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License plates displaying the Preamble to the Constitution, 1988
License plates displaying the Preamble to the Constitution, 1988

Focus Question: What factors and individuals were involved in the writing and adoption of the Constitution?

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Before the Constitution

Articles of Confederation: March 1, 1781 to March 4, 1789
The first form of government in the United States was the Articles of Confederation. However, the Articles did not create a foundation for the new country to be built on. Instead of enjoying the new independence, the US faced economic problems, state rivalries, and social inequalities. Since most feared a central government, the Articles were designed with very little power in the federal government. Congress couldn't collect taxes or regulate business. They had to ask the states for money to pay back loans, which the states usually denied. In 1787, the Continental Congress called for a delegation to create a new framework for the country.
primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Articles of Confederation

game_icon.svg.pngClick here for a game from iCivics on the Articles of Confederation, its weaknesses, and how it lead to the creation of the Constitution.

lessonplan.jpgGo to Articles of Confederation vs. Constitution for a lesson plan using the Common Core

The Constitutional Convention

The Convention began on May 25, 1787, when delegates arrived at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. Once the convention began, George Washington was elected President of the Convention. The attendees were sworn to secrecy on the proceedings.
Painting depicting George Washington at the Constitutional Convention

At the Constitutional Convention, many topics were debated. The results of the debates included:
  • Congress regulation of:
    • Economy
    • Currency
    • National Defense
  • No federal government veto over state laws
  • Congress could not interfere with the slave trade for 20 years
  • No discrimination for members of other states
    • "Full faith and credit"
  • Allow amendments to the Constitution in the future
  • Slaves would be counted as 3/5 person for the purpose of determining the number of electoral votes and the number of representatives
  1. Click here to watch a video about the Constitutional Convention.

The Virginia Plan vs. The New Jersey Plan

The Virginia Plan
  • Presented by Governor Edmund Randolph
  • Partially written by James Madison
  • Strong national government
  • Two legislative branches determined by population
  • Proposed Council of Revision with a veto over state legislatures
This plan clearly favored the larger states. With their larger populations, they would have more representatives and power in a population-based legislature. The smaller states were obviously unhappy with this plan and proposed an alternative:

The New Jersey Plan
  • Presented by William Paterson
    voting record.jpg
    Voting Records from the Constitutional Convention
  • Limited federal powers
  • No new Congress
  • Advocated for equal representation for smaller states in legislature

The Connecticut Compromise
  • Proposed by Roger Sherman
  • Bicameral legislature
  • Upper House: Senate
    • Two representatives from each state
  • Lower House: House of Representatives
    • Number of representatives determined by population

  1. Click here to know more about the Constitutional Convention.

Click here for a list of question and answers on the Constitution from the National Archives

primary_sources.PNGClick here for James Madison's notes on the convention
primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Constitution

Biography icon for wiki.pngClick here for a list of people who attended the Constitutional Convention and links to short biographies on each attendee.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson on the Articles of Confederation vs the Constitution

Ratifying the Constitution

Before the Constitutional Convention ended, 39 out of the 55 delegates signed the document proposed. Many of the delegates refused to sign because there was no Bill of Rights. One delegate refused to sign because the Constitution did not end slavery and the slave trade.

For the Constitution to be adopted by the US, at least 9 of the 13 states needed to ratify the document.

During the ratification process, 2 groups emerged:

  1. Click here to learn more about the ratification of the Constitution.

This group supported the ratification of the Constitution.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote a series of "Federalist Papers" to support the ratification. The Federalist Papers, published in various newspapers from October 1787 and August 1788, consisted of 85 articles supporting ratification, signed by Publius.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Federalist Papers

This group opposed the ratification of the Constitution.
Famous anti-federalists include James Winthrop, Patrick Henry, and George Mason. They believed that the Constitution would lead to corruption. They supported the addition of the Bill of Rights.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

On September 28, 1787, Congress ordered each state to hold state conventions. At the conventions, each state would decide on whether or not to ratify the Constitution. During the time that the states were debating the Constitution, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists took their debates public in newspapers and pamphlets. During the debates, the Federalists agreed to create a Bill of Rights when the Constitution was ratified.
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution

Chart with the 13 original colonies and their ratification dates. All dates and votes from usconstitution.net
Date Ratified
December 7, 1787
30 yes, 0 no
December 12, 1787
46 yes, 23 no
New Jersey
December 18, 1787
38 yes, 0 no
January 2, 1788
26 yes, 0 no
January 9, 1788
128 yes, 40 no
February 6, 1788
187 yes, 168 no
April 28, 1788
63 yes, 11 no
South Carolina
May 23, 1788
149 yes, 73 no
New Hampshire
June 21, 1788
57 yes, 47 no
June 25, 1788
89 yes, 79 no
New York
July 26, 1788
30 yes, 27 no
North Carolina
November 21, 1789
194 yes, 77 no
Rhode Island
May 29, 1790
34 yes, 32 no

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on the ratification of the Constitution from the Archives
Multimedia.pngClick here for the Schoolhouse Rock video on the Constitution
Multimedia.pngClick here for a "Crash Course" on the Constitution, Federalism, and the Articles
game_icon.svg.pngClick here for a game on the Constitution and rights

  1. Click here and here to watch a video about the ratification of the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights

James Madison helped to create the Bill of Rights. On June 8,1789 Madison proposed nine amendments with nineteen provisions to Congress. A House of Representatives committee, including Madison, was formed to draft a bill regarding the amendments. The committee changed, eliminated, and added to the proposed amendments. The result was twelve amendments that were sent to the states for ratification. Two of the amendments were not approved by the states. They were regarding salary of Congressmen and the size of the House. The Bill of Rights officially became part of the Constitution when Virginia ratified the amendments on December 15, 1791.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the proposed amendments to the Constitution

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Bill of Rights
  1. Click here to watch a video about James Madison and the Constitution.

1. The Constitutional Convention, University of Missouri, Kansas City. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/convention1787.html
2. The Constitution, The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/our-government/the-constitution
3. Antifederalists, USHistory.org. http://www.ushistory.org/us/16b.asp
4. Constitution Day, Scholastic News. http://teacher.scholastic.com/scholasticnews/indepth/constitution_day/background/index.asp?article=billofrights