Study Guide

Constitutional Convention

Constitutional Convention Introduction

With the end of the Revolutionary War, the newly free Americans had the whole "New World" as their oyster. The Articles of Confederation ended up about as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane, so the Founding Fathers were left to determine just what would be the best way to run the fledgling nation.

So, how does it all work? If you're hoping Nicolas Cage is going to show up at any moment with a secret map and cipher to get you through that question, stop. 

Just...stop.

The Articles of Confederation limited the power of the federal government so much that there wasn't really a central government at all. Instead there was a confederation of states, each of which governed as it saw fit. The whole government was based off of the idea that the states would work together under a "firm league of friendship."

And then maybe go pick daisies together in the sunset. 

States began acting like their own little countries. With no central power to stop any of the madness, the nation's leaders knew it was time for action. The general consensus was that the federal government needed more power. 

They decided to hold a convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the failing Articles of Confederation. Originally, the plan was just to tweak things here and there, without reinventing the entire government, but once they popped, they just couldn't stop. The end result was a brand spanking new government. This Constitutional Convention would determine the fate of the nation, and out of it would come our Constitution.

Duh.

The goal was to get representatives from each state to gather to address the shortcomings of the Articles and how to revise them. Amazingly, that "firm league of friendship" idea hit a roadblock when Rhode Island decided not to show up for the convention. You know what they say: every party has a pooper.

Even without Rhode Island, the delegates were able to push forward through debates, compromises, and rock, paper, scissors matches, to create probably the single most important document in our history.

And although it may seem like the Founding Fathers were all BFFs with matching wigs, you'll also learn about the many compromises made during the drafting of the Constitution as well as the two party system that developed during this time period and how it still works ("works" is a relative term, of course) today.

So, let's explore the road that got us from weak-sauce Articles of Confederation to He-Man warrior Constitution.

What is Constitutional Convention About and Why Should I Care?

Despite all of the great reasons below for why you should care about the making of the Constitution, we're going to hit you with a 21st-century example first.

In 2002, an 18-year-old high school student named Joseph Frederick in Juneau, Alaska, unfurled a 14-foot-long banner just outside school grounds amid the crowd that had gathered to watch the Olympic torch relay pass through town on its way to the Winter Games at Salt Lake City, Utah.

The banner referred to marijuana use and read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." Even though he was standing on a public sidewalk, the school suspended Frederick for ten days because they said he and other students were participating in a school-sponsored event. They'd been let out of classes and were accompanied by their teachers. By refusing when the principal ordered him to take down the banner, Frederick was—according to school officials—violating a school policy by promoting illegal drug use. As the school board's lawyers noted in their Supreme Court appeal, "Bong is a slang term for drug paraphernalia."

Frederick sued the school board on the grounds that his First Amendment right to free speech was infringed upon. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, California, agreed with him. They concluded that the school couldn't show Frederick had disrupted the school's educational mission by displaying a banner off campus.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit relied on the precedent of the Supreme Court's famous 1969 "Tinker" case, in which two Iowa high students were allowed to continue wearing anti-Vietnam War armbands. The Juneau school board appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and on June 25th, 2007, the Court decided in five-to-four favor of the school board in the case of Morse v. Frederick.

The majority—represented by Chief Justice John Roberts—argued that since "schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use," the school didn't violate Frederick's First Amendment rights by confiscating his banner and suspending him.

Dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens—who was joined by Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter—instead wrote that "Although this case began with a silly, nonsensical banner, it ends with the Court inventing out of whole cloth [essentially, this means "out of thin air"] a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs, at least so long as someone could perceive that speech to contain a latent pro-drug message." 

Given the fact that the 9th Circuit and the Supreme Court disagreed, and that this case was decided by the closest possible majority on the Supreme Court itself, it demonstrates the ongoing debates—in the legal field and far beyond—over the meaning or means of interpreting the Constitution. There are often high stakes involved in these debates, as evidenced in the Frederick case.blank">Magna Carta is a good beginning when it comes to guaranteeing all citizens certain fundamental rights, and doing it in writing.

You know that you want a republican government—but how far do you take that? 

  • Is it wise, or even feasible, to allow the white male voters to directly choose the president, the senators, and the representatives?
  • How do you satisfy both the large and small states, the slaveholding states and the free states, and the conflicting claims that many of them hold on western territory?
  • Who gets to become a citizen?
  • How do you rework the government to make it more powerful and efficient, without leaving open the possibility that it will become too centralized and autocratic one day?
  • What is necessary in order to ensure a balanced but effective government, now and forever?

These are the dilemmas the Founding Fathers faced.

They tried their best, and the matters they left undone were addressed using the blueprint they left for us. The Bill of Rights helped to assure suspicious citizens that their individual liberties would always be protected. The ratification process spelled out in Article V provided a means for Americans to revise or change this government blueprint as they saw fit. So, the Constitution would evolve over time along with the rest of the country, through the abolition of slavery to the enfranchisement of Blacks, then women, and then everyone 18 and over. 

It wasn't a perfect governmental structure, but then, what is? It was certainly an impressive achievement, and many of today's debates on current affairs invoke the Constitution because it remains the one standard which most Americans still want to respect and uphold.

Constitutional Convention Resources

Books

Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913)
This book had a major impact on the historical profession and the reading public at large when it was published during the Progressive Era. Though many people have challenged its central contentions regarding the economic self-interest and motivations of the Founding Fathers, it remains a powerful argument that has retained at least a partial degree of veracity.

Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2003)
Berkin brilliantly debunks the romanticized notions circulated about the Founding Fathers. She explains that they didn't know whether their experiment would work, they were almost paralyzed by the daunting nature of the task before them, and they were terrified of possible conspiracies against the government when the Convention convened in 1787.

Don Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery (2001)
The famous historian's posthumously published work sought to weave the Constitution's legacy through the decades of politics and sectional tumult that followed in the 19th century.

James H. Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1608–1870 (1978)
A classic exposition of how citizenship was initially defined in North America and how that definition shifted and changed over time, from the Revolution to the Early Republic and through most of the 19th century.

Robert A. McGuire, To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution (2003)
This book doesn't seek to resurrect Beard entirely, but it certainly defends his economic interpretation as valid, even if Beard failed to appreciate the complexities between his overly simplified distinction of "personalty" and "realty" interests.

Gary Nash, Race and Revolution (1990)
A social history that charts slavery's survival beyond the Revolution and its protection by the newly strengthened national government after 1787. Nash argues that the framers made a critical mistake by compromising on the institution that so many of them knew to be inhumane and sinful. He focuses the blame on the Northerners, not the Southerners, for failing to capitalize on what he argues was an opportunity to end slavery by compensating the slaveowners, and for fearfully running away from the possibility of a biracial society.

Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996)
Rakove traces the social and political context in which the Constitution was framed. In doing so, he argues that the institutional framework that the Constitution created is far more important to contemporary or future society and jurisprudence than the question of the framers' "original meaning," which is difficult if not impossible to ascertain.

Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969)
Although Wood controversially side-stepped the topic of slavery in this otherwise large and comprehensive history, his work focuses upon the various social strata—from farmers to merchants to lawyers—and both men and women in its analysis of the Revolution and its effects on everyone.

Music

The Itinerant Band, Jefferson and Liberty (2001)
The Itinerant Band plays both period and modern instruments on this lively sampling of early-republic classics inspired by the political career of Thomas Jefferson.

Various Artists, Music of the Federal Era (2000)
A fantastic collection of late-18th and early-19th-century compositions performed on rare instruments crafted during the period, this discincludes an array of classic marches, hymns, and dance melodies.

Various Artists, Music from Mid-19th Century America (2000)
The Yankee Brass Band plays early-republic dance hits for your waltzes, quicksteps, and polkas.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
A fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

Barry Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down (1992)
Barry Phillips' collection of popular music from the Revolutionary and Federalist eras includes quaint folk songs, lively dance tunes, and other elegant compositions played in homes, taverns, and even on the war front.

Images

Signing the Constitution
Howard Chandler Christy, "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States," George Washington presiding, in Philadelphia on September 17th, 1787, on display in the U.S. Capitol.

The Site of the Convention
Nicholas Scull and George Heap, "A Map of Philadelphia and Parts Adjacent" (1752); the first published view of Independence Hall, known then as the Philadelphia State House, where the Constitutional Convention was held.

The Father of the Constitution
James Madison, "Father of the Constitution" and fourth President of the United States, Philadelphia: W.H. Morgan, between 1809 and 1817.

Elder Statesman of the Convention
Benjamin Franklin, 1706–1790. Portrait by Chas. Wilson Peale.

Know Your Rights
The American Civil Liberties Union: Illustrated guide to the Bill of Rights.

Movies & TV

John Adams (2008)
HBO made major waves in 2008 with this well-produced, Emmy-nominated miniseries on the life of John Adams during the Revolutionary period and the early years of the republic.

Slavery and the Making of America (2005)
Presented by PBS, this four-part television series uses archival sources and individual stories to trace the long and complex history of American slavery, from its beginnings in the colonies to its solidification with the signing of the U.S. Constitution to the post-Civil War years.

Founding Brothers (2002)
Another offering from the good people at the History Channel, this television mini-series compliments Founding Fathers by exploring the post-Revolutionary political careers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

Founding Fathers (2000)
This television documentary originally presented by the History Channel is divided into four cleverly titled parts. First, "Rebels with a Cause" traces the early stages of the American Revolution by focusing on the men who triggered it. "Taking Liberties" focuses on Benjamin Franklin's diplomacy in the days leading up to the outbreak of war. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington take center stage in "You Say You Want a Revolution." Finally, "A Healthy Constitution" charts the complex political negotiations led by James Madison and George Washington in solidifying the work of the revolution.

The Adams Chronicles (1976)
This four-time Emmy Award-winning dramatic series chronicles the lives of five generations of America's most powerful political dynasty.

Websites

Forms of American Justice and Government
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School has compiled tons of 18th-century documents, including the Articles of Confederation, Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, state constitutions, the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, and the English Bill of Rights (1689), among others.

Founding Documents
The U.S. government has posted a very helpful scanned copy and transcript of one hundred important American documents online, including the U.S. Constitution and two of the most famous Federalist Papers.

Convention Documents
The Library of Congress has also digitized a collection of Constitutional Convention broadsides.

Historical Documents

The Constitution in Original Form
In this special presentation on the Constitution from the Library of Congress, the background of the Constitution is presented along with the text of the original document.

The Process of Constitution-Making
Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, published in 1911, compiled the documentary records of the Constitutional Convention into four volumes, three of which are included in this online collection.

A Republic in Transition
Jonathan Elliot compiled Elliot's Debates, a five-volume collection, in the mid-19th century. The volumes are the best source for understanding the federal government's transitional period between the closing of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 and the opening of the First Federal Congress in March 1789.

Understanding the Constitution
The National Constitution Center offers a number of interactive tools and resources for understanding the context and significance of the U.S. Constitution.

Assessing the Constitution: Uses and Abuses
The American Antiquarian Society has hosted a roundtable (in 2002) on the uses and abuses of the Constitution through history, featuring a number of very prominent scholars.