(Archive - Week of May 15 - May 22, 2004)

Come aboard–Cooks tour at the Constitutional Convention

The beginning of our nation started this month 217 years ago. It is often asked how 55 men could have assembled in 1787 and in less than four months write a Constitution that has lasted more than 200 years. However, we have added 27 Amendments, the first 10 being the Bill of Rights.

John Adams said, “The deliberate union of so great and various a people in such a place is, without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.”

They were unique in as much as they had spent considerable time studying government and political theory and history. They had many years of service in their respective states and some had, in fact, been involved in drafting their own state constitutions. They were probably the most knowledgeable men in the United States .

May 25, 1787 : OPENING OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. A quorum of delegates from seven states had arrived in Philadelphia for the Convention. Ultimately, representatives from all the states, but Rhode Island, attended. Of the 55 participants, over half were lawyers, and 29 attended college. The distinguished public figures included George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, and Elbridge Gerry.

May 29, 1787 : VIRGINIA PLAN PROPOSED. On the fifth day of the meeting, Edmund Randolph, a delegate from Virginia, offered 15 resolutions of making up the “Virginia Plan” of Unions rather than amending the Articles of Confederation, the proposal described a completely new organization of government, including a bicameral (upper and lower house) legislature, which represents the states proportionately, with the lower house elected by the people and the upper house chosen by the lower body from nominees proposed by the state legislature; an executive chosen by the legislature; a judiciary branch; and a council composed of the executive and members of the judiciary branch with a veto over legislative enactments.

June 15, 1787 : NEW JERSEY PLAN PROPOSED. Displeased by Randolph 's plan, which placed the smaller states in a disadvantageous position, William Paterson proposed, instead, to modify the Articles of Confederation. The New Jersey plan gave Congress power to tax and to regulate foreign and interstate commerce and established a plural executive (without veto power) and a supreme court.

June 19, 1787 : After debating all the proposals, the Convention decided not merely to amend the Articles of Confederation but to devise a new national government. The question of equal versus proportional representation by states in the legislature became the focus of the debate.

June 21, 1787 : The Convention adopted a two-year term for representatives.

June 26, 1787 : The Convention adopted a six-year term for Senators.

July 12, 1787 : THE CONNECTICUT COMPROMISE (1) Based upon a proposal made by Roger Sherman of Connecticut ; the Constitutional Convention agreed that representation in the House of Representatives should be proportional to a state's population (the total of free residents, “excluding Indians not taxed”, and three-fifths of all other persons”, i.e., slaves).

July 13, 1787 : NORTHWEST ORDINANCE. While the Constitutional Convention meets in Philadelphia , the Congress of the Confederation crafts another governing instrument for the territory north of the Ohio River . The Northwest Ordinance, written largely by Nathan Dane of Massachusetts , provides for interim governance of the territory by congressional appointees (a governor, secretary and three judges), the creation of a bicameral legislature when there are 5,000 free males in the territory, and ultimately, the establishment of three to five states on an equal footing with the states already in existence. Freedom of worship, the right to trial by jury and public education are guaranteed, and slavery prohibited.

July 16, 1787 : THE CONNECTICUT COMPROMISE (II). The Convention agreed that each state should be represented equally in the Senate.

August 6, 1787 : The five-man committee appointed to draft a constitution based upon 23 “fundamental resolutions” drawn up by the convention between July 19 and July 26 submitted its documents, which contained 23 articles.

August 6 - September 10, 1787 : THE GREAT DEBATE, The Convention debated the draft constitution.

August 16, 1787 : The Convention granted to Congress the right to regulate foreign slave trade for 20 years.

September 6, 1787 : The Convention adopted a four-year term for the President.

September 8, 1787 : A five-man committee, comprising William Samuel Johnson (chair), Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris, was appointed to prepare the final draft.

September 12, 1787 : The committee submitted the draft, penned primarily by Gouverneur Morris, to the Convention.

September 13-15, 1787 : The Convention examined the draft clause by clause and made few changes.

September 17, 1787 : All twelve state delegations voted approval of the document. Thirty-nine of the forty-two delegates present signed the engrossed copy, and a letter of transmittal to Congress was drafted. The Convention formally adjourned.


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