Learning Objectives:

1. What were the positive results/shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation.
2. Examine the forces that led to the calling of the Constitutional Convention.
3. Discuss the characteristics of the delegates and examine James Madison's role.
4. What major disagreements emerged in the Convention and how were they resolved?
5. Why did the Federalist forces prevail in the ratification debate?

Crash Course US History #8: US Constitution

Articles of Confederation described:

The first American constitution

Codified the way the Second Continental Congress operated

Government was unwieldy and inefficient

Like a League of Friendship

Compare it to the Confederacy during Civil War.

Compare it to U.S. participation in the United Nations.

Abandoning the Articles (Toolbox Library, National Humanities Center)

Religion and the Congress of the Confederation (Library of Congress)

Features of the Articles of Confederation:

1. No strong central government

2. Sovereignty and independence retained by states

3. One house in Continental Congress—each state had an equal vote
Each state could have 2-7 delegates--but only one vote per state

4. State control of Congressional delegation
  • Delegates selected by state legislatures
  • Delegates paid by states
  • Delegates had one-year terms, up to a maximum of 3 terms

5. Nine of thirteen states' votes required for normal legislation

6. All 13 states' votes needed to amend the articles itself
A proposed 5% import tax approved by all but Rhode Island

7. No separate executive branch to administer the government
One member picked to act as "president"
"President" had no veto power
"President" had no power to appoint officers or conduct policy

8. No national-level court system
State land claims created animosity

9. No power to levy taxes
Could only make requests to states for contributions
U.S. had poor credit rating with other countries

10. No authority to regulate commerce
Various states negotiated their own treaties with foreign countries
Some states collected customs duties on goods from other states

11. No strong, centralized military
National army small
Military largely dependent on state militias
Army not strong enough to make British leave their frontier posts

Northwest Territory:

Confederation Congress successful in one thing: legislation for Northwest Territory
Northwest of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River
Today's states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin

Two major pieces of legislation set pattern for many future decisions in U.S. history.

1. Land Ordinance of 1785

Land Ordinance of 1785 (Ohio History Central)

Land to be surveyed in a regular grid pattern
Outlined process through which land could be sold to settlers
Land sales helped fund national government

2. Northwest Ordinance of 1787

Abolished slavery in Northwest territory
Guaranteed freedom of religion within the territory
Defined how formal governments would be organized
When 6,000 settlers: territorial status
When 60,000 settlers: apply for statehood
New states would join Union on equal footing with original thirteen

Northwest Ordinance (National Archives: Our Documents)

Northwest Ordinance (Ohio History Central)

Northwest Ordinance (Toolbox Library, National Humanities Center)

Why did we have what became known as the Constitutional Convention?

Many American leaders felt that the laws of the Confederation government were not adequate to run the country.

Shay's Rebellion (January 1787)

Convinced many political leaders that the nation's problems extended far beyond trade policy.
Massachusetts farmers angered by high taxes and the scarcity of money.
They took up arms to protest.
Led by Daniel Shays
Used same arguments Patriots had used against the British.
Was this protest a forerunner of similar revolts in other locations?

Shays Rebellion (This website is terrific)

Shays' Rebellion Explained in One Minute

Shays' Rebellion (Stanford History Education Group)

Shay's Rebellion (Teaching American History)

William Manning Explains Shay's Rebellion (History Matters)

Convention itself

May–Sept 1787

Delegates to the Federal (Grand) Convention.

Founding Fathers
Framers of the Constitution

See also:

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 (EDSITEment)

Constitutional Convention (Gordon Lloyd)

Let's look closely at some specific aspects of the website:

Individual Biography Master Page

George Washington
Benjamin Franklin
Edmund Randolph
George Mason
James Madison
Roger Sherman
John Dickinson
William Paterson
Alexander Hamilton

Overall Timeline

Madion's Notes Master Calendar

Virginia Plan example
Thursday, May 31

Interactive Map of Philadelphia

Here are some of the places you might enjoy reading about:

1. Mrs. Dailey's Boarding House
2. John Dunlap's Print Shop. (Notice that items were printed in German.)
3. Indian Queen Tavern
4. Mary House's Boarding House
5. Robert Morris's Town Home
6. Graff House. Thomas Jefferson
7. City Tavern. Check out the amount of liquor on this bill.
8. Mrs. Marshall's Boarding House. Connecticut Compromise.
9. Independence Hall
10. Philadelphia Debtors' Prison. Robert Morris [see his Town Home above]

Key people who were not delegates at the convention

  • Thomas Jefferson (ambassador to France)
  • John Adams (ambassador to England)
  • Patrick Henry ("smelled a rat")

Procedural rules crucial to the outcome:

a. Absolute secrecy

June 6. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson. He is restrained by rules of confidentiality, but what we do here "will in some way or other have a powerful effect on our destiny." [See last paragraph of this letter]

b. OK to reopen questions

c. Only a majority vote of states required to approve provisions

Bypassed the 9/13 rule of the Articles of Confederation

James Madison—vital role:

Well prepared: Studied comparative governments historically
"Vices of the Political System of the United States"
Took notes during entire Convention
Often called the "Father of the Constitution"
Later role as Fourth President of the United States

Madison's Treasures (Library of Congress Exhibition)

James Madison (Today in History, Library of Congress)

Virginia plan (Edmund Randolph plan)

Replace the Articles of Confederation
Go to the paragraph beginning with "Mr. Randolph then opened the main business."

Large states liked this plan
Two–house legislature
Lower house elected directly by the people
Upper house selected by the lower
Proportional representation in both houses
"National" executive with "supreme" powers
"National" executive to be chosen by legislature; (electoral college)
National judiciary—became basis of Supreme Court
Congressional veto over state laws.

Let's see an example of how the delegates processed this Virginia Plan on Thursday, May 31, 1787:

Overall Timeline

Madion's Notes Master Calendar

Virginia Plan example
Thursday, May 31

New Jersey plan

Just amend the Articles of Confederation

On June 15, William Paterson submitted the New Jersey Plan
It scrapped all the popular representation provisions of the Virginia Plan
Small states liked this plan
One–house legislative setup
Each state would have an equal vote
Modestly stronger national government

Great [Connecticut] Compromise

a. Convention had almost collapsed because of the large state/small state split over representation.

b. On Thursday, June 28, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the members should pray.
But let's look at how his proposal turned out.
Scroll down 2/3 of the way to "Mr. President"

c. On Tuesday, July 10, George Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton that he despaired of "seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business."

Digression: Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin PBS

Check out these specific screens:
Ben A to Z
Glass Armonica
Post Office

Benjamin Franklin, First American Diplomat

The enchanting history of Ben Franklin’s glass armonica — ‘the first musical instrument ever invented by an American’ - The Washington Post

Glass armonica

The Great Compromise reconciled the Virginia and New Jersey plans:

1. Lower House

Proportional representation
Members elected directly by the people

2. Upper house

Each state had two members
Equal votes per state (so they thought)
Elected by state legislatures (1916: direct election)

Three–Fifths clause

How to allocate lower house representation among the states?
This question divided states between slave/free rather than state size
Slaves to count as "three–fifths" of a person for representation
South gained power: House of Representatives & electoral college

Other constitutional protections for slavery

Congress prohibited from outlawing slave trade for twenty years
Fugitive slave clause: states must return runaways to masters.
National troops can help put down states' "domestic violence"


Decisions on presidential powers made in light of the presumed first president: George Washington.

Court system

Judicial powers not as fully outlined as legislative and executive.

Separation of powers

Power balancing power. Gridlock intentionally built in.

Checks and balances both horizontal and vertical:

Horizontal: President, Congress, and Supreme Court.
Vertical: Federalism—balance between national and state levels

Ratification (approval) Conventions:

Material from Gordon Lloyd's Teaching American History website is taken from:

Ratification required approval of nine states
Most state legislatures only willing to revise the Articles

How to bypass the state legislatures
State constitutional conventions—people selected convention delegates

A constitution more important than normal legislation
Should not be passed by regular legislative process.

Two general groupings arose out of the ratification conventions:


  • Called themselves Federalists, not nationalists.
  • Wanted a strong national government
  • Supported the Constitution as drafted
  • Promised a Bill of Rights after ratification


  • Wanted strong state governments as chief protectors of individual rights
  • Opposed the Constitution as drafted
  • Demanded a Bill of Rights to protect individuals from national government

Federalist Papers:

1. Written primarily for the ratification battle in New York
2. Published anonymously (Publius)
3. Actually written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay
4. Classic of political theory
5. Original intent issue
6. What was in the mind of the Framers?
7. Plus Madison's notes

Two of the most famous of the Federalist essays:

Federalist 10

Federalist 51


We should not dismiss the views of the Antifederalists. Those views still have relevance today.

The following paragraphs are taken from Gordon Lloyd's "Introduction to The Antifederalists"

The expression of discontent over the last fifty years about American politics has an ominous ring, revealing the widespread Antifederal mood in the electorate.

Among the dramatic changes in recent American politics are the alarming alienation of the citizenry from the electoral system, the increased presence of the centralized Administrative State, and the dangerous consequences of an activist judiciary that openly thwarts the deliberate sense of the majority.

These are all Antifederalist concerns about the tyranny of politicians.

The term limits movement of the late twentieth century demonstrates that the Antifederalist message—keep your representatives on a short leash, otherwise you will lose your freedom—still resonates with the American people, because Antifederalism is very much part of the American political experience.

When we hear the claim that our representatives operate independently of the people, and that the Congress fails to represent the broad cross-section of interests in America, we are hearing an echo of the Antifederalist critique of representation.

When we hear that the federal government has spawned a vast and irresponsive administrative bureaucracy that interferes too much with the life of American citizens, we are reminded of the warnings of the Antifederalists concerning consolidated government.

They warn that, in effect, executive orders, executive privileges, and executive agreements will create the "Imperial Presidency." And they warn that an activist judiciary will undermine the deliberate sense of the majority.

The criticism that Americans have abandoned a concern for their religious heritage and neglected the importance of local customs, habits, and morals, recalls the Antifederalist dependence upon self-restraint and self-reliance. When we hear a concern for the passing of decentralization—old time federalism—we are hearing the Antifederalist lament.

Ratification (approval) vote:

Proposed Constitution not overwhelmingly popular

Debate was spirited

Some state votes were close:

Massachusetts (187–168)
New Hampshire (57–46)
New York (30–27)
Virginia (89–79)

Constitution was ultimately approved!