<Standard 5.21............................................................................................................................Standard 5.23>

Identify the various leaders of the Constitutional Convention and describe the major issues they debated.

USCapitol - The Constitutional Convention
USCapitol - The Constitutional Convention

Topics on the Page

Overview of the Convention
Distribution of Power
The Great Compromise
Rights of States
Rights of Individuals
Women's Rights
Important Leaders

Focus Question: Who were the various leaders at the Constitutional Convention and what were their major debates?

Overview of the Convention

Washington at the Constitutional Convention. Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856
Washington at the Constitutional Convention. Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856

rotating gif.gifSee USI.7 and USI.8 for more on Constitutional Convention

United_States-CIA_WFB_Map.pngSee AP U.S. History Theme 5 for political developments in the early republic

external image 200px-Government_icon.svg.pngSee United States Government 2.1 for more on the writing of the Constitution

Multimedia.png See this link to review the everything that was just covered, including the Articles of Confederation and why it didn't work, how the founders compromised on the constitution, the issue of slavery, federalists and antifederalists, and the process of the ratification of the constitution.

In 1787, delegates from the various states met in Philadelphia for what is now known as the Constitutional Convention. These delegates sought to unify the states by creating a constitution that would bring the states together under a cohesive government. Many debates took place at the Constitutional Convention over how the new government should operate.

Click here for a list of The Signers of the Constitution by state.

Distribution of Political Power

The delegates from the various states were divided over how political power should be distributed. Two different plans of governmental structure were discussed.

The first plan proposed was the Virginia Plan, which called for a two house legislature (law making bodies), a chief executive (president), and a court system. Our modern government is based in large part on this plan except in regard to legislative representation. The Virginia Plan held that state representation in the legislature should be proportional to its population - this meant states with large populations would have more representation than states with small populations.

Those who didn’t like the Virginia Plans supported the New Jersey Plan. The New Jersey Plan called for a one house legislature where representation would be equal for all of the states. The larger states tended to support the Virginia Plan, while the smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan.

The Great Compromise

Bickering between the various states over representation in the potential government almost ruined the conference. As a result, Benjamin Franklin created a committee to try and resolve conflicts relating to representation. Roger Sherman proposed a compromise between the Virginia and New Jersey Plans. This compromise consisted of having two houses – one based on proportional representation and the other based on equal representation. This comprise paved the way for the way for the United States Congress.

Slavery_in_the_13_colonies.jpg external image Virginia_one_hundred_years_ago_2.jpg

Rotating_globe-small.gifMap of the the number and percent of slaves in each of the 13 colonies in 1770


The delegates also fought over whether slaves should be counted as part of the population when determining representation in Congress.
  • The southern states (where slaves made up a significant portion of the population) wanted them to count solely because it would give them more representation in Congress.
  • The northern states thought it was absurd that slaves would be counted since legally they were considered property, not citizens. Of course, no one considered making African-Americans full-fledged citizens.
  • The second aspect of the “Great Compromise” was to address this debate over whether or not slaves should be counted for determining representation.
  • The committee decided on what is called the Three-Fifths compromise: slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining representation and taxes.

For more, see The Slavery Compromises

external image 200px-Apple_unbitten.svg.png1790 Census and Apportionment--Analyzing the Three-Fifiths Compromise from the Statistics in Schools from U.S. Census

Rights of States

After the Constitutional Convention a great debate took place over whether or not the states should ratify the document that had been produced. Some Americans in this era were concerned about adopting the constitution because it would create a strong federal government and decrease the power of the various states. Individuals who opposed the adoption of the Constitution – for example, Patrick Henry - are known as Anti-Federalists. Those who supported creating a strong national government by adopting the new constitution were the Federalists. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay advocated the Federalist point of view.

Rights of individualsexternal image Bill_of_Rights_Pg1of1_AC.jpg

Many of the new state constitutions specifically addressed the rights of individuals. However, the Constitutional Convention did not specifically address the rights of individuals. Many of the delegates simply assumed that the carefully crafted system of government they just created would in and of itself protect citizens from government abuses. In 1791, the constitution was be amended to include ten amendments that specifically address the rights of individuals – these amendments are collectively called the Bill of Rights.

multicultural.png Click this link to see how Native Americans were fit into the constitution and why.

Female_Rose.pngWomen's Rights in regards to the Constitutional Convention

Just as it was decided that slaves and African Americans were virtually cast out as citizens at the Constitutional convention, the right's of women were equally ignored.

primary_sources.PNGAbigail Adams: "Remember the Ladies" to husband John Adams

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin played a critical role in helping resolve conflicts that emerged at the Constitutional Convention.

He spearheaded a committee that helped solve debates between the various states over representation in the potential government.

The committee was successful in resolving these conflicts by getting the delegates from the different states to compromise.

primary_sources.PNGThe Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
James Madison
James Madison

James Madison

James Madison played a critical role in writing the constitution.
  • Madison wrote the Virginia Plan, which was presented by Edmund Randolph during the convention. He defended the constitution with great fervor during the process of state ratification.
  • He wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, which were a series of articles that presented argument in favor of ratifying the constitution.
  • Madison authored the Bill of Rights - the first ten constitutional amendments which protect individuals form government abuses of power.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton was one of the New York delegates at the constitutional convention.
  • Hamilton supported the constitution and campaigned for its ratification.
  • He was one of the main authors of the Federalist Papers.

George Washington

George Washington was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention.
  • Washington thought the Articles of Confederation were too weak (in light of Shay’s Rebellion) and that there needed to be a stronger federal government. This motivated him to support the Constitution.

George Washington
George Washington


Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University, (2006). TeachingAmericanHistory.org . Retrieved April 8, 2007, Web site: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/

Steve, Mount (1995). Retrieved April 8, 2007, from USConstitution.net Web site: http://www.usconstitution.net/index.html

Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. Retrieved April 8, 2007, from The Library of Congress Web site: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/continental/

Explore the Constitution. Retrieved April 8, 2007, from National Constitution Center Web site: http://www.constitutioncenter.org/explore/Welcome/index.shtml

Constitution of the United States. Retrieved April 8, 2007, from The National Archives Experience Web site: http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/constitution.html


Image IDs from left to right

1. Constitutional Convention Wikimedia Commons, "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States".
2. Slavery in Virginia Wikimedia Commons, "Virginia one hundred years ago 2".
3. Bill of Rights Wikimedia Commons, "Bill of Rights Pg1of1 AC".
4. Benjamin Franklin Wikimedia Commons, "BenFranklinDuplessis".
5. James Madison Wikimedia Commons, "James Madison".
6. Alexander Hamilton Wikimedia Commons, "Alexander Hamilton".
7. George Washington Wikimedia Commons, "George Washington as CIC of the Continental Army bust".