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Constitution of the United States

Constitutional Convention Of 1787

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is a high point in the history of the United States. This remarkable assemblage of men, meeting in Philadelphia between May 23 and September 17, 1787, created the document that has given the United States one of the most stable and admired constitutional democracies in the history of the world.

55 delegates from 12 states attended various parts of the convention. Drawn from the educated and wealthy elite of the country, they included such luminaries as GEORGE WASHINGTON, the commander of American forces in the WAR OF INDEPENDENCE, who presided over the convention, and BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, at 81, the oldest delegate and the country's most famous statesman. A majority of the delegates were lawyers, and many, such as JAMES MADISON, were wealthy landowners. Many notable leaders of the time, however, including THOMAS JEFFERSON, who was in France, and PATRICK HENRY, did not attend.

The meetings of the convention were closed to the public and to the press. Thus, behind closed doors, the delegates hammered out the eventual form of U.S. government. The agreements reached during the convention exemplified the values of constitutional government. In an atmosphere that combined competitive, lively debate with tolerance and respect for differences of opinion, the delegates reached vital compromises on matters that threatened to divide the still loosely connected union of states. Many different factions opposed one another—small states versus large states, farmers versus businesspeople, North versus South, and slave states versus nonslave states.

The Constitutional Convention occurred in three separate phases. The first, from May 23 to July 26, created the basic features of the national government, including its division into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. During this phase, delegates also arrived at one important compromise between the interests of large and small states. That compromise created a bicameral, or two-chamber, legislature, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate. During the second phase of the convention, from July 27 to August 6, the five-man Committee of Detail created a rough draft of the Constitution. In the third phase, which lasted from August 6 to September 6, the delegates debated remaining sticking points, particularly relating to the EXECUTIVE BRANCH and the means of electing a president. Eventually, they settled on the ELECTORAL COLLEGE suggested by Benjamin Franklin.

On September 17, 39 of the 42 delegates present signed the Constitution. Gouverneur Morris, coauthor of the New York State Constitution and a key delegate, summed up the significance of the Constitution that the convention had created when, after affixing his signature to it, he uttered these words: "The moment this plan goes forth, all other considerations will be laid aside and the great question will be: Shall there be a national government or not? And this must take place or a general anarchy will be the alternative."

FURTHER READINGS

Rossiter, Clinton. 1966. 1787: The Grand Convention. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1987.

Scott, James Brown. 2001. James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 and their Relation to a More Perfect Society of Nations. Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange.

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