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A Glimpse at the Writing of the U.S. Constitution

Updated on January 4, 2017

In 1787, a Federal Convention gathered in Philadelphia to consider the fledgling United States of America’s government, as the Articles of Confederation among 13 sovereign states were proving inadequate for the new nation’s expansion and decision-making. The resulting strong yet flexible charter---the Constitution---was crafted by some of the most prominent and powerful men of the day. The Framers of the Constitution became architects of a “living document.”

Delegation

Of the more than 70 delegates appointed by the states, 55 eventually participated and 39 of these would sign the Constitution. After George Washington announced that he would attend, the caliber of the delegates rose so high that Thomas Jefferson dubbed it a meeting of “demi-gods.” There were 4 governors, 8 signers of the Declaration of Independence, and 6 signers of the Articles of Confederation. More than half had served in the Continental Army, most had served on the Continental Congress---2 as president---and almost all were veterans of the American Revolution. At least half of the attendees had legal training and many were college graduates, some with medical degrees. Several other occupations were also represented, such as scientists, theologians, merchants, and large-scale farmers. Their joint resources of education, wealth, and experience were all the more useful in a time when communication was limited to the pace of transportation over land and sea.

The 13 states were not fully represented because Rhode Island chose to abstain; its primarily Baptist affiliation was therefore also lacking from the convention. Several notable individuals also declined, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee. Despite their absence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson---as well as Thomas Paine---are recognized for influencing the development of the Constitution. Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time, but sent books from Paris and exchanged letters with James Madison to keep abreast of the proceedings. Madison, called the “Father of the Constitution,” also bolstered his arguments for reforms from ancient histories, just as Jefferson had done in drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856
Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856 | Source

Representation and compromise

It is to be expected that the convention’s demographics---predominantly upper-class 18th century colonial white men---influenced the political ethos of their work. Their backgrounds and beliefs were still significantly different, and it was only after much compromise that a consensus was reached. The mission of nation-building and the principles of democracy challenged the politics and egos of all present, but to their credit, they achieved the goal of strengthening the central government with safeguards to protect competing interests.

Considerable controversies arose over representation: big states versus small, slave-owning states versus free, and popular vote versus electoral representation. The Connecticut Compromise---called the Great Compromise---settled the debate between the Virginia Plan (two legislative houses established by population, a boon for the larger populous states) and the NJ Plan (a unicameral house with equal legislators per state) by creating a bi-cameral legislature with the House of Representatives' delegation based on population and the Senate's with a uniform number of senators per state. The 3/5 Compromise temporarily addressed the controversy between slave-owning Southern states and the North by counting the slave population as three-fifths of a citizen per capita for taxation and representation. The creation of the electoral college was also the result of a compromise for executive election of the President by taking into account both popular vote and Congressional vote.

Sustainability

The broad framework of the Constitution has kept it alive. It established three separate but codependent branches of federal government: the executive branch (led by the President), the judiciary branch (led by the Supreme Court) and the legislature (the bi-cameral Congress). Amendments allow for further revisions; the first 10 of the 27 existing Amendments are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. Judicial review applies constitutional law and principles through court interpretation.

The capacity to be amended and re-interpreted has helped ensure longevity and a certain measure of elasticity, though the process of amendment is politically arduous. The continued adaptability of the Constitution to the American public is a matter of current dialogue. Many see more room for growth, while others would conserve the structure of this landmark government blueprint.

The following links offer a look at past and proposed changes to the Constitution:

Resources:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articles_of_Confederation

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_Convention_(United_States)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Founding_Fathers_of_the_United_States

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Constitution

http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/articlev.htm

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_were_the_major_compromises_at_the_Constitution_Convention

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Who_wrote_the_US_Constitution

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_founding_fathers.html

Barbash, F. (1987). The founding: a dramatic account of the writing of the constitution. New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster.

Mitchell, R. (1986). C.Q.’s guide to the U.S. constitution.Washington, D.C., U.S.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc.

Sgroi, P. (1986). This constitution. London, UK: Franklin Watts.

St. John, J. (1987). The constitutional journal: correspondent’s report from the convention of 1787. Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books, Inc.

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      Howard Schneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, MrsBrown. The Constitution is a marvelous piece of political compromise that was created by a diverse group of politicians. You are quite right that it is a living document which has ensured its continuing existence. Change occurs slowly but it does happen. Checks and balances help keep political tyranny in check. Finally the Bill of Rights help keep minority rights in place.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image
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      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      HSchneider---I thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Every year in U.S. History I would teach a course on the Constitution. The kids (middle schoolers) would dread it and end up loving it. It is a fascinating document for sure.

      Well done!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image
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      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      billybuc---Thank you very much! I was looking through old papers and rewrote this based on a U.S. History essay from--you guessed it---high school. :-) I love seeing historical caricatures come to life through in-depth biographies and studies. Even if I end up liking historical figures less, I get a much better understanding of events.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      We are going to have elections for constituent assembly here in Nepal. I take interest constitution of US, the shortest constitution in the world.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image
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      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Vinaya Ghimire---Hello and thank you for commenting! I was ignorant of Nepal's political situation, so I just read a little bit about it. It seems that a constitution is needed to support new elections and a lot of changes may be on the horizon:

      "Constituent Assembly Election is needed in Nepal to restructure the nation according to the aspirations of the People's movement – II, to reach a decision on the future of monarchy, to ensure democratic rule of law, to ensure proportional representation in all the bodies of state, to institutionalize the people's sovereignty and to create an atmosphere for all the citizens to exercise equal rights." ----from http://www.election.gov.np/EN/voterinfo/what.php

      This is exciting and I wish you and your community well with the upcoming elections. I hope that peaceful political change can happen and that everyone has the opportunity to be a part of this.

    • Mommy Needs a Nap profile image

      Michelle Clairday 4 years ago from Arkansas

      Very well written and informative. This homeschool mom will be sharing this with the kids and fellow homeschool moms. Thanks.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image
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      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Hello Mommy-Needs-a-Nap, I love your profile name! As a mom of a 7-y-o and 4-y-o, I agree. :-)

      I'm so glad that you found this article helpful. Thanks for your supportive comment, I appreciate it!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I claim to walk with Jesus. Sometimes I read and close my eyes and walk with these guys. I dig and am happy about it. Screw Utopia, give me overcoming anyday.

      Thank you for the walk.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image
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      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Eric---The written word is a powerful window into history indeed...and we gain so much character from walking through our burdens and helping others. Thank you for reading this and for your thoughtful comment---it is much appreciated! ~Lurana

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