Most people know it took several sweltering months at that 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia for the 55 delegates (sweating through wigs and wool jackets) to get to this momentous September 17th signing we celebrate each year. What may be less well-known is the strict rule of secrecy the delegates adopted to promote open discussions and encourage a willingness to compromise. They knew the stakes were high and that progress was more important than a perfect solution.
By 1786, Shay’s Rebellion and other internal strife alarmed retired General Washington. Under the existing Articles of Confederation, Congress did not have the proper funds or authority to step in when state powers were not sufficient. As the elder statesmen, Washington and Benjamin Franklin organized the delegation, but the discussion focused on Virginian James Madison’s call for a stronger federal system and New York Governor George Clinton’s warning that a stronger central government would lead to abuses of power. The 1787 convention creating our constitution culminated in a substantive debate between the Virginia Plan and an opposing New Jersey Plan.
Anyone who ever wondered why the Senate has two representatives from each state even though the number in the House of Representatives varies by state populations can find the answers in the opposing primary source documents and the concise overview provided in The Constitutional Convention resource. The debate articulated in these two plans was just one in a series of ground-breaking compromises.
As Hamilton: An American Musical fans know from the pulsating Act One finale , "Non-Stop," Alexander Hamilton was New York’s junior delegate at the Constitutional Convention. A fervent nationalist, Hamilton agreed with Washington and Madison that securing significant federal powers was necessary for the survival of this young nation. After the convention Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote the famous Federalist Papers defending the Constitution. The Federalist Papers led to the Bill of Rights -- more in a long line of passionately debated and thoughtful compromises.
As citizens and history students celebrate the U.S. Constitution on September 17th (and every day!), they can bask in the brilliance of each of the seven Articles and appreciate the dynamic history chronicled by the Amendments. It's also important to look behind the eloquent words and recognize the powerful compromises that allowed the Constitution of the United States to bring this nation toward a more perfect union.
Here are some suggestions if you are planning a special lesson on the U.S. Constitution for September 17th (or any day):
The Constitutional Convention
A Personal Handbook to the U.S. Constitution
Constitution of the United States
Preamble to the Constitution (great for early grades)
Amending the Constitution
Benjamin Franklin’s Speech to the Constitutional Convention
The Federalist Papers: Advertising the Constitution