Highlights of the 1787 Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention officially began on May 25, 1787. George Washington was unanimously elected as president, and Major William Jackson of South Carolina had been employed as secretary. However, this role ultimately fell to James Madison as Jackson was not really qualified to handle such an arduous task. Madison eagerly assumed the role and occupied a desk at the front of the room so he could take detailed notes of the entire convention. Each night, after that day’s session ended, Madison reviewed his notes and filled in as many details as he could recall. This consistent schedule left him overworked and fatigued. We are indebted to Madison for his tireless efforts because his notes have survived as the most complete and detailed account of what took place at the convention.

Each state, except for Rhode Island, sent delegates to the convention at some point or another. This was a miracle because many attempts to call for a convention in the past had failed. The states were constantly bickering, and many believed a convention would be marginally successful at best. Finally, in February 1787, Congress officially invited each state to send delegates to Philadelphia for a convention that was scheduled to begin on May 14.

Although this was a step forward, no funding was given for the delegates to attend which required them to pay their own way. This was especially difficult for some, including James Madison, who lived on borrowed money. Additionally, it looked doubtful that George Washington would attend. Many believed without his presence the convention would fail. Although Washington had strongly encouraged the idea of a convention previously, he had declined the invitation to attend in May. His brother had just died, his mother and sisters were seriously ill, and he was in immense pain from rheumatism, which resulted in him getting little sleep. Furthermore, he had just declined an invitation from the Society of the Cincinnati who wanted to honor him at their convention in Philadelphia during this same time. He felt that to suddenly show up to another convention in the same city would be embarrassing and show a lack of respect for the society. However, Washington ultimately decided to attend which greatly increased the credibility of the convention.

Key Players at the Constitutional Convention

Of the 55 delegates that participated in one way or another during the convention:

  • Two were college presidents (William S. Johnson and Abraham Baldwin).
  • Three were, or had been, college professors (George Wythe, James Wilson, and William C. Houston).
  • Four had studied law in England.
  • Thirty-one were members of the legal profession, several of them being judges.
  • Nine had been born in foreign countries and knew the oppressions of Europe from firsthand experience.
  • Twenty-eight had served in Congress, and most of the rest had served in state legislatures.
  • Nineteen or more had served in the army, 17 as officers, and 4 on Washington's staff.

Dr. Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard noted that:

"Practically every American who had useful ideas on political science was there except John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (on foreign missions) and John Jay (busy with the foreign relations of the Confederation). Jefferson contributed indirectly by shipping to Madison and Wythe from Paris sets of Polybius and other ancient publicists who discoursed on the theory of 'mixed government' on which the Constitution was based. The political literature of Greece and Rome was a positive and quickening influence on the Convention debates." (Samuel Eliot Morison, Oxford History of the American People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 305.)

A distinctive quality of this convention was the youthfulness of most of its participants. The average age was about 41.

  • Five (including Charles Pinckney) were under 30.
  • One (Alexander Hamilton) was 32. Three (James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and Edmund Randolph) were within a year of being 35.
  • Three (Washington, John Dickinson, and George Wythe) were 55.
  • Only four members had passed 60, and Benjamin Franklin, at 81, was the oldest member by a gap of 15 years.

Among the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention, 15 were particularly influential in directing the creation of the Constitution. These were:

  • George Washington (1732-1799)
  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
  • James Madison (1751-1836)
  • Edmund Randolph (1753-1813)
  • Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)
  • Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816)
  • Robert Morris (1734-1806)
  • George Mason (1725-1792)
  • George Wythe (pronounced "With") (1726-1806)
  • James Wilson (1742-1798)
  • John Dickinson (1732-1808)
  • Roger Sherman (1721-1793)
  • John Rutledge (1739-1800)
  • Charles Pinckney (1757-1824)
  • Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825)

The Fifteen Resolves

Practically all the delegates came to the convention with the specific intent of amending the Articles of Confederation. James Madison may have been the only exception. He had given considerable thought to the possibility of abandoning the Articles and creating an entirely different type of constitution. Since the convention was originally scheduled to start on May 14, Madison had an opportunity to present his ideas to the Virginia delegation before the convention officially started on May 25. Madison ultimately convinced them that the only option was to replace the articles with an entirely new form of government. Washington readily saw the wisdom in Madison’s proposal but cautioned that unless they felt certain about their proposal, it would be difficult to defend during the debates and the subsequent state ratifying conventions.

Having convinced the Virginia Delegation that an entirely new system was needed, they began formulating resolutions that they wanted in a new constitution. These resolutions became known as Virginia’s “Fifteen Resolves” and later formed the basic agenda for the Constitutional Convention. While the original draft of the fifteen resolves has never been found, a later working copy of the original, dated June 13, 1787, has survived. See Virginia Plan (1787)

Convention Rules

When the convention finally started, several interesting rules were introduced by George Wythe and adopted by the convention. Here is a summary of these rules.

  1. The proceedings were to be conducted in secret. This was to prevent false rumors or misinformation from spreading across the country while the Founders were still threshing out the formula which would solve the problems plaguing the nation. Guards were posted at the doors, and no one was admitted without signed credentials.
  2. Each state was to be allowed one vote, and the majority of the delegation from a state had to be present and in agreement in order to have its vote counted.
  3. Many times during the proceedings a poll was taken of the individual delegates to see how they stood, but the rule was adopted that none of these votes were to be recorded lest delegates be embarrassed if they later changed their minds as the discussion progressed.
  4. Each delegate could speak only twice on each issue until after everyone else had been given the opportunity to speak. And no one could speak more than twice without special permission of the convention members.
  5. Everyone was expected to pay strict attention to what was being said. There was to be no reading of papers, books, or documents while someone was speaking.
  6. All remarks were to be addressed to the president of the convention and not to the members of the convention. This was to avoid heated polemics between individuals engaging in direct confrontation.

The Committee of the Whole

The convention then followed a procedure which greatly facilitated informal discussion of each issue. It resolved itself into a "committee of the whole." George Washington stepped down from the chair and Nathaniel Gorham replaced him as chairman of the Committee of the Whole. The discussion then continued based on an informal "committee" instead of a formal "convention." At any time they could resolve themselves back into the "convention" and formally vote on the matter previously decided in the committee. This was done to encourage extensive discussion and numerous straw ballots to see how they were progressing. During the committee of the whole, no record was officially kept of the vote to allow all parties to freely express their opinions.

The goal was to obtain general agreement whenever possible, not just a mere majority. They would talk it out until practically everyone felt satisfied. This is illustrated by the discussion of how to choose Senators. The Virginia Resolves wanted the House of Representatives to select Senators. Apparently, the Virginia delegation was finally persuaded to change its mind, because the record says the vote in favor of having Senators appointed by the state legislatures was approved "unanimously."

Three Compromises

While consensus was the goal, which they largely achieved, there were 3 major issues that finally were resolved only by a compromise. These issues were slavery, the regulation of commerce, and the apportionment of representation for each state. All three of these problems were worked out through a compromise since a consensus or general agreement could not be reached.

The New Jersey Plan

While working through the maze of issues presented before the committee, a new proposal was introduced by William Patterson to scrap the Virginia Resolves and go back to patching up the Articles of Confederation. Patterson felt this plan, which came to be known as the New Jersey Plan, would be more favorable to the smaller states. After detailing his plan, James Wilson of Virginia spent an entire day comparing the Virginia Plan with the New Jersey Plan. In a nutshell the table below compares the main points of these two plans.

Virginia Plan

New Jersey Plan

Two branches for the legislature.

A single legislative body.

The legislative powers derived from the people.

Legislative powers derived from the states.

A single executive.

More than one executive.

A majority of the legislature can act.

A small minority can control the legislature.

Remove the executive by impeachment.

Remove the President upon application of a majority of the states.

Allow the establishment of inferior federal courts.

No provision.


Hamilton’s Plan

While the Convention was contemplating the two different plans, Alexander Hamilton suddenly arose and presented an entirely different plan of his own. He said it was too dangerous to tread untried waters. It would be best to go back to the British pattern. He recommended:

  • A single executive chosen for life by electors from the states. He wanted the President to have an absolute veto over any legislation, similar to the veto power of the king of England.
  • Senators were also to be chosen for life, similar to the English House of Lords.
  • The House of Representatives would be chosen by the people for a term of three years.
  • Governors of the states would be appointed by the federal government, just as the king of England did before the Revolution.

Madison noted that Hamilton's plan was "approved by all and supported by none." In other words, everyone respected Hamilton and didn’t want to embarrass him, but knew his plan would not work. It was not even discussed, let alone voted upon.

The Crisis Period

On June 19, a moving speech was given by James Madison, in which he said the convention must come up with a "Constitution for the Ages" and only the Virginia Plan would stand the test of time. Immediately afterwards, the New Jersey Plan was voted down and Hamilton's plan was abandoned. Hamilton returned to New York soon after but did come back before the Convention adjourned.

The period between June 19 and July 26 is known as the crisis period. During this time the Convention tried to probe some of the more delicate questions which had previously been postponed. On June 28 during an especially heated debate the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin made his famous plea for prayer. He urged the convention to remember the many prayers offered during the “contest with Britain” and reminded them that they were “graciously answered.” He then begged that the convention would employ the services of clergy to implore “the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on [their] deliberations.”

Franklin's motion to invite a minister to serve as the chaplain and offer daily prayers did not pass for the simple reason that the professional ministers required payment for their prayers and the Convention had no money to pay for the same. Nevertheless, his plea had a sobering effect on the quarreling delegates, and they set about their task with greater determination.

Sixty Ballots on One Issue

Another difficult issue enveloped the Convention between July 10 and July 16. Just trying to decide how the President should be elected required over 60 ballots. During this dark period Washington wrote:

"I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business." (Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 29:245.)

It was on this date, July 10, that the two remaining delegates from New York, Lansing and Yates, left the Convention and never returned.

The Connecticut Compromise

Nevertheless, a big breakthrough came on July 16 when the Convention finally agreed to a formula for the allocation of representation in Congress. The small states had been determined to have one vote for each state as provided in the Articles of Confederation. The larger states had insisted that representation should be according to population. Georgia argued that this would give the big state of Virginia sixteen times more representatives than Georgia. Madison argued back that if each state had one vote, then a person from Georgia had sixteen times more representation than a citizen of Virginia.

Both sides finally agreed to accept a suggestion of Roger Sherman of Connecticut that each state have equal representation in the Senate but that the House of Representatives should be apportioned to each state according to population. This suggestion was made three separate times during the heated debates before it was finally accepted.

Committee on Detail

Finally, by July 26, the principal issues had been sufficiently settled to put the Constitution into rough form. A Committee on Detail was appointed with instructions to have its report completed by August 6.

From August 6 to September 8, the Convention hammered out many more important details which needed refining. By this time, 11 of the 55 delegates had gone home. However, Hamilton had returned but could not vote because Yates and Lansing had left, leaving New York without a quorum.

Committee on Style

On September 8, the amended rough draft from the Committee on Detail was turned over to a special Committee on Style to do the final rewrite. Most of the rewrite was done in four days by Gouverneur Morris, a highly skilled lawyer and writer who was a delegate from Pennsylvania.

When the new draft was read to the Convention, some of the delegates raised new issues, one of them being the lack of a Bill of Rights. However, most of the delegates were satisfied with the draft as written, and therefore the Constitution was turned over to a skilled penman to be inscribed in its final form. This penman remained unknown for 150 years until in 1937, John C. Fitzpatrick of the Library of Congress proved that the penman was Jacob Shallus, a young German who had volunteered to serve under Washington in the Revolutionary War. He later became assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

Signing the Constitution

On Monday, September 17, 1787, a total of 41 of the original 55 delegates solemnly met in the east room of Independence Hall for the signing. Because a few delegates still had some significant reservations, Franklin asked that the Constitution be signed by a majority of each delegation so they could say it was by "unanimous consent" of all the "states" represented. This was done. The following delegates did not sign:

  • Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts
  • George Mason of Virginia
  • Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia

Their main objection was that the Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights.

The other delegates came forward, however, and affixed their names. It is recorded that when Franklin signed, "The old man wept."

Later, as the last delegates were signing, Franklin referred to a picture of the sun on the back of George Washington's chair. He said:

"I have ... often, in the course of the session, ... looked at that [sun] behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun." (Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia, p. 263.)

As the famous Convention came to a close it was as though a great battle had been won. But the Constitution still had to go to the Congress and the people. This meant that the great intellectual battle to get the American charter of liberty established in the hearts and minds of the American people still had to be fought.


May 25, 2023
LW Hutson

Such good reading material! I so look forward to receiving “The Weekly Constitution.” I have learned so much in the last few months about our Framers and the Constitution they put together back in 1787. LW

May 25, 2023
Linda Curran

Thank you. This was so helpful.

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