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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History SparkNotes

Creating the Constitution: 1786–1787

The Articles of Confederation: 1777–1787

The Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights: 1788–1791

1786 Delegates from five states meet at Annapolis Convention to discuss revising Articles of Confederation
1787 Delegates from twelve states meet at Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia
Key People
George Washington -  Revolutionary War hero; chairman of the Constitutional Convention

The Annapolis Convention

To address the problems with the Articles of Confederation, delegates from five states met at the Annapolis Convention in Maryland in 1786. However, they could not agree on how these issues should be resolved. Finally, a new convention was proposed for the following year with the express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitutional Convention

In 1787, delegates from twelve of the thirteen states (minus Rhode Island) met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Most of the attendees were not die-hard revolutionaries (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry were all absent). Nevertheless, most did have experience writing their own state constitutions. Though all fifty-five delegates involved in the proceedings were wealthy property owners, most were aware that they were serving a republic that comprised all social classes. George Washington was unanimously chosen as the chairman of the convention.

Three Branches of Government

It quickly became clear to the Philadelphia delegates that the Articles should be scrapped and replaced with an entirely new constitution to create a stronger national government. Though this about-face was a violation of Congress’s mandate to revise the Articles only, most delegates believed there was no other way to restore order in the Union.

The delegates began drafting a new Constitution to create a republican government. They decided on a government consisting of three branches: legislative (Congress), executive (the President), and judicial (headed by the Supreme Court). Delegates believed this separation of powers into three different branches would ensure that the United States would not become another monarchy.

The Virginia and New Jersey Plans

The structure of the new legislative branch was the subject of a heated debate, as delegates from Virginia and New Jersey both submitted proposals. The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which the number of representatives each state had would depend on the state’s population. The larger, more populous states supported this proposal because it would give them more power. Hence, the Virginia plan came to be known as the “large state plan.”

The New Jersey Plan proposed a unicameral (one-house) legislature in which all states had the same number of representatives regardless of population. This “small state plan” was, not surprisingly, the favorite of smaller states, which stood to gain power from it.

The Great Compromise

Eventually, the delegates settled on what came to be called the Great Compromise: a new Congress with two houses—an upper Senate, in which each state would be represented by two senators, and a lower House of Representatives, in which the number of delegates would be apportioned based on state population. Senators would be appointed by state legislatures every six years; representatives in the House would be elected directly by the people every two years.

Also, in the three-fifths clause, delegates agreed that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining the population (and thus the number of representatives in the House) of each state.

The President

The delegates had an easier time outlining presidential powers. Although some delegates had extreme opinions—Alexander Hamilton proposed a constitutional monarchy headed by an American king—most agreed that a new executive or president was needed to give the country the strong leadership that it had lacked under the Articles.

Article II of the Constitution thus outlined the powers of a new executive outside the control of Congress. The president would be elected via the Electoral College for a term of four years, would be commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, could appoint judges, and could veto legislation passed by Congress.

The Judiciary

The judiciary branch of the new government would be headed by a Supreme Court, which would be headed by a chief justice. The structure of the rest of the federal court system, however, was not formalized until the Judiciary Act of 1789 (see p. 31 ).

Checks and Balances

Many delegates felt that separation of powers was not enough to prevent one branch of government from dominating, so they also created a system of checks and balances to balance power even further. Under this system, each branch of government had the ability to check the powers of the others.

The president, for example, was given the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and foreign ambassadors—but only with the approval of the Senate. On the other hand, the president was granted the right to veto all Congressional legislation.

Congress was given its own veto power over the president—a two-thirds majority vote could override any presidential veto. Congress also was charged with the responsibility to confirm presidential appointees—but also the power to block them. And finally, Congress had the ability to impeach and remove the president for treason, bribery, and other “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The Supreme Court was given the sweeping power of judicial review—the authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional and thereby strike it down.

Fear of Pure Democracy

The delegates also feared pure democracy and considered it to be the placement of the government directly in the hands of the “rabble.” Many elements of the Constitution were thus engineered to ensure that only the “best men” would run the country.

Under the original Constitution, senators were to be appointed by state legislatures or governors, not elected by the people—in fact, this rule did not change until the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) established direct elections for senators. Although representatives in the House were elected directly by the people, their terms were set at only two years, compared to senators’ six years. In addition, even though new legislation could be introduced only in the House, the Senate had to approve and ratify any bills before they could become law.

These checks on pure democracy were not confined to the legislative branch. The Electoral College was implemented to ensure that the uneducated masses didn’t elect someone “unfit” for the presidency. Life terms for Supreme Court justices were also instituted as a safeguard against mob rule.

The Three-Fifths Clause

Another point of contention arose over whether or how to count slaves in the U.S. population. Delegates from southern and mid-Atlantic slaveholding states wanted each slave to count as one full person in the census in order to increase their number of representatives in the House. Northern states, in which slaves made up a much lower percentage of the population, argued that slaves should not be counted at all.

After a long debate, both sides agreed on a “three-fifths clause,” which stated that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. Delegates also agreed to permit international slave trading only for the next twenty years, until 1808. Nowhere in the original Constitution did the drafters use the word slave; instead, they used vague terms such as “other persons.” Some historians have argued that this evasion indicates that slavery was polarizing Americans even in the late 1700s, well before the Civil War in the 1860s.

Legacy of the Constitution

Political philosophers around the world hailed the Constitution as one of the most important documents in world history. It established the first stable democratic government and inspired the creation of similar constitutions around the world. Many modern historians, however, see the Constitution as a bundle of compromises rather than a self-conscious, history-altering document.

Indeed, as events over the next two years would prove, the new Constitution was highly controversial. When the Constitution was completed in September 1787, only thirty-nine of the original fifty-five delegates remained in Philadelphia and fully supported the new document. It was time to give the Constitution to the individual states for ratification.

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