The U.S. Constitution established America's national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens. It was signed on September 17, 1787, by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, presided over by George Washington. Under America's first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, the national government was weak and states operated like independent countries. At the 1787 convention, delegates devised a plan for a stronger federal government with three branches--executive, legislative and judicial--along with a system of checks and balances to ensure no single branch would have too much power. The Bill of Rights--10 amendments guaranteeing basic individual protections such as freedom of speech and religion--became part of the Constitution in 1791. To date, there have been a total of 27 constitutional amendments.
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People and Groups
Ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote in national and local elections.
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed slaves in states that remained in rebellion during the American Civil War.
In 1920, the 18th Amendment to Constitution ushered in the Prohibition Era. The law was repealed 13 years later by the 21st Amdendment.
The roots of the Bill of Rights--the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution--lie deep in Anglo-American history.
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George Washington was initially reluctant to attend the Constitutional Convention. Although he saw the need for a stronger national government, he was busy managing his estate at Mount Vernon, suffering from rheumatism and worried that the convention wouldn't be successful in achieving its goals.
The Need for a New Constitution
America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was ratified in 1781, a time when the nation was a loose confederation of states, each operating like independent countries. The national government was comprised of a single legislature, the Congress of the Confederation; there was no president or judicial branch. The Articles of Confederation gave Congress the power to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency; however, in reality these powers were sharply limited because Congress had no authority to enforce its requests to the states for money or troops.
Soon after America won its independence from Great Britain with its 1783 victory in the American Revolution, it became increasingly evident that the young republic needed a stronger central government in order to remain stable. In 1786, Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), a lawyer and politician from New York, called for a constitutional convention to discuss the matter. The Confederation Congress, which in February 1787 endorsed the idea, invited all 13 states to send delegates to a meeting in Philadelphia.
Forming a More Perfect Union
On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted 11 years earlier. There were 55 delegates in attendance, representing all 13 states except Rhode Island, which refused to send representatives because it did not want a powerful central government interfering in its economic business. George Washington, who'd become a national hero after leading the Continental Army to victory during the American Revolution, was selected as president of the convention by unanimous vote.
The delegates (who also became known as the "framers" of the Constitution) were a well-educated group that included merchants, farmers, bankers and lawyers. Many had served in the Continental Army, colonial legislatures or the Continental Congress (known as the Congress of the Confederation as of 1781). In terms of religious affiliation, most were Protestants. Eight delegates were signers of the Declaration of Independence, while six had signed the Articles of Confederation.
At age 81, Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was the oldest delegate, while the majority of the delegates were in their 30s and 40s. Political leaders not in attendance at the convention included Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and John Adams (1735-1826), who were serving as U.S. ambassadors in Europe. John Jay (1745-1829), Samuel Adams (1722-1803) and John Hancock (1737-93) were also absent from the convention. Virginia's Patrick Henry (1736-99) was chosen to be a delegate but refused to attend the convention because he didn't want to give the central government more power, fearing it would endanger the rights of states and individuals.
Reporters and other visitors were barred from the convention sessions, which were held in secret to avoid outside pressures. However, Virginia's James Madison (1751-1836) kept a detailed account of what transpired behind closed doors. (In 1837, Madison's widow Dolley sold some of his papers, including his notes from the convention debates, to the federal government for $30,000.)
Debating the Constitution
The delegates had been tasked by Congress with amending the Articles of Confederation; however, they soon began deliberating proposals for an entirely new form of government. After intensive debate, which continued throughout the summer of 1787 and at times threatened to derail the proceedings, they developed a plan that established three branches of national government--executive, legislative and judicial. A system of checks and balances was put into place so that no single branch would have too much authority. The specific powers and responsibilities of each branch were also laid out.
Among the more contentious issues was the question of state representation in the national legislature. Delegates from larger states wanted population to determine how many representatives a state could send to Congress, while small states called for equal representation. The issue was resolved by the Connecticut Compromise, which proposed a bicameral legislature with proportional representation of the states in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation in the upper house (Senate).
Another controversial topic was slavery. Although some northern states had already started to outlaw the practice, they went along with the southern states' insistence that slavery was an issue for individual states to decide and should be kept out of the Constitution. Many northern delegates believed that without agreeing to this, the South wouldn't join the Union. For the purposes of taxation and determining how many representatives a state could send to Congress, it was decided that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person. Additionally, it was agreed that Congress wouldn't be allowed to prohibit the slave trade before 1808, and states were required to return fugitive slaves to their owners.
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