Podcast – Constitutional Convention Adopts the Constitution

Constitutional Convention Adopts the Constitution


From the Book:
Weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation led the leaders of the Confederation to call for a convention to revise them and correct the deficiencies. The delegates labored all summer, creating the Constitution of the United State, a document that governs government, not people.

From the Book:

A History of the United States Constitution
Weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation led the leaders of the Confederation to call for a convention to revise them and correct the deficiencies. The delegates labored all summer, creating the Constitution of the United State, a document that governs government, not people.

Weaknesses in the structure of the Articles of Confederation had become apparent as early as 1785, when Maryland and Virginia met to form an agreement that regulated commerce, fishing, and navigation Pocomoke Rivers and Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, disputes over payment of debts and confiscated properties owed to former British loyalists led Britain to retain six forts in United States Territory that the Treaty of Paris required them to abandon. These forts included:
Fort Miamis in northern Ohio
Fort Mackinac
Fort Detroit
Fort Niagara
Fort Oswegatchie
For Ontario
The British used many of these outposts, especially Fort Detroit, to foment problems with the natives in the Northwest Territory. Additional problems arose when states attempted to place tariffs on goods imported from other states. Under the Articles the United States lacked the power to regulate international trade, impose taxes or even succeed in opening the Spanish blockade of goods passing through New Orleans. The need for a stronger central government became more apparent over time. Finally, the Confederation Congress authorized a convention to meet and revise the Articles in February 1787. On May 25, 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve states met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rhode Island declined to attend the convention. The directive from the Congress stated, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein and when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union.”

The fifty-five delegates elected George Washington to preside over the convention. The convention met for four months, conducting many debates in secret and implementing numerous compromises to produce the final Constitution in September 1787.

James Madison drafted proposal for the new government, dubbed the Virginia Plan, or variously called the Randolph and Big State Plan, during the early weeks before convention as delegates arrived. Madison never claimed authorship; however, most historians believe the document’s writing style to be his. He developed the main features of the plan as he corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Randolph and George Washington. The Virginia Plan consisted of fifteen resolutions that were debated on the floor during the convention. Even though a written draft of the plan was submitted, the document has been lost to history. The plan featured three branches of government, designed to prevent abuse of power. The plan included a bicameral legislature, an upper house and a lower house. The lower house members would be elected directly by the people and members would serve three-year terms. The various state legislatures would select the members of the upper house, who would serve a seven-year term. A state’s free population would serve as the base of representatives, with each state’s delegates assigned in proportion to their population. Large states with large populations favored this plan, as it would guarantee their dominance in the new government.

James Madison (March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836)
The oldest of twelve children born to James Madison, Sr. and Frances Taylor, James was a native of Orange County, Virginia. A small child with delicate health, his father eschewed sending him to public schools. Instead, he sent him to private tutoring with Donald Robertson, an instructor at the Innes Plantation in the Virginia Tidewater area. His education included mathematics, geography, modern and ancient languages. From Robertson, Madison gained a lifelong love of learning.

At sixteen, James returned to his father’s plantation, Montpelier, to further his studies under Reverend Thomas Martin. He studied with Martin for two years, and then enrolled in the College of New Jersey. After completing studies in Latin, Greek, science, geography, mathematics, rhetoric, and philosophy he graduated in 1771. He stayed in New Jersey for a time, furthering his studies under the tutelage of school’s president, Reverend John Witherspoon. From Witherspoon he learned Hebrew, law and political philosophy. Many historians attribute the ill health that plagued him the rest of his to the long hours he spent studying.

In 1773, Madison had completed his studies and returned home to Montpelier. At five feet, four inches tall, Madison was diminutive in stature. When he returned the rigors that would constitute the American Revolution were beginning. Madison’s would use his intellect to form the nation that would come out of that Revolution. He was ready to begin the political career that would begin with his appointment to the Orange County Committee of Safety in December 1774.

Madison gained election to the Fifth Virginia Convention in 1776, where he played a role in the drafting of the first Virginia Constitution. After this document took effect he was elected to the new Virginia House of Delegates, where he came into contact with Thomas Jefferson. From 1777 until 1779 he served on the Second Continental Congress. After the Articles of Confederation were ratified he served in the Congress until 1783, after which voters returned him to the Virginia assembly. When it was apparent that the Articles of Confederation had failed, Madison was a strong advocate for another convention to convene at Philadelphia to amend the Articles to make them more effective. The Assembly sent Madison to this new convention in May 1787. Madison, and many other members of the Virginia delegation, believed that the Articles were fatally flawed and that it was necessary to replace it with something new.

Roger Sherman of Connecticut rose to make a simple proposal to the Convention on June 11, 1787.
His proposal stated, “That the proportion of suffrage in the 1st. branch should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more.”
Roger Sherman (April 19, 1721 – July 23, 1793)
The son of William and Mehetabel Sweetman Sherman, Roger was native to Newton, Massachusetts. When he was two years old, the family moved to Dorchester Massachusetts. Sherman received very little in the way of a formal education. Reading the books in his father’s well stocked library provided the bulk of his learning. He would also read other books when they became available, mostly from a neighbor, the Reverend Samuel Dunbar. For most of his youth he worked on his father’s farm and learned the cobbler trade from him. In 1743 he walked to New Milford, Connecticut. His brother had moved there, and Roger joined him in partnership to open a store. Sherman’s aptitude for mathematics soon earned him a spot as the county surveyor. In 1754 he read law and received admittance to the Connecticut bar. Over the next years he held various political posts including Connecticut Superior Court and stints in both houses of the Connecticut colonial assembly. In 1774 he was elected to the Continental Congress. During the first term he was one of the signers of the Articles of Association on October 20, 1774. Sherman was also one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and the Articles of Confederation in 1781. In 1787 he joined Oliver Ellsworth as representatives from Connecticut at the Constitutional Convention.

Sherman and Ellsworth had developed the plan, however Roger Sherman introduced it. The idea was well received, due to the respect the other members of the Convention had for the two men, however the proposal did not receive any serious consideration until July 5.

William Paterson introduced the New Jersey, or Small State Plan on June 15, 1787.

William Paterson (December 24, 1745 – September 9, 1806)
The son of Richard and Mary Paterson, William was native to Antrim County, Ireland. The Paterson family immigrated to the colonies in 1747, settling first in New Castle, Pennsylvania. The family moved around a great deal until finding their home in Princeton, New Jersey. As a child, Paterson attended private schools and enrolled in the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1763. He studied law, gaining his law degree and admittance to the bar in 1768. He opened a practice in New Bromley, New Jersey. Entering politics, Paterson served in several elective posts including delegate and secretary to the Provincial Congress 1775-1776, delegate to the New Jersey Constitutional Convention and New Jersey Attorney General. He resigned the post to move to Raritan, New Jersey. In 1787 voters from his state elected him to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Paterson introduced his New Jersey Plan in response to the Virginia Plan, which he opposed. The New Jersey Plan would have amended the Articles of Confederation, not replaced it. The Plan featured a unicameral (one house) legislature with one member per state. Under this plan, the Federal Government had the power to use tariffs to generate revenue and regulate disputes between the states. Congress could also impose taxes on the various states. The population of each state determined the tax, based upon the number of free inhabitants and 3/5’s of the slave population. Congress also elected the executive council, which consisted of several people. The members of this council would serve one term and could be recalled when most of the states demanded that Congress remove them. Federal law was considered the supreme law of the land and the Federal government could force the states to comply. The New Jersey Plan proposed that Congress create a plan to admit new states. It also included a provision that a citizen of one state could be prosecuted for laws broken in another state.

Over the ensuing months other members submitted other plans. These would include William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan, a plan by Alexander Hamilton as well as several others. Most of these plans fell by the wayside, however the New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan formed the basis of most of the debate.

Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth raised an objection to using the phrase “national government,” in the document on which the convention labored. He proposed that the name of the political entity they were creating be called the United States. On June 20, 1787.

Oliver Ellsworth (April 29, 1745 – November 26, 1807)
The son of David and Jemima Leavitt Ellsworth, Oliver was native to Windsor, Connecticut. He enrolled in Yale College in 1762, however the next year he transferred to College of New Jersey (Princeton). He graduated with an AB Degree in 1766. Two years later he began studying law, gaining admittance to the bar in 1771. The next year he married Abigail Wolcott, with whom he had nine children. He opened a law practice and entered politics, gaining the office of State Attorney for Hartford County in Connecticut in 1777. That same year he became one of Connecticut’s delegates to the Continental Congress. In addition to this he became a member of the forerunner of the Supreme Court, the Committee of Appeals. His service in the Continental Congress ran to six consecutive annual terms. He was elected to join the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, along with two other delegates from Connecticut, Roger Sherman and William Samuel Johnson.

Ellsworth believed that reference to the government the delegates worked to create as a national government would work to destroy the states, which then would destroy the union. He preferred the term “United States,” because it was a union of the states they wished to accomplish. He reasoned that they should send the finished document to the various state legislatures for ratification, not to the people. His worry was that if they allowed the people to vote on it, then it would be hard to avoid later conventions which might upset the union they sought to create. If they sent it to the states, the process to call conventions would be harder, thus rarer. In fact, the delegates never considered sending the document out to the people for ratification; they always sought to have a plurality of the states ratify the document. The name “United States,” had been used before on several documents, including the Declaration of Independence, thus it was a familiar name. Ellsworth’s proposal passed the Convention, and the name of the new entity became the United States.

The Convention had reached an impasse by late June. They had abandoned the New Jersey Plan for the Virginia Plan, however many representatives from small states objected to that plan as they feared that the large states would dominate because legislature representation was based on population. Oliver Ellsworth had proposed that all states receive equal representation. Large states objected to this, as they felt it gave small states too much power. In frustration, the Convention appointed a Grand Committee to come up with a compromise, after which it adjourned. The Committee came up with a set of recommendations that would become known as the Connecticut Compromise.

The Convention convened long enough on July 06, 1787, to receive the Committee of Details Report, and then promptly adjourned so the members could read the twenty-three-article document.

After several days of debate, approving various resolutions and rejecting others the Congress had achieved major progress on several fronts. They had set the number of representatives to the lower house at 65, agreed on taking a census of the population to apportion the lower house correctly at one representative for each 40,000 people. By July 16, the delegates voted on the proposal the Gerry Committee had introduced on July 5.

The proposal, known variously as the Connecticut Compromise, Sherman Compromise or Great Compromise, was approved by the delegates on Monday, July 16. Sherman’s proposal, made a month earlier and ignored, had saved the Congress and laid an important step in establishing the Constitution of the United States.

The Convention’s delegates appointed five men to write the first draft of the Constitution on July 24, 1787. These men were:
John Rutledge
Edmund J. Randolph
Nathaniel Gorham
Oliver Ellsworth
James Wilson

The convention adjourned on July 26 and remains in recess until August 7 while the men labored to provide the first written copy of the Constitution of the United States.

On Saturday, September 15, 1787, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved the document they had spent months devising by a unanimous vote, 10 – 0.

The delegates convened for one last session on Monday, September 17, 1787. After a brief discussion in which a couple of minor changes were made, the document was read aloud to the forty-one assembled documents.

At the conclusion of the reading, Edmund J. Randolph predicted, “Nine states will fail to ratify the plan and confusion must ensue.”

Ben Franklin, who had observed a painting of the sun that resided on the wall behind the President Washington’s Chair, gave a brief speech, “Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”

At the conclusion of Franklin’s brief oratory, the delegates rose to sign the document. Only forty-one of the original fifty-five remained. Three would refrain signing what they considered a deeply flawed document. Thus, the Constitution contains the signatures of thirty-eight delegates, sixteen of whom would go on to become United States Senators.

Their work concluded; the Convention adjourned for the last time. Most of the delegates went to the City Tavern to enjoy one last meal together before dispersing to their various states.

A copy of each document was then sent out to each of the states. The battle for ratification had begun.

I have used portions of two of my books, Colonial American History Stories – 1753 – 1763 and a History of the United States Constitution in this story.
This History of the United States Constitution is part of a larger series, the United States History series. I will cover the other books in the series in a later podcast series. The books are all available on my web site, mossyfeetbooks.com. You can contact me at mossyfeetbooks@gmail.com

Thank you for listening.

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