What happened at The Constitutional Convention?


The Constitutional Convention’s history is rich with debates, impasses, discussions, and compromises, all occurring in the sweltering rooms of what is now Independence Hall during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia.

It took nearly four months, over 100 days, for the convention to wrap up, resulting in 39 out of the 55 delegates signing the Constitution. This document remains crucial to American life centuries later.

Page Smith, in “The Constitution: A Documentary and Narrative History,” emphasizes the global significance of the decisions made by the delegates in Philadelphia:


“It is not perhaps going too far to say that Americans invented the modern notion of ‘a constitution.’ While constitutions have existed since classical times, the modern constitution as a coherent written document, theoretically expressing the will of the people, was crafted by American politicians in the summer of 1787.”

With the drafting of the Constitution, the U.S. government as we know it today was formed. Though the Constitution has undergone necessary amendments since 1787, its importance cannot be overstated.

**Before the Summer of 1787**

From 1781, nationalists had discussed rectifying the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1777, to create a functioning government that could prevent states from exploiting one another. Shays’ Rebellion, a series of riots by frustrated farmers starting in 1786, further highlighted the need for a strong federal government.

Before the Constitutional Convention began on May 25, 1787, an earlier meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786, was scheduled to address these issues. However, only twelve delegates attended, reflecting the states’ reluctance to curb their autonomy. Despite the low turnout, the few present, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, called for a larger convention in Philadelphia to reconsider the federal government’s structure.

The invitation to the Philadelphia convention was carefully worded to avoid alarming those who supported the Articles of Confederation. The urgency brought about by Shays’ Rebellion made the call for a more robust government more appealing.

**The Constitutional Convention**

Of the 74 delegates appointed by twelve states, only 55 attended the Constitutional Convention, with many arriving between late May and early June. Despite the intense heat, windows were kept closed to maintain secrecy and allow open debate. George Washington was unanimously elected to preside over the convention.

James Madison proposed the Virginia Plan, advocating for a strong central government divided into three branches with checks and balances. This plan was opposed by William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan, which called for a unicameral legislature with equal representation for each state.

Ultimately, Roger Sherman’s Connecticut Compromise merged both plans, establishing a bicameral legislature: the House of Representatives based on population and the Senate with equal representation. This structure, agreed upon on July 16, featured a Lower House elected by the people and an Upper House elected by the Lower House.

To maintain democracy and prevent anarchy, the delegates decided on a single executive branch with checks and balances involving the legislative and judicial branches. Hamilton suggested that Senators serve for life and that the U.S. have a chief executive similar to a monarch. This idea was modified to a president with a four-year term, elected by the Electoral College.

A major contention was slavery, leading to the Three-Fifths Compromise, where each enslaved person was counted as three-fifths of a free individual for taxation and representation purposes. Congress was given the power to regulate interstate and international trade, but a ban on the slave trade was delayed until after 1808.

On July 24, the Committee of Detail was appointed to draft the Constitution based on the convention’s decisions. This committee handled significant issues and created a draft that the Committee of Style, including Hamilton, Madison, and Gouverneur Morris, would polish.

On September 17, 39 out of the 55 delegates signed the final document. Some refused to sign due to the absence of a Bill of Rights, which would be added as the first ten amendments in 1791.