The Writing of the U. S. Constitution Learning Objectives

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Chapter 3

The Writing of the U.S. Constitution

Learning Objectives

• Identify the five main ideas behind the U.S. and state constitutions.

• Explain how the country’s first constitution was too weak to keep lasting peace and safety among the 13 states.
• Outline how the U.S. Constitution was written and passed.

George Washington spoke to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention.


Words to Know

confederation an agreement of friendship between states
national having to do with a whole nation or country

trade the carrying on of business between states or countries

federal government a form of government with two parts—a national government and state governments
Union the joining of states into one U.S. government
Constitutional Convention the meeting in 1 787 in Philadelphia to write a new plan for a U.S. government
compromise the making of an agreement in which each side gives up something
slave a person who could be bought, sold, and owned by another person
export any product sent from one country to another for purposes of trade

amendment change or correction to a written document

Early State Government

Even before the Declaration of Independence was written, many of the colonies had their own constitutions. These constitutions gave power to the people instead of the king. By the end of 1777, most of the states in the newly formed United States had written constitutions.


The state constitutions were not all alike. However, they all shared five main ideas.

1. Rule by the people The power of government rests only in the hands of the people.
2. Limited government The government must have only a few powers, and they may be decided on and granted only by the people.
3. Rights and freedoms All people have certain rights and freedoms that government cannot take away. Seven states had a Bill of Rights written into their constitutions.
4. Separation of powers Government was divided into three branches, or parts. One branch had the power to pass laws. Another branch had the power to carry out the laws. The third branch had the power to judge the laws. With this system, the powers of each branch of government were limited.
5. Checks and balances Each branch of the government had the power to check, or hold back, the acts of the other branches. These checks helped to balance power between the branches and to limit the power of government.
In 1787, these five ideas became the basicprinciples of the U.S. Constitution.
Government Fact

After their experience of living under the strong national government of Great Britain, the new states wanted to keep the power for themselves.

The Confederation of States

The new states knew they had to join together as a group in some way. However, they were against a strong government that would have power over the states. The Second Continental Congress wrote a plan for a government of a confederation between the states. This plan was called the Articles of Confederation.


It was ratified, or approved, by the states in 1781.

That set up the first national government of the

United States.

Under the Articles, the states would be a group of “friends” working together. The loose government between them would keep the peace and keep them safe. Representatives were sent to a congress, and each state had one vote. Congress itself had just a few important powers. It could make war and peace. It could deal with other countries. It could borrow money or help the states do business with other countries. It could ask the states for money or soldiers.
However, the new Congress had no power to tax the states. Although Congress had power to pass laws, it had no power to carry them out. It also had no power to make rules about trade between the states.
These limits on the national government soon caused problems. The states began to act like 13 separate small countries. Some began to print their own money. Many states put taxes on food or goods that came into their states. This made enemies of other states. All the states set up their own armies, and many set up their own navies.
Congress owed large amounts of money that had been borrowed to pay for the war. Even the soldiers who fought in the war had not yet been paid. However, Congress did not have any money, or any real power to raise it. Problems were also widespread in the states. U.S. money had little worth. Many farmers and store owners lost their businesses. Angry farmers and other businessmen who lost money took up arms against their own state governments.

History Fact

George Washington was not happy about the way the states acted toward one another. He wrote, “... we are one nation today, and thirteen tomorrow.”
Finally, it became clear that the government under the Articles was too weak. Something had to be done. In 1787, Congress sent a letter to all the states. The


letter asked them to send representatives to a meeting in Philadelphia. The letter explained some changes in government had to be made. The federal government had to have more powers. If not, the Union would surely come to an end.

Check Your Understanding
1. List four powers that Congress had under the Articles of Confederation.
2. What do you think was the greatest weakness of the federal government under the Articles of Confederation? Why was this a problem?

The Constitutional Convention

Government Fact

A delegate to a meeting or convention is the same as a representative.

All the states except Rhode Island sent delegates to the meeting in Philadelphia. The convention began with the idea of making some changes in the Articles of Confederation. Very soon, that idea changed. The Articles were too weak and had too many faults. The delegates decided to write a brand new national constitution. As a result, the meeting in Philadelphia became known as the Constitutional Convention.

Benjamin Franklin provided advice to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention.


Remember In this system of dividing a government into three branches, no one branch has more power than another.

The delegates agreed on the main ideas for a new federal government. They agreed it should have three branches. The new government needed power to make laws. It also needed the power to carry out and judge the laws. In addition, it had to have the power to raise money to do its work.
However, the delegates could not agree on how to set up each branch of the new government. The large states wanted to have more votes in Congress than the smaller states. Smaller states wanted all states to have equal votes. Arguments between the large and small states ran long into the night.
Each side had to give in on some points. In the end, the delegates made several compromises. Some truly great new ideas took shape. These were written into the Constitution and have survived to the present day.
Compromises Made at the Convention
1. The Great Compromise How many representatives should each state have in Congress? The large and small states fought fiercely on this question. The compromise they reached was the plan we have today. The federal government has two houses of Congress. All states have two equal votes in the Senate. Votes in the House of Representatives are based on the population of each state. Larger states have more votes.
2. The Three-Fifths Compromise The southern states wanted to count their many slaves in order to get more seats in Congress. The northern states were against counting slaves as part of a state’s population. Finally, they agreed to count three-fifths of the slave population in a state. The number of representatives was balanced between North and South. However,


the South also had to pay for three-fifths of their slaves when federal taxes were placed on all people.

3. The slave trade compromise All states agreed that Congress needed the power to make rules on trade. Yet the southern states were afraid that Congress would end the slave trade. They were also afraid that Congress would tax exports, products that one country sells to other countries. Tobacco from the southern states was the leading export of the whole country. If Congress taxed exports, the southern states would have to pay the most tax. In the end, the states compromised. The federal government had full power to make rules of trade. However, under the compromise, Congress could not end the slave trade for at least 20 years.

The Debate For or Against

the Constitution

The Constitution was finally written. It set up a representative government with three branches. It was based on the same important ideas as the state constitutions that came before it. However, a whole new test began. Before it became law, the Constitution had to be ratified, or accepted, by at least nine states.

The American people were divided into two groups of thought about the Constitution. The Federalists liked the Constitution with its strong national government. They felt the Constitution created many federal powers but still left many powers to the states. This group was made up of mostly professional people—lawyers, doctors, and ministers. Wealthy merchants and newspaper owners were also in favor of ratifying the Constitution.
The anti-Federalists were afraid that the new Constitution went too far in taking power away from the states. They were afraid the rights of the people


might be taken away as well. The anti-Federalists were mostly farmers, small-business owners, and townspeople.
The debate about ratification went on for weeks throughout the country. The Federalists defended their position in a series of newspaper articles. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay carefully explained what had been done in Philadelphia and why. These famous articles are known today as The Federalist Papers.
In December 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution. By the summer of 1788, nine states had approved the document. The Constitution was now the supreme law of the land.
In time, all 13 states approved the Constitution. However, some states, like Virginia, insisted that a Bill of Rights be added to the original document. They wanted certain freedoms to be clearly protected. Therefore, in 1791, this Bill of Rights became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

James Madison was the leading contributor to the writing of the Constitution. Later, as one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, he argued strongly for its ratification.

Government Fact

The Federalist Papers are still admired today. They clearly show how political ideas apply to everyday life.


Citizenship and You

The national debate over the ratification of the Constitution was one of the most famous debates in U.S. history. Both sides presented very good arguments for their positions. Both sides felt they had the best interests of the country at heart.
Review what you have already read about the development of government in the United States from colonial times up through the Constitutional Convention. Write two or three paragraphs making the strongest case you can for the Federalist position. Then write two or three paragraphs making the strongest case you can for the anti-Federalist position.

After the Constitution was ratified, George Washington became the first President of the United States.



The United States Gets a Constitution
The delegates to the Convention began their meetings on May 25, 1787. For the next three and a half months, through a hot Philadelphia summer, the debate went on. The Constitutional Convention was a meeting of the brightest, richest men in the country. Benjamin Franklin was there, along with George Washington, James Madison, and more than 50 others. They met in secret to write the laws that would form a new government. Luckily, James Madison took many notes about what happened each day. Today, we have a good record of what went on.
At times, angry words were traded back and forth. Some days there seemed to be no way to reach a compromise. Benjamin Franklin even asked the group to begin each day’s meeting with a prayer.
Most of the men were well-to-do lawyers, teachers, or landowners. Most of the country was made up of poor farmers and working people. Because of this, it could be said that this meeting was not truly representative of “the people.” However, working people could not afford to take three or four months off to do the work of government. The men at the Convention had worked for years in government. Eleven years earlier, some of them had signed the Declaration of Independence. Most of them had served in colonial assemblies or in their own state governments. They all believed strongly in the rights of the people and in limited government.

Thirty-nine representatives signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. The final document contained ideas from the Magna Carta, English written law, and several state constitutions. In addition, it fulfilled the wishes of one delegate who spoke during the Convention. He said that the Constitution should be written not “for the moment, but for future generations of Americans.”

You Decide

Was the average citizen of the United States fairly represented at the Constitutional Convention? Why or why not?


Chapter 3 Review

After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, most of the states drew up written constitutions.

The Articles of Confederation was the first written plan of government for the United States. The Articles proved to be a weak plan for a government.

In 1787, the Continental Congress asked the states to send representatives to Philadelphia to make changes in the Articles. The representatives wrote a whole new plan of government.

The new Constitution contained ideas from the Magna Carta, English written law, and several state constitutions.

Federalists thought the Constitution was a good mixture of federal power and state power. Anti-Federalists felt the Constitution went too far in taking power away from the states.

By the summer of 1788, the necessary nine states had ratified the Constitution. In 1791, the Bill of Rights, which protected certain rights, became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Vocabulary Review

Constitutional Convention



federal government


Write a term from the list that matches each definition below.

1. This meeting was held in Philadelphia in 1787

2. An agreement between states

3. A person who could be bought or sold

4. Something made in one country and bought by another country

5. A form of government with two parts


Chapter Quiz

Complete numbers 1-5 by choosing the correct word or phrase. Then answer questions 6 and 7 in complete sentences.
1. One of the five main ideas of government the state constitutions were based on was (one-man rule/separation of powers).
2. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress had (great/limited) powers.
3. The delegates to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention (changed the Articles/wrote a new plan for government).
4. The Great Compromise at the Convention involved (slavery/representation in Congress).
5. Before the Constitution became law, it had to be (ratified/changed) by nine states.
6. Critical Thinking Why did the state constitutions written after the Declaration of Independence give power to the people?
7. Critical Thinking Why were the anti-Federalists against the Constitution?

Write About Government

Complete the following activities.
1. The Articles of Confederation set up a weak federal government. List three problems that this caused for the newly independent United States.
2. You are a newspaper reporter in 1787. Write a short newspaper story about the new Constitution.


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