"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." --The Preamble of the United States Constitution
Click on the picture of the first page of the Constitution to see a larger image of it.
The Constitutional Convention created the most influential document in the history of the western world, the Constitution of the United States of America. The convention met from May to September of 1787 with the objective of amending the Articles of Confederation, which had caused severe economic troubles and extraordinary inflation. The poor economic conditions gave rise to the Shays Rebellion, a movement in which Daniel Shays led a group of bankrupt farmers in an attack on local government. Politicians and aristocrats felt that the rebellion was a large step in the direction of anarchy and demanded an immediate revision of the Articles.
Seventy-four delegates were appointed to the Convention, of which only 55 attended. Such men as Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, who was appointed president of the convention, were among them. Rhode Island was the only state not to attend; its politicians feared the strong central government that the convention set out to create. Patrick Henry of Virginia, like the people of Rhode Island, "smelled a rat" at the convention. Nevertheless, the Convention opened on the 25th of May, 1787, in the Philadelphia State House.
Most delegates quickly discarded the idea of amending the Articles of Confederation, realizing its inadequacy, and focused on forming a new system of government. A government with three branches - executive, legislative and judicial - was agreed upon, but the method of electing representatives became a controversy. Edmund Randolph proposed the "Virginia", or "Large State", plan, calling for a bicameral legislature with the number of representatives elected proportional to the size of the states population. William Patterson presented the "New Jersey", or "Small State", plan, which gave all states equal representation regardless of population or wealth. The large states would have greater power than the small states under the Virginia plan, but the small states sought to maintain the equality they enjoyed under the Articles with the New Jersey Plan. Like most decisions made at the convention, this situation was resolved in a compromise. The "Great Compromise", in which it was decided that the upper house of the legislature (the Senate) would have equal representation among the states, as favored by New Jersey, and the lower house (the House of Representatives) would be elected by population, favoring the large states, was passed on July 16th. The inclusion of slaves was determined in another compromise. A slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person in relation to population and taxation. Ironically, the fundamental question of how slavery could legally exist in a free country founded upon the belief that "all men are created equal" was never addressed.
On September 12, 1787, a completed draft of the Constitution was sent to the Congress of the Confederation for ratification. After it was returned to the convention, thirty-nine of the remaining delegates signed the Constitution on September 17th, and the Convention adjourned. The 16 delegates that did not sign were either opposed to the Constitution or had left prior to the vote. The Constitution, however, was far from complete. The largest conflict over the Constitution, that between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, was about to begin. Federalists supported the Constitution and wished to see it ratified by the three-fifths of the states necessary, but the Anti-Federalists disapproved of the Constitution and feared the government outlined in it. After fiery debate, another compromise was established. Most Anti-Federalists feared the lack of a Bill of Rights securing individual liberties, so the Federalists offered to add this if the opposition agreed to ratify the Constitution. This worked, and the Constitution was ratified by the necessary 9 of the 13 states on July 12, 1788. By December 15, 1791, 10 amendments had been designated and approved as the "Bill of Rights" by three-fourths of the states. The Constitution had survived all of the conflicts and challenges put to it, implementing what is possibly the best system of government in the history of mankind.
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