Establishing a New Nation: 1783-1792

Constitutional Convention

Congressional Representation Compromises

Disagreements between the framers of the Constitution led to debates and compromises regarding fair representation for each state in the federal government.

The demand for a stronger federal government led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Twelve states—Rhode Island did not send delegates—sent a total of 55 delegates to attend the convention. Most of the delegates had served in the Continental Congress. The delegates originally met to revise the Articles of Confederation. However, the course was quickly changed to establish a new structure for the federal and state governments.

The delegates had to decide how to provide for representation of the states in the federal government. One plan proposed by the Virginia delegates and drafted by statesman James Madison was the Virginia Plan. The Virginia Plan favored large states by establishing a bicameral, or two-house, legislature in which representation in both houses was based on population. As an alternative, the New Jersey Plan, which favored small states, kept the unicameral legislature formed under the Articles of Confederation and gave each state equal representation. Delegates refused to consider a plan that did not favor the state they represented. A proposal that would become known as the Great Compromise was then submitted by Roger Sherman, a Connecticut delegate. It proposed a bicameral legislature composed of two houses—a Senate and a House of Representatives—with distinct functions and modes of representation. The Senate would consist of an assembly of representatives in which each state had equal representation. In the House of Representatives, representation would be proportional in relation to the population of each state. The Great Compromise balanced the wishes of delegates from the large states and the small states and gained general approval.

The Three-Fifths Compromise

Delegates disagreed about how—or whether—to count enslaved persons in calculating Congressional representation.

The issue of how to count enslaved persons in each state's population was another point of contention. Many delegates from Northern states opposed human enslavement and did not want enslaved persons to be counted toward a state's population for the purpose of representation in Congress. On the other hand, Northern delegates felt enslaved workers should be counted for taxation, because slaveholders regarded enslaved persons as property. Delegates from the Southern states would not ratify the Constitution unless provisions protecting the institution of human enslavement were included. They lobbied for the inclusion of enslaved persons in the population tally for the purposes of representation. Northern delegates, in return, argued that such tallies would increase the representation and congressional influence of Southern states but that the enslaved workers themselves would have no say in how these representatives would vote. This contradicted the recent American Revolution's rallying point of no taxation without representation. To strike a balance, the Three-Fifths Compromise was proposed. The Three-Fifths Compromise provided that enslaved individuals would be reckoned as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of both representation and taxation.

Within three years of its enactment, the compromise increased federal representation of slave states in the House of Representative from 33 members to 47. From that point on, until 1860, the Southern slaveholding states were able to dominate the federal government. Despite efforts to keep the shaky union of states intact with the Three-Fifths Compromise, civil war over issues of state's rights and slavery nearly destroyed it.

Ratification Debate

The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution at the urging of Anti-Federalists, who feared a strong federal government would take away rights from individuals and states.

A passionate and public debate on ratification followed the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison published a series of essays supporting the strong federal government outlined in the Constitution. These essays are collectively known as the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers were published over two years in New York newspapers under the pseudonym Publius—Latin for "public."

A Federalist was someone who supported a strong federal government. Federalists believed that a robust central government would allow increased participation of citizens in their government through the process of voting. The original Constitution gave voting privileges to white male property owners. Federalists also believed a strong central government would protect the people from the tyrannical rise of singularly powerful state leaders. Those who opposed ratification, because they feared the federal government was being given too much power, were called Anti-Federalists. An Anti-Federalist believed strongly in individual rights, and many called for a bill of rights to protect individuals from the government. Such a document was included in many state constitutions.

Three-fourths of the states needed to ratify the Constitution in order for it to become law. By June 1788 nine states had voted for ratification, and the U.S. Constitution was adopted as law. Several of the states voted to ratify on the contingency that a bill of rights was added. The new government convened in March 1789 and proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution to ensure personal liberties. Congress approved these amendments and sent them to the states for ratification. Ten were ratified by the states in 1791. These amendments became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and are known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights secures for all persons such basic liberties as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.

State-by-State Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, 1787-90

Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution, signing on December 7, 1787. Some two and a half years later, the last state-Rhode Island-ratified on May 29, 1790.