A Glimpse at the Writing of the U.S. Constitution
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.”
- The Framers of the Constitution - The U.S. Constitution Online
One of the participants, William Pierce of Georgia, has given history his journalistic sketches of each delegate. It is an incomparable window into the convention!
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.
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.
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:
- Constitutional Amendments - The U.S. Constitution Online - USConstitution.net
Facts and Information about amendments to the U.S. Constitution
- The CQ Researcher Online
Re-examining the Constitution
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.