The Constitutional Convention

Overview

The U.S. Constitution is perhaps the most influential legal document in the world. Since its creation, over one hundred countries around the world have used it as a model for their own constitutions including, most recently, Iraq. Join Active Minds for a historical look at the people and the processes behind this important document.

Key Lecture Points

  • Since its creation, over one hundred countries around the world have used the U.S. Constitution as a model for their own. It is not only the oldest written constitution of any government in the world, but it is also the shortest at 4,440 words. Despite its age, the Constitution is also a living document. While the Supreme Court continually interprets the Constitution so as to reflect a rapidly changing world, its basic tenets have remained virtually unchanged since its inception and unchallenged as well.
  • After the American Revolution, Congress could not pay its wartime debt and the states failed to pay their congressionally apportioned requisitions. When a postwar economic depression began in 1784, most of the state legislatures enacted debtor-relief measures that sometimes violated the property rights of creditors. Sporadic violence by debtors, such as Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, erupted in several states. Unable to address adequately these economic, political, social, and diplomatic crises, Congress on February 21, 1787 called a Constitutional Convention to meet in Philadelphia “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation” so they would be “adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”
  • Many plans of government were proposed during that summer. James Madison's Virginia Plan proposed representation in Congress based on population. Madison’s plan also included separate authorities with separate responsibilities, and a dominant national government that would limit the power of the states. William Paterson of New Jersey and many of his small-state colleagues objected to the Virginia Plan and proposed that each state should have an equal vote in Congress. New Yorker Alexander Hamilton offered the most radical model, one based on the British monarchy and parliament. Neither the Virginia Plan nor the New Jersey Plan contained an enumeration of the rights of the people. Today, the Bill of Rights is one of the most recognizable parts of the U.S. Constitution; but the Framers, for the most part, felt that one was not necessary.
  • Aside from government structure, the future of slavery was also decided. A compromise between the delegates allowed the South to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of Congressional representation in exchange for prohibiting the international slave trade. Although domestic slavery in the United States would continue, the importation of African slaves would be prohibited on January 1, 1808.

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Madison, James, Edward J. Larson and Michael Winship. The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison. Modern Library Classics, 2005. This book tells the convention's turbulent story in James Madison's own words, drawn from the notes he took at the scene of the debates. Larson (a professor of history and law at the University of Georgia) and Winship (a professor of English at the University of Texas–Austin) steer readers through the fierce debates with helpful explanations and editorial asides, as well as a cogent epilogue, making this primary source far more than a tidy civics lesson.
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  • Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle At Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May - September 1787. Back Bay Books, 1986. Bowen’s book is the best popular history of the Constitutional Convention available. This clear and well-written volume traces the major issues involved, dismissing sectional, economic, or class interests as dominant factors and concentrating instead on the "deeply rooted attitudes" and "emotions" of individual members.
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  • Yates, Robert and John Lansing. Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Constitutional Convention, 1787. University Press of the Pacific, 2002. This book is based on the notes taken during the Constitutional Convention by Robert Yates, Chief Justice of New York. His notes were then copied by John Lansing. James Madison thought that Yates and Luther Martin "appear to have reported in angry terms what they observed with jaundiced eyes." However, Yates' notes were fuller than Madison's own. This book includes a general summary of the debates with a running criticism on the provisions of the Constitution.
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