OTD in History… September 17, 1787, Constitution Day, the Constitutional Convention delegates sign US Constitution
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history September 17, 1787, The Constitutional Convention concludes with 38 out of the 41 delegates signing the completed United States Constitution. The Constitution dictated the parameters of the new republic’s federal government with checks and balances, and three branches of government, executive, legislative and judicial. They then sent the document, to the states for a vote to ratify the Constitution, only after nine states ratify the document it would become law. Since 2004, each year on September 17, the nation celebrates Constitution Day, celebrating citizenship, and teaching and learning about the Constitution.
After the Revolutionary War, the loose Articles of Confederation did not give the government enough power to govern the new nation. Congress agreed they needed to be revised to create a new constitution. The Constitutional Convention met beginning on May 25, 1787, at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia now known as Independence Hall, and four months later on September 17, 1787, the Congress completed their task of creating a Constitution. On June 21, 1788, the Constitution is ratified after New Hampshire became the ninth out of thirteen states to ratify it, making the Constitution “the law of the land.” The document created and ratified in 1787 and 1788, is still 231 years later up for interpretation and has grown with 27 additional amendments to fit the country’s changing needs.
The Articles of Confederation gave the unicameral Congress with one representative from each state very little power, for anything to get accomplished nine states had to vote in favor. As Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling write in their book Events that Changed America in the Eighteenth Century, “Congress was given authority to control foreign affairs, declare war and make peace, coin money, borrow money, requisition states for money, settle interstate disputes, govern the western territory and admit new states, run the postal service, and handle Indian affairs.” (Thackeray and Findling, 133) The major problems, however, facing Congress was that they were not “authorized to levy taxes or regulate interstate commerce,” and they had “no powers of enforcement.” In 1786, George Washington remarked, “I predict the worst consequences from a half-starved limping government, always moving upon crutches and tottering at every step,” and in 1787, Alexander Hamilton declared the country had “almost the last stage of national humiliation.” (Thackeray and Findling 134)
When the 55 delegates with George Washington as the president met for the Constitutional Convention, they thought they would mostly being amending the Articles of Confederation; however, most wanted a new document. The main points they had to resolve were “representation in Congress, separation of powers, and division of power between the states and the national government.” (Thackeray and Findling, 134) Two major committees wrote the Constitution, the Committee of Detail, which included, “Oliver Ellsworth, Nathaniel Gorham, Edmund Randolph, John Rutledge, and James Wilson, and the Committee of Style, which included “Alexander Hamilton, William Johnson, Rufus King, and Gouverneur Morris.”
James Madison, however, is considered “Father of the Constitution,” contributing to the Constitution’s draft and wrote the subsequent ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, Madison said the Constitution should be for “for the ages” and that was the reason the document created a general outline for the government’s functions. As historian Richard Brookhiser in his biography James Madison notes, “He is most famous for his role in producing the Constitution. Madison was called the Father of the Constitution during his lifetime, and he has borne the title ever since.” (Brookhiser, 12) Madison did not write the entire document, and he was concerned about its deficiencies, writing Thomas Jefferson, it might not “answer its national object nor prevent the local mischiefs which everywhere excite disgust.” Morris, in fact, wrote the final draft, whom Madison called, “A better choice could not have been made.”
According to Brookhiser, “Only Madison played a central role at every stage in the Constitution’s birth. He was present before, during, and after the creation.” (Brookhiser, 12) Madison attended the Annapolis Convention of 1786, calling for a Constitutional Convention, being the first out of state to arrive and participating at every session, he participated in the ratification process through the persuasive Federalist Papers, and “the pro-Constitutional forces in Virginia,” and during the First Congress he wrote the Bill of Rights.
Madison also made notes documenting the convention. As Brookhiser indicates, “Madison was also the first historian of the Constitutional Convention. As he helped shape the document, he worked to shape the future’s view of it… Madison’s notes, the most complete set left by any delegate, have been grist for historians ever since.” (Brookhiser, 13) Each day of the convention, Madison sat at the “head table in Independence Hall” to take in everything that transpired. Madison recounted, “In this favorable position for hearing all that passed, I noted . . . what was read from the Chair or spoken by the members, and losing not a moment unnecessarily between the adjournment and reassembling of the Convention I was enabled to write out my daily notes.”
The framers created two houses a lower House of Representatives, based on population taking into account slaves voted by the people, and an “equally represented” upper house, the Senate was chosen by the state legislatures. Three branches of government were created, legislative, executive and judicial, with “an elaborate set of checks and balances,” which included, “a presidential veto, Congressional authority over money matters, and lifetime tenure for judges.” As for the division of powers, the central government would be able “to levy taxes, regulate foreign and interstate commerce, and pass laws” to implement their powers. (Thackeray and Findling, 135)
In total, there were seven articles to the Constitution. The Constitution began with “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” In September 1787, at the conclusion of the convention 38 out of the 41 delegates signed the new Constitution. To become law, Article VII stipulated nine out of the thirteen states had to ratify it.
The Constitution became a subject of much debate, which those supporting called Federalists and those that opposed called anti-Federalists, the factions ended up led by the philosophies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson respectively. The main concerns were the lack of guarantees for “fundamental liberties” and the issue of states’ rights stemming from the fear of “authoritarian central government.” (Thackeray and Findling, 136)
Each state held a ratification convention. Right off, the smaller states starting on December 7, which included “Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut” ratified the Constitution quickly in December and January. Massachusetts, however, put up a fight concerned about the lack of guarantees for “basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press.” In February 1888, the state promised that a Bill of Rights would be amended to the Constitution and then the state narrowly ratified it. Then in April and May Maryland and South Carolina ratified the constitution, however, it failed to pass in Rhode Island in March. On June 21, New Hampshire ratified the Constitution passing it into law.
The two largest states Virginia and New York were on the fence, and although nine states ratified the Constitution, it was necessary for the two states to pass it as well for governing. In Virginia, Washington used his “influence” to ensure ratification in June. In New York it was more complicated the two factions Federalists led by Hamilton and anti-Federalists by Governor George Clinton were dueling it out at the convention, Clinton popularity was preventing ratification. To sway the delegates, Hamilton picked Madison and John Jay to write a series of commentary in favor of the Constitution called the Federalist Papers. The 85 essays were able to persuade the delegates to ratify the Constitution in July.
Elections were set for December 15, 1788, to Saturday, January 10, 1789, and the government would convene on March 4, 1789, with George Washington elected the first president and John Adams as Vice President. Six months later on September 25, 1789, Congress with Madison added 12 amendments known as the Bill of Rights, which were then sent to the states to ratify. In November 1789, North Carolina ratified the Constitution. All that was left was holder over Rhode Island, who found fault with the federal government controlling the currency and slavery, when the government “threatened” to cut “commercial ties,” Rhode Island narrowly ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1890, becoming the 13th state to do so. It took over a year later on December 15, 1791, for all the states to ratify the Bill of Rights.
The United States Constitution is the oldest working and most successful in history. The Founding Fathers created a document that had the forethought to grow and expand as the nation, its territories did and times changed. Historian Pauline Maier in her book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 concludes, “The Constitution they gave us proved more successful than its most devoted advocated imagined: It has guided the United States as its boundaries expanded from the Mississippi to the Pacific and its influence spread over the world… Without the Constitution’s critics determined opposition, however, the first ten amendments would not have become a part of the Constitution for later generations to transform into a powerful instrument for the defense of American freedom.” (Maier, 467, 468) Whatever crisis the country has faced or will and whoever becomes the president and whether they abuse their power or not, the Constitution is a living document that protects the nation and its people and their future guaranteeing freedom and the continuation of the oldest and most successful democratic experiment.
SOURCES & READ MORE
Brookhiser, Richard. James Madison. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.
Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Klarman, Michael J. The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Maier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.