United States Constitution, September 17, 1787
Delegates from twelve states met in Philadelphia in 1787 to discuss strengthening the powers of the national government. Only Rhode Island failed to send delegates to the convention. After more than four months of secret debates, proposals, and compromises, a majority of the delegates reached an agreement. The Constitution was signed by thirty-nine of the fifty-five members of the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia.
The delegation from Virginia played an integral role throughout the Constitutional Convention. Virginia was the first state to agree to send delegates to Philadelphia. Governor Edmund Randolph introduced a plan, authored by James Madison, to dispose of the Articles of Confederation and to establish a fundamentally different form of government. The Virginia Plan served as the foundation for the newly written Constitution. George Washington served as president of the Convention, and lent his reputation to the proceedings. Madison's tireless work and leadership behind the scenes earned him the nickname “The Father of the Constitution.” Another Virginia delegate, John Blair, was a supporter of the Constitution, but had more influence after the Convention, as a member of the first Supreme Court of the United States.
George Mason contributed greatly to the debate and formation of the Constitution, but along with Randolph ultimately refused to sign in part because the Constitution lacked a Declaration of Rights. George Wythe was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the first law professor in America. Wythe was assigned, along with Alexander Hamilton, to create the rules and procedures that governed the Constitutional Convention. James McClurg was added as a delegate after Patrick Henry, Thomas Nelson, and Richard Henry Lee refused the appointment. Like Mason and Randolph, neither McClurg nor Wythe signed the final Constitution; Wythe had to leave the Convention early and eventually voted for ratification at the Virginia Convention. Therefore, despite significant contributions, only three of the seven Virginians in Convention signed the final copy of the Constitution.
Congress submitted the draft Constitution to the states for ratification. In a letter to Congress that accompanied the Constitution, Washington, who served as president of the Convention, addressed the difficulties of the Convention, with “a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests … we kept steadily in our view that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety—perhaps our national existence.”
This copy of the Constitution may have been the first one made for public consumption. It is believed that this printing took place only days after the Constitutional Convention members reached their final agreement. Copies were distributed all throughout the states, as citizens and delegates to the ratification conventions looked to learn as much about the proposed system of government as possible.
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, which made the adoption official. The conventions in Virginia and New York ratified soon after. On July 2, 1788, the Continental Congress announced the adoption of the Constitution, and on October 10, the Continental Congress officially ended its business.
1. How many articles are there in the Constitution?
2. Who was the president of the Constitutional Convention?
3. What were some of the issues and differences that existed among the delegates of the Constitutional Convention? How were they resolved?
4. The final copy of the Constitution was shorter than all of the drafts. Why do you think the signers made that decision? What benefits might a shorter, more vague document present over a longer more detailed one? What disadvantages?
1. Compare this finalized copy of the Constitution with the Virginia Plan. Where were there changes made? Why do you think these changes were made? Do you think that the changes are significant? How do the changes affect your understanding and the way you think about the Constitution?
2. When compared with the Articles of Confederation what features of the U.S. Constitution represent an improvement over the previous form of government?
3. The United States Constitution is often called a “living document.” What does this mean to you? Do you agree with that classification being applied to the Constitution?
This printing of the Constitution is described in Prologue, the Journal of the National Archives (Fall, 1970): 82. There it is suggested that this printing followed immediately the printing in Dunlap and Claypoole's Pennsylvania Packet on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 1787.
This Library of Congress copy of this broadside is damaged with some loss of text.
Kaminski, John P., and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol 8: Ratification of the Constitution by the States: Virginia, Vol. I:xxxv–xxxvi. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1988.
Briceland, Alan V. “Virginia: The Cement of the Union.” In The Constitution and the States: The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Edited by Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminski. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1988.
Gales, Joseph. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (Annals of Congress). Vol. 1, Introduction, v–xiii. Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1834.