The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7


The Forming of the Constitution of
The United States

The formation of the Constitution of the United States is one of the most important events in history. It gave mankind the first adequate type of a government by the people capable of being extended to the greatest of nations, and established the union of states on a foundation on which was actually reared a mighty empire. The journal of the convention that formed such a government is probably the most instructive treatise in constructive political science ever given to the world.

The Confederation had proved a weak failure, and in 1787 Congress recommended a convention of delegates from the states to amend the Articles of Confederation. The members of the convention were most of them the greatest men of their states. Of the names best known in the history of the time there were absent only Jefferson and John Adams, ambassadors in Europe; Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, because they did not approve its object.

The first plan to change the Articles of Confederation had been drawn up by Madison, but was presented by Randolph, both of Virginia. It was practically a new constitution. It allowed for two branches to congress. The House of Delegates was to be chosen by the people. This was a point of immense significance. The Senate was to be elected by the national House of Delegates from lists nominated by the legislatures. The number in each branch was to be proportional to population. The legislature was to be given the right to negativestate laws, but this was to be passed upon by a court of final appeal consisting of the President and part of the judiciary.

Charles Pinckney of South Carolina submitted to the convention a second plan. If the plan preserved is his, which is doubtful, its main differences from the Virginia plan were that senators were to be elected by the national House from citizens of each state at large, that money bills were to be originated only in the House, and that the judiciary only was to be the court of final appeal.

The convention took up the consideration of the Virginia plan. After much important discussion and amendments, the convention agreed to propositions in the following order: To placing the legislative power in two branches; electing the members of the House by the people; the originating of all laws by both branches; the establishment of a strong executive to be chosen by the national legislature, to consist of a single person, and to have the power of veto subject to the vote of two-thirds of the. legislature; the establishment of a judiciary; the admission of new states; the choosing of the senate by the state legislatures; the right of suffrage to be according to such equitable representation as the number of the free inhabitants and three-fifths of all others; the right of suffrage to be the same in each branch; guaranteeing a republican government to each state; providing for amendments; providing for ratification by the states; giving the judiciary powers in national questions; appointing the judges by the Senate. At this juncture (June 13) a complete draft of the Constitution so far was brought in. The smaller states which had voted against the proposition of proportionate representation in both branches here took a decided stand that threatened to disrupt the convention. Mr. Patterson of New Jersey submitted a new plan keeping Congress the creation entirely of the states with equal representation for all. A determined debate followed. The convention was on the verge of dissolution. At last Oliver Ellsworth, Roger Sherman and Franklin suggested a compromise, and a committee appointed suggested that in the House representation should be proportional, in the Senate equal, and that all bills for raising money should originate in the House. After another earnest debate, the compromise was finally adopted by a vote of five states to four, Massachusetts tied, New York not voting because Yates and Lansing had thought the convention to be assuming altogether too much power and had returned home. Luther Martin of Maryland had also left in wrath.

From that time the work of the convention went comparativelysmoothly. Slaves, though the word is not used, were counted as three-fifths, as the second great compromise. As the third, the importation of slaves was prohibited after 1808, but Congress was given the power to regulate Commerce, and there was to be free trade amongst the States. Practically the whole Constitution was again gone over, but it was at last passed as handed down to us and signed September 17, 1787.

Mason and Randolph of Virginia, and Gerry of Massachusetts would not sign, though Randolph afterwards heartily aided in its ratification by Virginia.

The Constitution now went to the Continental Congress for its approval. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and Nathan Dane of Massachusetts opposed it, but it was carried under the leadership of Madison and young Henry Lee of Virginia and referred to the states for their ratification. The approval of nine states was to make it binding on the nine. A hot war of words was waged for and against the new Constitution. Delaware was the first to ratify (December 6, 1787,) and New Jersey was the third, both conventions going unanimously for the new Constitution because it would allow all states equal representation in the Senate. Pennsylvania came second, though after considerable opposition, by a vote of 46 to 23. Georgia followed unanimously, January 2, 1788. In Massachusetts there were many from Maine and the hills opposed to the new arrangement. So was Elbridge Gerry. Fisher, Ames, King, Parsons, Caleb Strong, and Bowdoin had to put forth all their efforts to hold the tide even. For a long time Samuel Adams was silent, but at last a general meeting of mechanics in favor of the Constitution convinced him that the common sense of the people was for it, and he put forth his great influence on its side. This, with the warning from Washington that it was the Constitution or disunion, tumult and disorder, carried the Massachusetts convention by the vote of 187 to 168. In Maryland Luther Martin and Samuel Chase were in opposition, but the Constitution was approved, 63 to 11. South Carolina followed by a vote of 149 to 73. In Virginia Patrick Henry was in favor of a separate Southern confederacy. Mason and Richard Henry Lee were also anti-Federalist. Randolph came out strong for the Constitution, though he had refused to sign it in the convention. Madison, whose plan of union was its basis, was its strongest advocate, and "Light-Horse Harry" Lee was an able supporter. John Marshall, the future Chief Justice, spoke for the Constitution with all the logical strength that was to make him famous. After three weeks discussion, theconvention ratified the new order of things by the close vote of 89 to 79, June 25. New Hampshire, which had once postponed the question to see what the others would do, had already fallen into line June 21.

In New York the struggle was fiercest. Lansing, Yates, and Clinton were rabid anti-Federals. Hamilton and Jay were the strongest of Federals. The papers of the Federalist were written and published to explain the Constitution. Week after week Hamilton argued almost daily before the hostile convention for federation, until finally Melancthon Smith, probably the strongest debater on the opposition, came over to his side. There was a proposition to ratify conditionally and later withdraw, if expedient, from the union. Hamilton asked Madison about it. They agreed it could never be done. The closeness of the struggle is shown by the fact that the vote of New York was only 30 to 27 for federation.

This made eleven states that had agreed to the Constitution. The effect of the opposition was to get the first amendments embodying a bill of rights passed by the first Congress.

The journal of the Federal convention that follows was made by Madison, but kept secret until his death (1836), when it was purchased by Congress and published by their order in 1840.

James Madison, who drafted the Virginia plan, was born in Prince George county, Virginia, March 16, 1751. He graduated from Princeton in 1771, and permanently injured his health by overstudy under President Witherspoon. He was a member of the Virginia assembly and served in the Continental Congress (1780-1783). He was one of the greatest promoters of the Federal convention, and the Virginia plan used as a basis for discussion was his. In the state convention and in the Federalist he showed himself, if Hamilton is not excepted, the ablest supporter of the new Constitution. He wrote the Virginia resolutions of 1798, but later contended that he had throughout the resolutions used "the states" in the plural to show that it would require a vote of three-fourths of the states to nullify constitutionally an act of Congress. This would make the resolutions much milder than the Kentucky resolutions or Calhoun’s doctrine. He was Secretary of State under Jefferson and succeeded him as President in 1809. In the war of 1812, he seems not to have been decisive enough to be a good leader, and the firmer policy in the latter part of the war has often been credited to Monroe. Madison died June 28, 1836.


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Chicago: "The Forming of the Constitution of the United States," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 247–250. Original Sources, accessed August 11, 2022,

MLA: . "The Forming of the Constitution of the United States." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 247–250. Original Sources. 11 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: , 'The Forming of the Constitution of the United States' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.247–250. Original Sources, retrieved 11 August 2022, from