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  • Between May and September 1787, delegates from 12 states convened in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation , which had proven insufficient to cope with the challenges facing the young nation.
  • The convention was the site of spirited debate over the size, scope, and structure of the federal government, and its result was the United States Constitution .
  • The notorious Three-Fifths Compromise apportioned representation to the southern slaveholding states in a scheme that counted five enslaved men and women as three.

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In the summer of 1787, delegates gathered for a convention in Philadelphia, with the goal of revising the Articles of Confederation—the nation’s existing governing document. However, rather than simply revising the Articles of Confederation, they wrote an entirely new framework of government: the U.S. Constitution. This new government was more powerful than the national government established by the Articles of Confederation, but the Constitution also limited the powers of this new government. In this module, you will explore the debates and compromises that occurred at the Constitutional Convention and explore the key arguments during the battle over ratification.

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Constitution of the United States (1787)

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Citation: Signed Copy of the Constitution of the United States; Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789; Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789, Record Group 360; National Archives.

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Drafted in secret by delegates to the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787, this four-page document, signed on September 17, 1787, established the government of the United States.

The Federal Convention convened in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, to revise the Articles of Confederation . Because the delegations from only two states were at first present, the members adjourned from day to day until a quorum of seven states was obtained on May 25.

Through discussion and debate it became clear by mid-June that, rather than amend the existing Articles, the Convention would draft an entirely new frame of government. All through the summer, in closed sessions, the delegates debated, and redrafted the articles of the new Constitution.

Among the chief points at issue were how much power to allow the central government, how many representatives in Congress to allow each state, and how these representatives should be elected—directly by the people or by the state legislators. The work of many minds, the Constitution stands as a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise.

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5 Key Compromises of the Constitutional Convention

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The original governing document of the United States was the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777 during the Revolutionary War  before the United States was officially a country. This structure combined a weak national government with strong state governments. The national government could not tax, could not enforce the laws it passed, and could not regulate commerce. These and other weaknesses, along with an increase in national feeling, led to the Constitutional Convention, which met from May to September 1787.

The U.S. Constitution it produced has been called a "bundle of compromises" because delegates had to give ground on numerous key points to create a Constitution that was acceptable to each of the 13 states. It was ultimately ratified by all 13 in 1789. Here are five key compromises that helped make the U.S. Constitution become a reality.

Great Compromise

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The Articles of Confederation under which the United States operated from 1781 to 1787 provided that each state would be represented by one vote in Congress. When changes were being discussed for how states should be represented during the creation of a new Constitution, two plans were pushed forward.

The Virginia Plan provided for representation to be based on the population of each state. On the other hand, the New Jersey Plan proposed equal representation for every state. The Great Compromise, also called the Connecticut Compromise, combined both plans.

It was decided that there would be two chambers in Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate would be based on equal representation for each state and the House would be based on population. This is why each state has two senators and varying numbers of representatives.

Three-Fifths Compromise

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Once it was decided that representation in the House of Representatives was to be based on population, delegates from Northern and Southern states saw another issue arise: how enslaved people should be counted.

Delegates from Northern states, where the economy did not rely heavily on the enslavement of African people, felt that enslaved people should not be counted toward representation because counting them would provide the South with a greater number of representatives. Southern states fought for enslaved individuals to be counted in terms of representation. The compromise between the two became known as the three-fifths compromise because every five enslaved people would be counted as three individuals in terms of representation.

Commerce Compromise

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At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the North was industrialized and produced many finished goods. The South still had an agricultural economy, and still imported many finished goods from Britain. Northern states wanted the government to be able to impose import tariffs on finished products to protect against foreign competition and encourage the South to buy goods made in the North and also export tariffs on raw goods to increase revenue flowing into the United States. However, the Southern states feared that export tariffs on their raw goods would hurt the trade upon which they heavily relied.

The compromise mandated that tariffs were only to be allowed on imports from foreign countries and not exports from the U.S. This compromise also dictated that interstate commerce would be regulated by the federal government. It also required that all commerce legislation be passed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which was a win for the South since it countered the power of the more populous Northern states.

Compromise on Trade of Enslaved People

The issue of enslavement ultimately did tear the Union apart, but 74 years before the start of the Civil War this volatile issue threatened to do the same during the Constitutional Convention when Northern and Southern states took strong positions on the issue. Those who opposed the enslavement of African people in the Northern states wanted to bring an end to the importation and sale of enslaved individuals. This was in direct opposition to the Southern states, which felt that the enslavement of African people was vital to their economy and did not want the government interfering.

In this compromise, Northern states, in their desire to keep the Union intact, agreed to wait until 1808 before Congress would be able to ban the trade of enslaved people in the U.S. (In March 1807, ​President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill abolishing the trade of enslaved people, and it took effect on Jan. 1, 1808.) Also part of this compromise was the fugitive slave law, which required Northern states to deport any freedom seekers, another win for the South.

Election of the President: The Electoral College

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The Articles of Confederation did not provide for a chief executive of the United States. Therefore, when delegates decided that a president was necessary, there was a disagreement over how he should be elected to office. While some delegates felt that the president should be popularly elected, others feared that the electorate would not be informed enough to make that decision.

The delegates came up with other alternatives, such as going through each state's Senate to elect the president. In the end, the two sides compromised with the creation of the Electoral College, which is made up of electors roughly proportional to population. Citizens actually vote for electors bound to a particular candidate who then votes for the president. 

Sources and Further Reading

  • Clark, Bradley R. " Constitutional Compromise and the Supremacy Clause ." Notre Dame Law Review 83.2 (2008): 1421–39. Print.
  • Craig, Simpson. " Political Compromise and the Protection of Slavery: Henry A. Wise and the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850–1851 ." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 83.4 (1975): 387–405. Print.
  • Ketcham, Ralph. "The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates." New York: Signet Classics, 2003.
  • Nelson, William E. " Reason and Compromise in the Establishment of the Federal Constitution, 1787–1801 ." The William and Mary Quarterly 44.3 (1987): 458-84. Print.
  • Rakove, Jack N. " The Great Compromise: Ideas, Interests, and the Politics of Constitution Making ." The William and Mary Quarterly 44.3 (1987): 424–57. Print.
  • What Does the Constitution Say About Enslavement?
  • Constitutional Convention
  • The Compromise of 1850
  • American Civil War: Causes of Conflict
  • What Were the Top 4 Causes of the Civil War?
  • The Crittenden Compromise to Prevent the Civil War
  • President James Buchanan and the Secession Crisis
  • The History of the Three-Fifths Compromise
  • Purposes and Effects of the Electoral College
  • About the United States Senate
  • The Wade-Davis Bill and Reconstruction
  • Basic Structure of the US Government
  • Federalism and the United States Constitution
  • The American Civil War and Secession
  • What Is Constitution Day in the United States?
  • How the US Electoral College System Works

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Top 20 questions students ask the National Constitution Center

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For Constitution Day, here are the most commonly asked questions to the National Constitution Center from students about the country’s founding document as well as about its Founding Fathers and presidents.

The Philadelphia-based center — the only nonprofit institution established by Congress to raise awareness about the Constitution on a nonpartisan basis — says it receives about 3,000 questions from classrooms each year. These ask about topics as varied as the real estate value of the White House — about $250 million, without the furnishings — to who was the cutest president, for which the center has no answer.

Many of them are serious, however, and there are definite themes that have emerged over time in the questions. Below are the 20 questions that students in middle and high school ask the most often to the center, which holds a live chat with schools across the country every Constitution Day.

Constitution Day occurs annually on Sept. 17, the day in 1787 that 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the final version of the country’s founding document. In 2004, Congress mandated that all federally funded schools and federal agencies have programs about the Constitution, although it did not specify what they should be.

It’s Constitution Day: A quiz to see how much you know

These questions appeared on the center’s website, and I was given permission to publish them.

1. What is the Constitution?

Answer: The U.S. Constitution is the fundamental framework of America’s federal system of government. It sets out both the structure of the government, as well many of the rights and freedoms that are protected against government interference.

2. How long did it take to create the Constitution?

Answer : The Constitutional Convention lasted about four months, from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

3. Can someone please tell me what the New Jersey Plan is in a short sentence?

Answer : The New Jersey Plan wanted to give each state equal representation in the new federal government. The Virginia Plan, on the contrary, proposed apportioning representation based on population.

The structure of Congress in the final Constitution included a combination of the two — the “Connecticut compromise” — where representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population, but in the Senate, each state gets the same number of senators.

4. How many delegates were there during the signing of the Constitution?

Answer: During the signing session there were 41 delegates present, and 38 of those delegates signed the document. One delegate — George Read — also signed on behalf of another delegate, John Dickinson, who was home sick that day. Fifty-five different delegates had been in Philadelphia over the course of the Convention, but some left early.

5. What was the average age of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention?

Answer: The 39 signers of the Constitution varied in age. The average age was 42 years old. The youngest signer of the Constitution was 26-year-old Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey. The oldest signer was Benjamin Franklin at 81.

6. Are taxes specifically mentioned in the Constitution?

Answer: Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 states that “Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises.” The 16th Amendment established the power to create an income tax. For more information on the Taxing power, visit the Interactive Constitution .

7. Who wrote the Bill of Rights and when was it added to the Constitution?

Answer: The Bill of Rights was drafted by James Madison and was ratified on December 15, 1791.

8. I don’t really understand the Electoral College. Can I get any clarification?

Answer: The Electoral College, found in Article II of the Constitution, is the system of electing the president of the United States. It is made up of 538 electors drawn from the states and the District of Columbia, based on the number of members of Congress from each state. One original thought behind creating the Electoral College was that it would be made up of enlightened representatives who would filter public opinion through a “deliberative” body and serve as an intermediary between the people and presidential candidates. Today, most state electors are appointed mainly to simply vote for the winners according to vote totals in the states; however, electors technically do have the legal right to vote for whomever they wish. For more on the Electoral College, check out the Interactive Constitution .

9. Who ran against George Washington in the first election?

Answer: The first presidential elections were conducted under a system that allowed electors to cast two votes, with the winner becoming president and the second place finisher becoming vice president. George Washington was elected unanimously, receiving one vote from every elector. John Adams, John Jay, and several other Founders were among the recipients of the electors’ second votes, with Adams becoming our first vice president.

10. Who was the youngest president? The oldest?

Answer: The youngest president was actually Teddy Roosevelt. He was 42 years old when he became president on the death of William McKinley. John F. Kennedy was the youngest president to be elected, at the age of 43. Donald Trump was the oldest to be elected, at the age of 70.

11. Which president was the tallest?

Answer : The tallest president we had was Abraham Lincoln. He was 6’4”.

12. Which president lasted the longest in office?

Answer : Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four terms and served 12 years in office. President Washington declined to seek re-election after his second term and future Presidents until Roosevelt did the same. Then, after Roosevelt’s death, the 22nd Amendment was adopted preventing anyone who has already served two terms as president from being elected. So Roosevelt will always be the longest-serving president — unless we amend the Constitution again.

13. Why have there been no girl presidents?

Answer: As of the most recent 2016 election, no female presidential candidate has received the required number of electoral votes — 270 — to win the presidency. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be a major-party presidential nominee, but only received 227 votes to Donald Trump’s 304 electoral votes. There have been two women who have run for vice president as a major party nominee: Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin.

14. Why was George Washington on the $1 bill?

Answer: The federal government has the power to design and print money. According to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing :

A special committee … determined that portraits of Presidents of the United States have a more permanent familiarity in the minds of the public than any others. This decision was somewhat altered by the Secretary of the Treasury to include Alexander Hamilton, who was the first Secretary of the Treasury; Salmon P. Chase, who was Secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War and is credited with promoting our National Banking System; and Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. All three of these statesmen were well known to the American public. Treasury Department records do not reveal the reason that portraits of these particular statesmen were chosen in preference to those of other persons of equal importance and prominence.

15. Did George Washington really cut down his dad’s cherry tree?

Answer: No. George Washington never actually cut down his dad’s tree. The story is a myth that illustrates Washington’s honesty.

16. Why haven’t we had a Constitutional Convention in recent years?

Answer: It is difficult to amend the Constitution — it has only happened 27 times in the last 229 years. To have another convention would take years and would be a very complex matter. Most surveys indicate that a majority of people support the current Constitution, but there have been recent calls for a new Article V convention to propose new amendments.

17. When did the Liberty Bell crack?

Answer: No one is exactly sure when the Liberty Bell cracked, as it was not recorded. The first mention of a crack is in February 1846, when it was published in the Philadelphia Ledger that Philadelphia wanted to repair the crack in the bell so that they could ring it for George Washington’s birthday.

18. How long did it take to build the White House? How old is it?

Answer: The White House is 218 years old. It has undergone many renovations and expansion projects. The original White House took eight years to build, from 1792 to 1800.

19. Who was the first president to live in the White House?

Answer: The first president to live in the White House was John Adams and his wife Abigail.

20. Why does the president have 35 bathrooms in the White House?

Answer: There are a lot of people who work in the White House so those bathrooms come in handy!

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What is the main purpose of the united states constitution, what is the introductory sentence of the constitution called, what do the first three articles of the constitution accomplish, how did the framers of the constitution aim to ensure a separation of powers between the three branches of government, what does article i of the u.s. constitution accomplish, what does article ii of the u.s. constitution accomplish, what does article iii of the u.s. constitution accomplish, which article outlines the process for amending the constitution, which article outlines the relationship between the federal and state governments, what does the supremacy clause in article vi of the u.s. constitution accomplish, what are the conditions for ratification of the constitution set out in article vii, what conditions must be met in order to amend the constitution, how can an amendment to the constitution be formally proposed, the necessary and proper clause grants ____________ the power to, “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this constitution...”, how does the constitution ensure popular sovereignty, how does the rule of law outlined in the constitution ensure a limited government, what are enumerated powers and reserved powers in the constitution, which of the following is a concurrent power, next unit quiz.

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