“We the People”
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, it was evident that the Articles of Confederation between the states did not sufficiently ensure the interests and security of the Confederation. In September 1786, at the urging of James Madison, 12 delegates from five states (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia) met in Annapolis, Maryland, to consider amendments to the Articles.
Those delegates called for representatives from all of the states to convene at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia for full consideration of the revisions needed, and 12 states (Rhode Island declining) sent 55 delegates, a third of whom signed the Declaration of Independence.
The most noted delegates were George Washington, Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and George Mason. (Thomas Jefferson was in Europe in his capacity as Minister to France, but in correspondence with Madison, expressed his cautious support for the new Constitution.)
Noticeably absent from the proceedings were Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine, who believed the Articles did not need replacement, only modification. They were concerned that a proceeding aimed at establishing a new constitution could place in peril our fundamental liberties. Summing up their sentiments, Henry wrote that he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”
The Philadelphia Convention (Constitution Convention) opened its proceedings on May 25th, 1787, and soon decided against amending the existing Articles in favor of drafting a new constitution. The next three months were devoted to deliberations on various proposals with the objective of drafting a document, which would secure the rights and principles enumerated in the Declaration and Articles of Confederation, thus preserving essential liberty.
In late July, after much debate, a Committee of Detail was appointed to draft a document to include all the compromise agreements, but based primarily on James Madison's Virginia Plan, establishing a republican form of government subject to strict Rule of Law, reflecting the consent of the people and severely limiting the power of the central government.
A month later, the Committee of Style and Arrangement, which included Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, William Samuel Johnson, Rufus King and James Madison, produced the final draft of the Constitution, which was submitted for delegate signatures on September 17th, 1787.
George Washington and the delegates to the Convention wrote, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.”
Said Benjamin Franklin of the new document, “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. ... Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”
Of the 55 delegates, 39 signed the new Constitution while the remaining delegates declined, most out of concern that the power apportioned through the new plan was a threat to the sovereignty of the several states, and thus, to individual liberty.
The ensuing ratification debates among the states were vigorous.
James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton authored The Federalist Papers advocating ratification of the new Constitution.
Patrick Henry's Anti-Federalists opposed the plan under consideration because they believed it allocated too much power to the central government. Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, Robert Yates, Thomas Paine, Samuel Bryan and Richard Henry Lee were among those who spoke against ratification, and some authored several essays that were aggregated and published as The Anti-Federalist Papers.
The new Constitution stipulated that once nine of the 13 original States ratified it through state conventions, a date would be established for its implementation. This created controversy, as the document in question had no standing authority to make such a stipulation. However, once the ninth state, New Hampshire, reported its convention's approval on June 21st, 1788, the Continental Congress set the date for enactment of the Constitution for March 4th, 1789.
With Rhode Island's ratification on May 29th, 1790, all 13 states had endorsed the Constitution.
Though critical of many of its provisions, in reflection Thomas Jefferson wrote of the Convention and its product, “The example of changing a constitution by assembling the wise men of the state, instead of assembling armies, will be worth as much to the world as the former examples we had given them. The constitution, too, which was the result of our deliberation, is unquestionably the wisest ever yet presented to men.”