Constitutional Convention Timeline
How It All Went Down
Jefferson in Paris
Thomas Jefferson goes abroad to serve as the American minister in Paris. During this period, he fathers a child with black slave Sally Hemings, who arrives in Paris when she is fourteen and stays for two years while she looks after Jefferson's eight-year-old daughter, Mary. DNA tests in 1998, correlated with the historical record, have left most experts convinced that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings's children and—according to a Frontline study—"quite probably all six."3
Mt. Vernon Conference
Representatives from Virginia and Maryland meet at George Washington's estate to resolve jurisdiction of the Pocomoke and Potomac Rivers.
A state Convention gathers at Annapolis, Maryland. Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York send delegates, but the expected representatives of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and North Carolina never show up. Before adjourning, the Convention adopts Alexander Hamilton's proposal that all states send delegates to another convention in Philadelphia on the second Monday in May.
Inflation and Shay’s Rebellion
During the winter of 1786-7, inflation of paper money gets out of hand, there are riots in Vermont and New Hampshire, and Cpt. Daniel Shays's rebellion erupts in western Massachusetts.
Impost Amendment Fails
The New York legislature rejects the impost amendment, which would enable Congress to raise revenues by levying customs duties and hiring collectors. Since the Articles of Confederation require the unanimous consent of all states before any amendment can be adopted, the impost amendment fails nationwide.
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia
The federal convention meets at the State House (now Independence Hall), the same brick building in Philadelphia where the Constitutional Congress adopted and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Every state except Rhode Island will eventually be represented, but for the first two weeks of the convention, only two state delegations are present and they have to keep adjourning daily until the quorum is reached.
Constitutional Convention Reaches Quorum
A quorum of seven states is finally obtained and the convention can actually get down to business.
Edmund Randolph and the Virginia Plan
Edmund Randolph proposes the Virginia Plan, which would provide for a centralized government in which representation would be based on the population of each state.
Virginia Plan Debated
The Committee of the Whole commences debate over the Virginia Plan.
Small vs. Large States
The incendiary question of how to determine each state's representation in Congress emerges during the convention. Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina (the four most populous states, except New York) unsurprisingly favor the big-state-friendly Virginia Plan, which allocates representation proportional to population. South Carolina and Georgia go along with them. But Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland (small states with no prospect of enlargement through western expansion) object, holding out for equal representation for all states, large and small. Alexander Hamilton of New York favors the Virginia Plan but is rebuffed by his fellow New York delegates, who side with the small states instead.
New Jersey Plan
William Paterson presents the New Jersey Plan, a small-state alternative to the Virginia Plan. It calls for equal representation for each state regardless of population. Southerners also abandon their attempts to get each of their slaves counted as a whole person for the sake of bolstering their congressional representation.
Hamilton Proposes Executive
Alexander Hamilton presents his plan of constitution. The plan consists of a lifetime term for the president and a very strong executive branch. Most delegates disapprove; having just rebelled against a tyrannical king, they have no interest in creating a new king-like presidency. Hamilton leaves the convention soon afterward.
After a three-day recess, a committee chaired by Elbridge Gerry votes in favor of the Connecticut Compromise, which is proposed by Roger Sherman. It combines aspects of the New Jersey and Virginia Plans by allowing for proportional representation in the lower house (which almost everyone wants and expects), but in the upper house—the Senate—every state will have two representatives, as a concession to the smaller states. Until the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, Senators will be elected by state legislatures. The upper house is supposed to be more distanced from the voters.
Northwest Ordinance of 1787
The Confederation Congress passes the Ordinance of 1787 (known as the Northwest Ordinance) to regulate settlement of the Ohio River Valley, the area now known as the Middle West. This territory is to be organized into townships of thirty-six square miles each; the legislation also ensures that inhabitants of the territory will exercise self-government and religious toleration. Slavery is prohibited throughout the region. The law is based on the Ordinance of 1784, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which never went into effect. It is one of the principal accomplishments of American government under the Articles of Confederation.
The Connecticut (or "Great") Compromise is finally (if narrowly) adopted by the entire convention. Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia vote against it. Delaware, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut vote for it. The compromise resolves the conflict between large and small states over the basis of representation in the new government. Included in the deal is the notorious three-fifths compromise, which determines how slaves would be counted for representation and taxation.
Congressional Veto Rejected
The convention votes down a resolution backed by James Madison to empower Congress with a veto over state laws.
The Presidency is Born
The presidency is born; on the motion of George Mason of Virginia, the convention resolves that there shall be a national executive consisting of one person, who will be chosen by the national legislature for seven years. There will be no second term. This blueprint remains in effect until late August, when John Rutledge introduces a motion to elect the president by joint ballot (from the two houses of Congress). Ultimately it is decided that the choice will be given to the House of Representatives alone, so that future presidents would not become mere puppets of the Senate. The small states are also relieved by this decision, for they continue to fear the accumulation of power in a small number of hands.
Committee of Detail Presents Draft
The Committee of Detail presents the first formal draft of the Constitution to the convention for debate.
Navigation and Slave Trade Discussed
The Committee of Eleven is appointed to address the issues of navigation and the slave trade.
Slave Trade Debate
The Committee of Eleven proposes policy on the slave trade and navigation; it is adopted by the Convention and included in U.S. Constitution. According to this policy, the U.S. will place a moratorium on any legislative action against the Atlantic slave trade for the next twenty years. In the meantime, Congress can tax $10 per slave imported into the country. The delegates employ euphemisms to obscure the objectionable term "slavery" itself; in the final draft, the Constitution refers to "free Persons" and "all other persons."
Committee on Style and Arrangement
Members are appointed to the Committee on Style and Arrangement to integrate all drafts and revisions into a final document with consistency.
Draft of Constitution Complete
The Committee on Style and Arrangement presents the completed draft of the U.S. Constitution to the convention for a final vote.
Convention Adopts Constitution
After four months of debate and deliberation, the convention adopts the Constitution.
Draft Signed by Delegates
RANGEEND_CONSTITUTIONAL_CONVENTION The Federal Constitution draft is signed by the delegates. Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry are the only attendees who will not sign because of their objections to the final draft.
Constitution Published and Distributed
The Constitution is published and the public finally gets a look at what all those statesmen were working on in that brick building in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Packet prints the first public copy of the Constitution. But it takes another half of a century before James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 are released to the public. These day-to-day records provide the central supply of information about the Convention debates; they are the only comprehensive account either taken or preserved for posterity.
Congress formally submits the Constitution to the states for ratification.
The Federalist Papers
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay begin publishing a series of 85 essays supporting the controversial and recently drafted Constitution and pressing the argument for its ratification. These essays come to be known as The Federalist Papers. The essays are published anonymously, under the pen name "Publius." Most of them are printed in two New York state newspapers of the period: The Independent Journal and The New York Packet.
Delaware becomes the first state to ratify the Constitution, by unanimous vote.
Pennsylvania becomes the second state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 42-23.
New Jersey Ratifies
New Jersey becomes the third state to ratify the Constitution, by unanimous vote.
Georgia becomes the fourth state to ratify the Constitution, by unanimous vote.
Connecticut becomes the fifth state to ratify the Constitution, by unanimous vote.
Massachusetts Ratifies with Recommendations
Massachusetts becomes the sixth state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 187-168, with recommended amendments.
Rhode Island Rejects
Rhode Island becomes the first state to reject the Constitution. It is the only state that does not hold a ratifying convention. Instead, the vote is submitted to town meetings, which are boycotted by most Federalists.
Maryland becomes the seventh state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 63-11.
South Carolina Ratifies
South Carolina becomes the eighth state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 149-73, with recommended amendments.
New Hampshire Becomes 9th to Ratify
New Hampshire becomes the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 57-47, with recommended amendments. The Constitution can now be put into effect, but it will mean little without the approval of the largest and most populous states, especially Virginia and New York.
Virginia Ratifies Against Patrick Henry
After a heated internal debate with Patrick Henry leading the antifederalists against ratification, Virginia becomes the tenth state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 89-79, with recommended amendments.
New York Ratifies
New York becomes the twelfth state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 30-27, with recommended amendments. It is the narrowest margin thus far.
North Carolina Postpones
North Carolina postpones its vote on ratification, proposing a list of amendments to be adopted before it will ratify.
New York as Capitol
The Confederation Congress selects New York City to become the new seat of government.
New Government Begins
The new U.S. government under the Constitution formally goes into effect.
First House Session
Quorum is reached in the House of Representatives, commencing the first session of Congress.
George Washington Elected
The Senate and the House of Representatives meet in joint session to tally the votes from the first presidential election. George Washington is elected president and John Adams vice president.
George Washington and John Adams are inaugurated in New York City, the temporary capital.
Bill of Rights Proposed
Congress proposes twelve amendments to the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, for ratification by state legislatures.
Washington Promotes Amendments
President George Washington sends each state a copy of the twelve amendments adopted by Congress in September.
States Ratify Bill of Rights
By now, three-fourths of the states have ratified ten of the proposed amendments and they are now known as the "Bill of Rights."
North Carolina Ratifies
North Carolina's second convention ratifies the Constitution by a vote of 194-77, with recommended amendments.
Supreme Court Begins
The Supreme Court begins its first session, per the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Rhode Island Ratifies
After initially rejecting the new government and then holding out, Rhode Island becomes the thirteenth and final state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 34-32, with recommended amendments.
Bill of Rights Enacted
Thomas Jefferson announces the ratification of the Bill of Rights; the first ten amendments to the Constitution go into effect.