Constitution Day is a federal observance holiday that recognizes the signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787, by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
An observance holiday is a period of time (day, week, or month) designated by Congress for the observance of various events. Federal offices are not closed for an observance holiday.
Constitution Day was first recognized in 1911 in schools in Iowa. A committee to promote Constitution Day was formed in 1917, by the Sons of the American Revolution.
In 1939, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst began promoting the creation of a holiday to celebrate citizenship. In 1940, Congress designated the third Sunday in May as “I am an American Day.” By 1944, “I am an American Day” was promoted through the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.
By 1949, Constitution Day proclamations had been issued by the governors of all 48 states. The “I am an American Day” observance was moved to September 17 when Congress renamed it “Citizenship Day” in 1952.
In 1951, Olga T. Weber, an Ohio resident who was concerned that we were taking our freedoms for granted, began a campaign for people to celebrate the signing of the Constitution, ultimately forming a preservation committee in 1952. She petitioned local officials in Louisville (the “Constitution Town”) to establish Constitution Day in 1952. The mayor proclaimed September 17, 1952, as Constitution Day in the city. In 1953, Ms. Weber requested that the state of Ohio officially proclaim a state-wide Constitution Day on September 17. Her request resulted in a law being signed by the governor. That same year, she went to Washington, and a Senate resolution was passed proclaiming September 17 – 23 as Constitution Week. Following the approvals of the House and Senate, President Eisenhower signed it into law.
In 2004, Congress passed a law renaming the holiday “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.” The law mandates that all publicly funded educational institutions, and all federal agencies, provide educational programming on the history of the American Constitution each September 17. In May 2005, the U. S. Department of Education announced the enactment of the law and that it would apply to any school receiving federal funds.
WHAT DOES THE CONSTITUTION CONSIST OF?
Surprisingly, the Constitution does not have a title. As a result, the Constitution was usually titled, “A frame of Government” when it was printed.
The Constitution consists of a preamble, seven articles, and a signed closing endorsement.
The preamble to the Constitution is an introductory statement of the document’s fundamental purposes and guiding principles. It establishes the origin, scope, and purpose of the Constitution. Powers of the federal government are not mentioned in the preamble.
The scope of the Constitution is twofold. First, “to form a more perfect Union” than had previously existed in the “perpetual Union” of the Articles of Confederation. Second, to “secure the blessings of liberty” for all Americans and their posterity.
Courts established by the Constitution can regulate government according to the Constitution. This is because courts have jurisdiction over actions by an officer of government and state law. Also, federal courts may rule on whether coordinate branches of national government conform to the Constitution.
According to Constitutional legal scholars and historians, the Constitution is fundamental law. It can only be changed by extraordinary legislative process of national proposal, followed by ratification of the states. The powers of all departments are limited to enumerated grants found in the Constitution. Courts are expected to enforce provisions of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, and to refuse to enforce anything in conflict with it.
Some of the articles contained sections that detailed the structure of the government. The first three articles describe the separation of powers that divide the federal government into three separate branches: the legislative (the bicameral Congress); the executive (the President); and the judicial (the Supreme Court and other federal courts). Articles four through six describe the rights and responsibilities of state governments and the states in relation to the federal government. Article seven establishes the procedure used by the states to ratify the Constitution.
The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2, establishes the U. S. Constitution, federal statutes, and treaties as “the supreme law of the land.” As the highest form of law in the United States, all state judges must follow federal law when a conflict arises between federal law and a state constitution or state law.
There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution since 1789. The first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, offer specific protections of individual liberty and justice and place restrictions on the powers of government. On September 25, 1789, Congress actually approved twelve amendments to the Constitution and submitted them to the states for ratification. On December 15, 1791, articles three through twelve became Amendments One through Ten of the Constitution, after being ratified by three-fourths of the states.
On May 7, 1992, 202 years and 225 days later, Article Two was finally ratified by three-fourths of the states and became the 27th Amendment. The 27th Amendment prohibits any law that changes the salary of Congress from taking effect until the start of the next set of terms of office for Representatives. As a result, Amendment One remains unratified and still pending before the states. This amendment would establish a formula for determining the appropriate size of the House of Representatives and the appropriate apportionment of representatives among the states following each constitutionally mandated decennial census. Kentucky was the 11th, and last, state to ratify the Amendment in 1792. Today, since there are now 50 states, 38 states are required to ratify an amendment before it becomes a part of the Constitution. There is no time limitation for ratification on this particular amendment.
Most of the other sixteen amendments expand individual civil rights. Others address federal authority or modify government processes and procedures.
Amendments to the U. S. Constitution, unlike many constitutions world-wide, are appended to the end of the document. At seven articles and twenty-seven amendments, it is the shortest written constitution in force. All five pages of the original U.S. Constitution are written on parchment.
The Constitution of the United States is the first constitution of its kind, and has influenced the constitutions of other nations.
THE CONSTITUTION WAS WRITTEN 11 YEARS AFTER AMERICA DECLARED ITS INDEPENDENCE —
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, but it wasn’t the first law of the land.
The Continental Congress was the temporary government of the four million citizens of the United States from September 5, 1774 to March 1, 1781, throughout most of the American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783). The first Constitution of the United States, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was drafted by the Second Continental Congress between 1776 and 1777. By 1981, all 13 states had ratified the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation significantly limited the power of the government. This would prove to be its undoing. Congress could make decisions, but had no enforcement powers. Any decisions of Congress that were to be implemented, including modifications to the Articles, required unanimous approval of the state legislatures of all thirteen states. This meant any state had veto power over any proposed change to the Articles.
The greatest weakness of the Articles of Confederation was the issue of money. The Continental Congress could print money; but by 1786 it was worthless. (A popular phrase at the time was that a useless object or person was “Not worth a Continental,” referring to the Continental dollar.) Congress could borrow money, but couldn’t pay it back.
The Articles gave no taxing power to the federal government. Instead, it had to depend on the states for money to operate the government. Yet, there was no mechanism for the government to make states pay the government. No state paid all of their taxes. In 1785, Georgia and New Jersey paid nothing. Some states paid the amount of interest on the national debt that they owed, but nothing more. No interest was paid on debt owed foreign governments. By 1786, the United States began defaulting on outstanding debts that came due.
The Articles of Confederation did not create the impression of an independent nation capable of defending its sovereignty. The majority of soldiers in the 625-man United States Army were deployed facing, but not threatening, British forts being maintained on American soil. The soldiers had not been paid; resulting in some deserting and others threatening mutiny.
Spain refused to allow American commerce in New Orleans. American officials protested, but it was useless. Barbary pirates began seizing commercial American ships. The Treasury had no funds to pay the extortion, ultimately resulting in two wars.
On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed between Great Britain and the U. S., officially ending the American Revolutionary War and establishing America as an independent nation and no longer part of the British Empire. Britain then signed treaties with France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Congress ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784. Copies were sent to Europe for ratification by the other countries involved. British ratification occurred on April 9, 1784, and the ratified versions were exchanged in Paris on May 12, 1784. It was some time before all Americans received the news due to a lack of quick communication.
After the treaty had been signed, several of the states began violating it. New York and South Carolina frequently prosecuted Loyalists for wartime activities and redistributed their lands, even though both Great Britain and Congress protested. Some state legislatures independently assessed embargoes, negotiated directly with foreign authorities, raised armies, and made war, all in violation of the letter and the spirit of the Articles.
During Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts (1786-1787), Congress had no funds to support an endangered state of the union. Massachusetts couldn’t even pay for its own defense, which resulted in Boston merchants paying for a volunteer army.
At this point, Congress couldn’t do anything significant without nine states being present, and some legislation required all thirteen. If a state sent only one member to attend Congress, its vote was not counted. If a state’s delegation was evenly divided, its vote could not be counted towards the nine-count requirement. The Confederation Congress had “virtually ceased trying to govern”.
On February 21, 1787, the Confederation Congress called a convention of state delegates at Philadelphia to propose a plan of government. Unlike earlier attempts that worked on new laws or piecemeal alterations, the convention was for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation”. The convention was intended to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”
George Washington came out of retirement to deal with some of the issues raised by Shays’ Rebellion, and was one of many leaders that called for a stronger national government to suppress future rebellions.
The Second Constitutional Convention (May 25, 1787 – September 17, 1787) began a few weeks before Shays’ Rebellion ended. It started with numerous serious problems that threatened the recently formed nation. James Madison questioned whether the Articles of Confederation was a binding compact. Connecticut “positively refused” to pay assessments for two years. In the south, the British were supposedly openly funding Creek Indian raids on white settlers in Georgia and adjacent territory, and the state of Georgia was under martial law.
The Convention was originally scheduled to begin on May 14, 1787, but, due to difficult travel conditions at the time, the required quorum of representatives from seven states being present did not arrive until May 25, 1787. Delegates from New Hampshire didn’t arrive until July 23, 1787.
While waiting for other delegates to arrive, James Madison designed and wrote the Virginia Plan, with the help of some of the Virginia delegates. The plan reflected Madison’s strong antionalist views. When the rest of the Virginia delegation arrived, most of the Pennsylvania delegation had arrived as well. They agreed on Madison’s plan, and formed what came to be the predominant coalition.
The Convention finally convened on May 25, 1787, in Philadelphia, with George Washington unanimously being elected president of the Convention. There were 55 delegates in attendance. Originally, 70 delegates had been appointed, but some refused to attend, and others could not attend. More than half of the delegates were lawyers. Nearly all of the delegates had taken part in the Revolution.
WRITING THE CONSTITUTION —
When the Convention began the process of writing the Constitution, only two plans had been assembled: Madison’s Virginia Plan, and Charles Pinckney’s plan. However, since Pinckney didn’t have a coalition behind his plan, it was not considered after he introduced it. Madison’s plan became the basis for the Constitution, and the rest of the Convention was spent modifying this plan.
Well into the Convention, the New Jersey plan was introduced, but never seriously considered. It was mostly a protest by some delegates that thought the Constitution was too radical of a change from the Articles of Confederation.
Another plan was introduced by Alexander Hamilton. This plan would have had the president’s term in office be for life. Convention delegates thought that was too much like a monarchy, although historians are divided as to Hamilton’s motives for introducing the plan. Some think Hamilton wasn’t serious about the plan, while others think he did it to make Madison’s plan more appealing by comparison.
The Connecticut Compromise was not an actual plan introduced by the Connecticut delegation, but one of several compromises proposed to the Convention. The Compromise turned out to be crucial in ratifying the Constitution, even though it was only included after Benjamin Franklin modified it to make it more appealing to larger states.
During the Independence Day recess, a Committee of Detail was assembled and produced a rough draft of the Constitution. Most of this rough draft remained in place, and can be found in the final version of the Constitution.
The Virginia Plan —
Also known as the Large State Plan, the Virginia Plan was introduced at the Convention on May 29, 1787, by the Virginia governor. The Virginia Plan proposed a powerful bicameral legislature, with both houses of the legislature determined proportionately. The lower house would be elected by the people, and the upper house would be elected by the lower house. The only purpose of having an executive would be to ensure that the will of the legislature was carried out, and this person would therefore be selected by the legislature. The Virginia Plan also created a judiciary, and gave both the executive and some members of the judiciary the power to veto, subject to override.
During deliberations, few of the delegates raised serious objections to the planned bicameral congress, the separate executive function, or the separate judicial function. Since English law had typically recognized government as having two separate functions, law making embodied in the legislature, and law executing embodied in the king and his courts, the division of the legislature from the executive and judiciary was an uncontested point.
Dividing the legislature into an upper and lower house wasn’t questioned, since Americans had rarely known any form of legislature other than bicameral legislatures, both in Britain and most state governments. Based on experience, the delegates were convinced that an upper house was necessary to tame the passions of the people, and should represent the “betters” of society.
The delegates agreed with Madison that the executive function had to be independent of the legislature. To avoid problems Americans had experienced with a king in power, legislatures had created state governments where the executive was accountable to the legislature. By the late 1780s this was widely seen as being a source of paralysis, with the Confederation government being the ultimate example.
In England, judges were seen as being agents of the King and his court, who represented him throughout his realm. In America, Madison believed that this direct link between state executives and judges was a source of corruption through patronage, and felt the link had to be severed, thereby creating the “third branch” of the judiciary which had been without any direct precedent prior to writing the Constitution. However, Madison did not believe the judiciary should be truly independent, but should be accountable to the legislature instead of the executive. Not all delegates agreed with Madison; some believed the president should choose judges. Eventually a compromise was reached that the president should choose judges and the Senate confirm them.
While most delegates thought there should be some mechanism to invalidate bad laws approved by congress, few agreed with Madison’s idea that a board of the executive and judges should decide on this. Instead, the power was given solely to the executive in the form of the veto. Many also thought this would be useful to protect the executive, whom many worried might become accountable to an imperial legislature.
The office of Vice President was included later in the deliberations, mainly to provide the president a successor if he was unable to complete his term.
The New Jersey Plan —
Following the introduction of the Virginia plan, William Paterson, a New Jersey delegate, asked for an adjournment so the Plan could be studied in detail. The Articles of Confederation gave the states equal representation in Congress because each state had one vote. The Virginia Plan would make both houses of the legislature proportionate to population thereby limiting the power of the smaller states. In June 1787, the New Jersey Plan, also known as the Small State Plan, was written.
The New Jersey Plan was essentially a rebuttal to the Virginia Plan, and very close to the purpose of the Convention, which was to draft amendments to the Articles of Confederation to fix the problems with it. The New Jersey Plan would retain the existing Continental Congress, but grant it new powers, such as the power to levy taxes and force their collection. An executive branch would be created, but elected by Congress. A multi-person executive would also be allowed under the Plan. The executive(s) would serve a single term and be subject to recall at the request of state governors. The plan also created a judiciary that would be appointed by the executive(s) and serve for life. Also, any laws created by Congress would take precedence over state laws.
The Plan was presented to the Convention on June 15, 1787, but ultimately rejected. It did, however, encourage smaller states to voice their concerns about how they would be treated under the Plan.
The Hamilton Plan —
Alexander Hamilton did not like any of the plans, so he proposed his own plan. His plan resembled the British system of strong centralized government, and was also known as the British Plan. Hamilton’s plan called for eliminating state sovereignty and merging the states into a single nation. The plan did include a bicameral legislature, with the lower house being elected by the people for a period of three years. Electors chosen by the people would elect the upper house, and they would serve for life. The plan also created the position of Governor, an executive elected by electors that would serve for life, an absolute veto over bills. State governors would be appointed by the national legislature, which had veto power over any state legislation.
Hamilton presented his plan to the Convention on June 18, 1787. The plan was perceived as a well-thought-out plan, but it was not considered, because it resembled the British system too closely. In addition, the states were unwilling to allow the loss of most state authority.
The Pinckney Plan —
After the Virginia Plan had been presented, South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney presented his own plan to the Convention. Since Pinckney did not present the plan in writing, James Madison’s notes are the only evidence of the plan. It was a confederation, or treaty, among the 13 states. There would be a bicameral legislature made up of Senate and House Delegates. The House would have one member for every one thousand inhabitants. Senators would be elected by the House, and would serve by rotation for four years and represent one of four regions. Congress would meet in a joint session to elect a President, and would also appoint members of the cabinet. A joint session of Congress would serve as the court of appeal of last resort in disputes between states. There would also be a supreme Federal Judicial Court. The plan was not debated.
The Connecticut Compromise —
On June 11, 1787, Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman presented the Connecticut Compromise to the Convention. The Compromise essentially blended the Virginia (large-state) and New Jersey (small-state) proposals. Ultimately, its contribution was to determine apportionment of the Senate and retain a federal character in the Constitution. The Compromise contained the two-house national legislature of the Virginia Plan, but proposed “That the proportion of suffrage in the 1st. branch [house] should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more.”
Large states opposed the Compromise because they felt the smaller states had been given too much power. The Compromise failed at first, but ultimately a modified form of the plan was included in the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin added the requirement that revenue bills originate in the House, and instead of state delegations voting as a block as instructed by their state legislatures, Franklin’s modification made them free agents. This meant the Senate would bring a federal character to the government because each state would be equally represented.
Disagreements Arose Among the Delegates —
The delegates had disagreements on many issues that had to be resolved so a Constitution could eventually be finalized and sent to the states for ratification.
The new Constitution was seen as such a radical change from the Articles of Confederation, which elected delegates by state legislatures, that the Convention agreed to retain this method of electing senators.
The first draft of the Constitution was produced by the Committee of Detail, which was chaired by South Carolina delegate John Rutledge, a former governor. Rutledge was determined to make the new government stronger than the Confederation government, but not have unlimited power over the states. As a result, the Committee exceeded what the Convention had proposed, and remade the Constitution. The Committee changed critical agreements already made, expanded the powers of the states while reducing the power of the federal government, and added several provisions never discussed at the Convention.
The draft even modified the language of the Supremacy Clause, which the Convention had already adopted, to make sure national law would prevail over inconsistent state laws. These changes became part of the final document because the Convention never challenged the dual-sovereignty between nation and state.
The delegates had difficulty agreeing on whether the executive (president) should be a single person, or a board of three. Many delegates wanted the executive’s power to be limited, so they supported the proposal to divide the executive power between three people. The potential problems with this type of a system, and knowing that George Washington would probably be the first president, enabled the proponents of a singular executive to accumulate a coalition large enough to resolve the issue.
Another issue they addressed was how the president should be elected. Madison’s idea that the executive should be elected by the legislature was not popular. Many delegates were concerned about a direct election, because information travelled so slowly at the time. In addition, there were concerns that people would only vote for candidates from their state or region. Others wanted the president to be chosen by the governors of the states.
Ultimately, the issue was resolved with the electoral college. At the time, there was great concern that candidates would frequently fail to earn a majority of electors in the electoral college. Most of the delegates thought the House should then choose the president, since it most closely reflected the will of the people. This caused dissension among delegates from smaller states, because they realized this would put their states at a disadvantage. To resolve the issue, the Convention agreed that the House would elect the president if no candidate had an electoral college majority, but each state delegation would vote as a block instead of individually.
It was felt that the decision to have the president chosen by an electoral college reduced the chance of the president becoming accountable to Congress.
Three delegates emerged as opposition to the Constitution, and a few of their complaints resulted in changes. Adding “high crimes and misdemeanors” to the impeachment clause was one of their requests that was adopted. The most important change they had made to the Constitution was the method for ratifying amendments. The Committee of Detail only had one method for constitutional amendment, which was two-thirds of the states asking Congress to convene a convention for consideration of amendments. The opposition was able to add a second method that was approved by the Convention. This method was the original method from the Virginia Plan, whereby Congress would propose amendments that the states would then ratify. All amendments to the Constitution have been made through this second method.
The final report of the Committee of Detail, which became the first draft of the Constitution, was the first workable constitutional plan, since the Virginia Plan was essentially a broad structure and an outline of goals. After the Committee issued the report, they continued meeting periodically for several weeks.
A new committee was created, the Committee on Postponed Parts, to resolve other questions that had been postponed. The committee dealt with questions related to the taxes, war making, patents and copyrights, relations with Indian tribes, and Benjamin Franklin’s compromise to require money bills to originate in the House.
Another change made was to allow the Senate to modify spending bills proposed by the House. Previously the Senate was only able to accept or reject spending bills made by the House.
The biggest issue the Committee addressed was the presidency. They adopted the earlier plan of choosing the president by an electoral college, and decided on the method of choosing the president if no candidate had an electoral college majority, which many, including Madison, thought would be “nineteen times out of twenty”.
The Committee reduced the president’s term from seven years to four years, allowed the president to seek re-election after an initial term, and moved impeachment trials from the courts to the Senate. They also created the office of vice president, whose only duties were to succeed a president unable to complete a term of office and to preside over the Senate. The Committee transferred important powers from the Senate to the president, such as the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors.
Beginning of the Bill of Rights —
The three opposition delegates objected to civil trials. They wanted the right to a jury trial in civil matters to be guaranteed. After the Convention agreed to their demand, they requested a Bill of Rights be included in the Constitution. Other delegates wanted the nearly four-month long Convention to end so they could return home, and viewed anything the opposition mentioned as delaying tactics. The Committee refused to add a bill of rights, even though the opposition thought it could be prepared in a few hours.
As it turned out, the absence of a bill of rights became the main argument against ratification of the Constitution used by the anti-Federalists. The majority of the delegates thought the states already protected individual rights, and since the Constitution did not authorize the national government to take away rights, there was no need to include protections of rights.
The Federalist Papers —
Three members of the Convention, including James Madison, were also members of Congress. They returned to New York, where Congress was in session.
While writing the Constitution, two groups quickly developed among the delegates — those against the Constitution, known as the Anti-Federalists, and those in favor of the Constitution, known as the Federalists. Several of the Federalists, including James Madison, wrote a series of commentaries, known as The Federalist Papers, in support of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers were actually targeted at getting New York to ratify the Constitution. At the time, New York was full of anti-Federalists. The Federalist Papers are periodically cited by the Supreme Court as an authoritative contemporary interpretation of the meaning of the Constitution.
Handling the Issue of Slavery —
One of the most controversial issues discussed at the Convention was slavery. At the time of the Convention, slavery was widespread in the states. Nearly half of the delegates (25 of 55) owned slaves. This included all delegates from Virginia and South Carolina. Approximately one-fifth of the population of the states consisted of slaves. Slaves lived in all regions of the country, except for New England where slavery had nearly been eliminated. More than 90% of the slaves lived in the South, where approximately 1 in 3 families owned slaves. In Virginia, the largest and wealthiest state, nearly 1 in 2 families owned slaves. The entire farming economy of the South was based on slave labor, and the southern delegates were unwilling to accept any proposals they thought might threaten their economy.
Several southern states refused to join the Union if slavery was not going to be allowed.and regulated under the new Constitution. Delegates opposed to slavery continued to argue that the Constitution should prohibit the states from participating in the international slave trade, including importing new slaves from Africa and exporting slaves to other countries.
The Committee of Detail had inserted language prohibiting the federal government from attempting to ban international slave trading and imposing taxes on the purchase or sale of slaves. Again the Convention could not agree on anything relating to slavery, so the issue was referred to another committee for further discussion. This committee helped work out a compromise that would give Congress the power to ban the international slave trade, but not for another 20 years (in 1808). In exchange for this concession, the federal government’s power to regulate foreign commerce would be strengthened by provisions that permitted taxation of slave trades in the international market and reduced the requirement for passage of navigation acts from two-thirds majorities of both houses of Congress to simple majorities.
Delegates also agreed to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Clause in exchange for removing a requirement that two-thirds of Congress agree on “navigation acts” (regulations of commerce between states and foreign governments). The Clause, found in Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, requires a slave that flees to another state be returned to his owner. The Clause was essentially repealed when the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified on December 6, 1865.
Another slavery-related issue was whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining the number of representatives a state would send to Congress, or instead would be considered property, and not be considered for purposes of representation. States with large slave populations wanted slaves counted in determining representation, but not counted if they would increase the taxes assessed on a state. States with few slaves wanted slaves counted for taxation purposes, but not for determining representation.
Eventually, a delegate from Pennsylvania, James Wilson, proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise, and it was adopted by the Convention. The Compromise, found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, states:
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
The effect of the Compromise gave southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if slaves had not been included, but less than if the number of slaves and free persons had been counted together. At the time, slaves could not vote, so southern states had more representatives for their voting population than northern states had.
According to a delegate from Virginia, objections to the Constitution were inconsistent, “At the same moment it is opposed for being promotive and destructive of slavery!”
In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson reminded the 9th Congress of its constitutional opportunity to remove U.S. citizens from the transatlantic slave trade “[violating] human rights”. The 1807 “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves” took effect as soon as allowed by the Constitution, which was January 1, 1808.
SIGNING OF THE CONSTITUTION —
After all modifications to the Constitution had been made, the Committee of Style and Arrangement was appointed “to revise the style of and arrange the articles which had been agreed to by the house.” On September 12, 1787, the report of the Committee was ordered printed for the convenience of the delegates. During the next three days, the Convention compared this final version with the proceedings of the Convention. The Constitution was then ordered to be written on September 15, 1787, and was submitted for signing on September 17, 1787. At least one important change was made to what the Convention had agreed to; and that involved preventing states from interfering in contracts. Although the Convention never discussed the issue, language had been inserted into the Constitution creating the contract clause. The contract clause, Article I, section 10, clause 1, states, “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.”
Just before the document was to be signed, a delegate proposed lowering the size of congressional districts from 40,000 to 30,000 citizens. A similar measure had previously been proposed, but failed by one vote. George Washington supported the idea, and the Convention adopted it without further debate.
The finalized Constitution did not please all delegates. Ultimately, 39 of the original 55 delegates signed the Constitution. Of the 16 delegates that didn’t sign the Constitution, 13 left before the signing ceremony, and three of the remaining delegates refused to sign. One of the three demanded a Bill of Rights be included before he would sign. Many delegates from other states ratified the Constitution with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would soon be added.
Benjamin Franklin seemed to speak for the dissenters when he said:
“I confess that There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. … I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. … It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies…”
George Washington stated that the document was executed by “eleven states, and Colonel Hamilton”. This was because Rhode Island never sent delegates, and Alexander Hamilton was the only one of the three delegates from New York that stayed throughout the Convention. Washington signed the Constitution first. Then moving by state delegation from north to south, as had been the custom throughout the Convention, the delegates signed their names.
The Constitution was approved and signed by Congress on September 17, 1787.
On September 28, 1787, after a lengthy debate, Congress unanimously voted to send the Constitution to the States for action, “in conformity to the resolves of the Convention.” They made no recommendation as to whether the states should vote to adopt the Constitution or reject it. Congress recommended the states use the ratification process outlined in the Constitution. Each state legislature was to call elections for a “Federal Convention” to ratify the Constitution.
On September 13, 1788, the Confederation Congress passed a resolution to put the new Constitution into effect, even though only 11 of the 13 states had ratified it. The Confederation Congress then dissolved itself on March 4, 1789, the day the first session of the First Congress began. George Washington was inaugurated as President two months later. By May 1790, the two remaining states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, had ratified the Constitution.
The Confederation Congress had the power to expedite or block ratification of a new Constitution. The Constitution produced at the Philadelphia Convention was technically only a revision of the Articles of Confederation. However, the last article of the new Constitution provided that the Constitution should go into effect among the States when ratified by conventions in nine states (or two-thirds at the time). The need for only nine states approving the Constitution was a controversial decision at the time, since the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by a unanimous vote of all 13 states.
In 1791, the Bill of Rights, consisting of 10 amendments, was added to the Constitution, as supporters of the Constitution had promised critics during debates at the Convention in 1787. The rights contained in the Bill of Rights were inspired by the British Bill of Rights, and some were identical in both documents. Some of those identical rights include jury trials, a right to keep and bear arms, prohibit excessive bail, and forbid “cruel and unusual punishments”. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, as well as some of the liberties protected by state constitutions were also incorporated into the Bill of Rights.
The original Constitution of the United States is on display at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. The Constitution can be viewed here.