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Writing the Constitution - The Process

A lurker here at bumrejects pointed out a need for a chronological guide of the sequence of events, arguments and debates which finally ended up in the Constitution in 1787.

Many of the comments on the threads in this Forum devoted to sections of the Constitution include cites, quotes and links to the debates and compromises of the delegates, but the Constitution was not debated in the order it was finally written.

Here are three source portals to the debates during the Constitutional Conference:

1. The debates about Federalism v. Antifederalism, in date order with descriptive headings:

2. The Notes of James Madison, (as confirmed by the Notes of Rufus King) by date:
The above has links to the Notes taken by other delegates also.

3. The debates separated by subject within each Article, Section and Clause of the ratified Constitution:

The first and very important idea to grasp is that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was NOT agreed to by the representatives of the States with the plan of writing/approving a new Constitution.  It was to be a gathering to amend the Articles of Confederation - based upon the flaws which were discovered during the Revolutionary War, and because of the huge debts owed to foreign and domestic bankers by the States and the Confederation.

The scheduled opening of the Convention was May 14, 1787, but a quorum didn't arrive until the 25th. James Madison and Edmund Randolph during the delay wrote up what we now call the "Virginia Plan."

The delegates' official meeting schedule was 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday thru Saturday - with much arguing and arm twisting during dining and drinking in evening social settings, as most of the delegates knew each other prior to attending.

On May 25th, George Washington was unanimously selected as president of the Convention - meaning he could neither debate nor vote in regular sessions.

The Continental Congress' Rules were adopted, i.e. deliberating in secret, so that they could make compromises and change their preliminary votes up until the time each state's delegation cast one single official vote on issues presented on the floor.  The secret deliberations also allowed them to argue, debate and compromise off the floor.  Finally as the single official vote was the only public one, all that was known was that a majority of a State's representatives had voted, and thus individuals couldn't be blamed or credited for the vote.

The Virginia Plan was presented on May 29 and 30 - a series of Resolutions, and a tactical coup d' etat as the agreed purpose of the Convention had been only to review and amend the Articles of Confederation. Then Pinckney submitted his separate plan and both plans were referred to a Committee of the Whole, which allowed Washington to participate (Parliamentary Rules of Order have different rules for commitees).

The debates continued until June 13th with the larger states wanting population to control the number of seats and votes, and the smaller states of course objecting. On June 13th the Committee of the Whole reported out a new group of nineteen Resolutions - basically an amended Virginia Plan.

By then a majority of the States' delegates had agreed to the the idea of dumping the Articles of Confederation for a new federal/national government, BUT the idea that power could be vested from the people themselves - instead of from the States - via more proportional representation was just beginning to be accepted.

On June 14 William Paterson and Roger Sherman halted the debates and presented what we now call the "New Jersey Plan" which would retain and strengthen the Articles of Confederation - as Congress had directed the Convention to do - and retain the United States as a "league of separate and equal states."

Both plans went back to the Committee of the Whole to be compared - which 5 days later on June 19 voted for the amended/modified Virginia Plan.

Then the same issues were debated again in the large open session, with no resolution.  A new committee was appointed and on July 5 the final compromise on the House and Senate election and representation was reached, i.e. the Virginia plan to write a whole new Constitution.

EDIT: Robert Yates was one of the two Anti Federalist delegates from New York who left the Constitutional Convention on July 5th after the Convention voted to write a whole new Constitution in lieu of simply proposing Amendments to the Articles of Confederation.

His perceptions of the debates are here:
"Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention."

Slavery was the next big issue, introduced on July 11, with the Gouverneur Morris solution of tying representation to taxation (slaves as property) accepted, thus deferring the institution of slavery to be resolved in later years.

By July 26 a Committee on Detail began preparing a document - from all the previous debate votes on the Articles and on the three plans which had been discussed on the floor and in the committees.

Those Detail committee members coined the phrases and titles with which we are familiar, e.g. We the People, Speaker, Supreme Court, House of Representatives, Senate, President, Congress et al.  

They also recommended that only a majority of 9 States be required to ratify the Constitution once it was writ, not the unanimous vote which had been required for the Declaration of Independence, and for the Articles of Confederation, and for the calling of the Constitutional Convention itself.

There was a summer break and when on August 6 they reconvened all the Committee on Details' recommendations were distributed with wide margins for notes, comments, etc.                

Five more weeks were spent rewording and debating each line of the Constitution, with most disagreements resolved - or postponed - by compromises.

By 31 August the very few unresolved issues were given to the Committee on Postponed Matters - one representative from each State.
Those people rewrote the election of the President independent of Congress, and turned it over to the Committee on Style, whose five members rewrote and renumbered the Constitution from Sept 8 to 12. Gouverneur Morris was the chief "stylist" and took great license, including adding the words "of the United States in order to form a more perfect Union" after "We the People."

The last order of business of the Committee on Style was to vote unanimously to omit a Bill of Rights which had been proposed.

Saturday afternoon on September 15, 1787 the draft of the new Constitution was passed unanimously; and on Monday, September 17th, 41 of the 55 delegates who were still around formally signed it.

The beginning of the process - which led to the writing and subsequent ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and the First Congress under the Constitution in 1789 - was in 1774 when the first American continental Congress met, and for the first time stated the American view of inalienable and civil rights.  

That Congress of representatives from the Colonies/States - recessing and readjourning - remained the American Congress through the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the Articles of Confederation (the first "constitution"), and was the Congress which mandated the Constitutional Convention of 1787 - the overview of which is this thread.


Then, after the Constitution was formalized, sent to Congress and then distributed to the States for debate and ratification, the Federalist Papers were first published in New York to persuade the New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution - and then bound into one volume and distributed throughout the States to persuade their legislators to ratify.

The sequence of events is important, i.e., the Federalist Papers were NOT in the hands of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

Understanding the compromises in the Constitution comes from examining the arguments (and votes) presented at the Convention - which can be accessed via the three main links in the first post on this thread.

The Federalist Papers:

As soon as the majority approved the Constitution (see Article VII thread), two documents were written:

--- (1) ---

The States of
New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Mr. Hamilton from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

That the proceeding Constitution be laid before the United States in Congress assembled, and that it is the Opinion of this Convention, that it should afterwards be submitted to a Convention of Delegates, chosen in each State by the People thereof, under the Recommendation of its Legislature, for their Assent and Ratification; and that each Convention assenting to, and ratifying the Same, should give Notice thereof to the United States in Congress assembled.

Resolved, That it is the Opinion of this Convention, that as soon as the Conventions of nine States shall have ratified this Constitution, the United States in Congress assembled should fix a Day on which Electors should be appointed by the States which shall have ratified the same, and a Day on which the Electors should assemble to vote for the President, and the Time and Place for commencing Proceedings under this Constitution.

That after such Publication the Electors should be appointed, and the Senators and Representatives elected: That the Electors should meet on the Day fixed for the Election of the President, and should transmit their Votes certified, signed, sealed and directed, as the Constitution requires, to the Secretary of the United States in Congress assembled, that the Senators and Representatives should convene at the Time and Place assigned; that the Senators should appoint a President of the Senate, for the sole Purpose of receiving, opening and counting the Votes for President; and, that after he shall be chosen, the Congress, together with the President, should, without Delay, proceed to execute this Constitution.

By the Unanimous Order of the Convention
W. JACKSON Secretary.

--- 2 ---
In Convention, September 17, 1787.

We have now the honor to submit to the consideration of the United States in Congress assembled, that Constitution which has appeared to us the most adviseable.

The friends of our country have long seen and desired, that the power of making war, peace, and treaties, that of levying money and regulating commerce, and the correspondent executive and judicial authorities should be fully and effectually vested in the general government of the Union: But the impropriety of delegating such extensive trust to one body of men is evident-Hence results the necessity of a different organization.

It is obviously impracticable in the federal government of these states, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all: Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved; and on the present occasion this difficulty was encreased by a difference among the several states as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests.

In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety, perhaps our national existence. This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each state in the Convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude, than might have been otherwise expected; and thus the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensible.

That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every state is not perhaps to be expected; but each will doubtless consider, that had her interest been alone consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others; that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe; that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.
With great respect, We have the honor to be, Sir,
Your Excellency's most obedient and humble servants,

By unanimous Order of the Convention.

His Excellency the PRESIDENT of CONGRESS.

Upon receipt Congress had the ball, and the decision of how/when to commence the ratification process.
bieramar is quoted on another thread as follows:
In 1787, folks clustered in little towns up and down the eastern seaboard looked to their local papers in vain for word of what was happening with the delegates in the Assembly Room in Philadelphia. The only "press release" to emerge during the four months of deliberations that produced our Constitution attempted to quell a pernicious rumor: "Tho we cannot, affirmatively, tell you what we are doing; we can, negatively, tell you what we are not doing–we never once thought of a king."

The "press release" was actually one of the earliest examples of "leaking" secret negotiations of the federal government to the press!

The above quote was paraphrased from a letter from a delegate to his State's Governor - and the Governor or a staff member leaked it to the local newspaper which printed it.

As noted in the first post on this "Writing the Constitution" thread the Continental Congress' Rules had been adopted, i.e. deliberating in secret, so that the delegates could make compromises and change their preliminary votes up until the time each state's delegation cast the one single official vote on issues presented on the floor. These secret deliberations also allowed them to argue, debate and compromise off the floor without worrying about the folks back home who had sent them to the Congress with specific instructions on how to vote. Finally, as the single official vote was the only public one, all that would be known when the Constitution was printed was that a majority of a State's representatives had voted, and thus individuals couldn't be blamed or credited for the vote.

The original letter to the Governor, who had been complaining to his State's delegates because they wouldn't reveal the secret discussions and debates and votes from the Convention:

Tho I have not told your Excellency affirmatively what the Convention have done, I can tell you negatively what they have not done. They are not about to create a King as hath been represented unfavourably in some of the eastern States, so that you are not to expect the Bishop Oznaburg or any prince or great man of the World to rule in this Country. The Public Curiosity will no doubt be gratified at the next Assembly, perhaps before.

Source of the news article, and the letter to the governor.

There were many private letters from the delegates to the Convention to their political friends, to family and to others - and some of them contained comments about the "secret" proceedings.  Reading their words really opens us to understanding the Founders' thoughts, the machinations of the politics of the day, the pragmatic vs. philosophical realities, and the "bottom lines" of the late 18th century world.  

The above link includes an index and hyperlinks to the letters written to/from the delegates who were writing the new Constitution. Forum Index -> We the People
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