revolution. Nationalists, led by James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Wilson, almost immediately began working toward strengthening the federal government. They turned a series of regional commercial conferences into a national constitutional convention at Philadelphia in 1787.
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An opinion begins to prevail that a general convention for revising the articles of Confederation would be expedient.
John Jay to George Washington, March 16, 1786
Convention and Ratification
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention began to assemble at Philadelphia in May 1787, they quickly resolved to replace rather than merely revise the Articles of Confederation. Although James Madison is known as the “father of the constitution,” George Washington’s support gave the convention its hope of success.
Division of power between branches of government and between the federal and state governments, slavery, trade, taxes, foreign affairs, representation, and even the procedure to elect a president were just a few of the contentious issues. Diverging plans, strong egos, regional demands, and states’ rights made solutions difficult. Five months of debate, compromise, and creative strategies produced a new constitution creating a federal republic with a strong central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments.
Ten months of public and private debate were required to secure ratification by the minimum nine states. Even then Rhode Island and North Carolina held out until after the adoption of a Bill of Rights. Read more about Convention and Ratification »
For we are sent hither to consult not contend, with each other; and Declaration of a fix’d Opinion, and of determined Resolutions never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us.
Benjamin Franklin, Speech in Congress, June 11, 1787
Ours is a Constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, 1819