Although we celebrate July 4, 1776, as the birth of our nation, I think it is more properly the day of conception.
Today, September 17, celebrates the true birth of the United States of America, the day our Constitution was signed. On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they had created.
Who were the men who signed the original Constitution of the United States of America?
- Read, George, DE
- Bassett, Richard, DE
- Spaight, Richard Dobbs, NC
- Blount, William, NC
- Williamson, Hugh, NC
- Jenifer, Daniel of St. Thomas, MD
- King, Rufus, MA
- Gorham, Nathaniel, MA
- Dayton, Jonathan, NJ
- Carroll, Daniel, MD
- Few, William, GA
- Baldwin, Abraham, GA
- Langdon, John, NH
- Gilman, Nicholas, NH
- Livingston, William, NJ
- Paterson, William, NJ
- Mifflin, Thomas, PA
- Clymer, George, PA
- FitzSimons, Thomas, PA
- Ingersoll, Jared, PA
- Bedford, Gunning, Jr., DE
- Brearley, David, NJ
- Dickinson, John, DE
- Blair, John, VA
- Broom, Jacob, DE
- Jackson, William, Secretary
I didn’t learn much about the Constitutional Convention in school. Perhaps I did, but the information went in one ear and out the other. Apparently, the original stated purpose of the Convention was to ratify the Articles of Confederation which were written in 1776-1777.
Some of our founding fathers had other ideas, however, intending to remake our government, rather than “fix” the one created a decade earlier. The result was our Constitution.
More about the Constitutional Convention:
From May 25 to September 17, 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states convened in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. Rhode Island was the only state that refused to send representatives to the convention, which assumed as its primary task the revision or replacement of the Articles of Confederation.
Though the Articles of Confederation had provided the framework for governance since the declaration of the American Revolution against Britain, many of the fledgling nation’s political leaders agreed that the creation of a stronger central government was essential to the development of the power and potential of the United States. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government lacked the power of taxation, had no authority to regulate commerce, and was impotent to resolve conflicts arising between states.
Seeking to bolster the authority of the federal government, the delegates gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and elected George Washington to preside over the convention.
One of the most spirited debates at the convention regarded the composition of the legislative branch of government. Should the legislature be unicameral—consisting of one house—or bicameral—consisting of two houses? Perhaps more importantly, how should representation in the legislature be apportioned?
James Madison proposed the Virginia Plan, which called for a bicameral legislature in which representation would be based on population. The larger states supported this plan, because it would accord them greater representation based on their more numerous populations. However, the smaller states opposed it, and submitted a competing proposal, the New Jersey Plan. According to this scheme, which was basically inherited from the Articles of Confederation, the legislature would be unicameral and each state would have a single vote.
The delegates ultimately combined elements of both plans in what became known as the Connecticut Compromise. The legislative branch would be bicameral, consisting of an upper house—the Senate—and a lower house—the House of Representatives. Representation in the House would be based on population, and each state was allotted two seats in the Senate. The office of the president would constitute the executive authority and was to be chosen by the electoral college.
The structure of government would be federalist in nature, consisting of three independent branches: the legislature, Congress; the executive, the president: and the judicial, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court would adjudicate disputes between states, and Congress was authorized to levy taxes, declare war, raise an army, regulate interstate commerce, and draft laws consistent with the purpose of exercising these powers.
The compromise also addressed another major point of contention between northern and southern states over the issue of slavery. Should enslaved people be counted for the purpose of a state’s representation in Congress? And if so, how? The northern states did not think enslaved people should be counted at all, while the southern slaveholding states thought they should. The Three-Fifths Compromise established that enslaved men and women would be represented in the House at a ratio of 3 to 5 of their actual numbers. Thus, every five individuals would count as three for the purposes of both legislative representation and taxation.
What we got was a Republic, and as we have all read:
Woman (to Benjamin Franklin): “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Benjamin Franklin: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
-McHenry, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787
There are many web sources of information about the Convention. If you would like to explore further, here is just one:
Imprimus (Hillsdale College) has some interesting general articles about the U.S. Constitution and Constitutional considerations: