225 years of constitutional history

Editor’s note: throughout 2012 the Center will serve as the headquarters for a historic milestone – the U.S. Constitution’s 225th anniversary. Download a copy of our 2012 Civic Calendar.

The Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, so 2012 marks the 225th anniversary of this remarkable document. We celebrate September 17 as Constitution Day, but notable events took place throughout 1787 leading up to the historic signing.

January 6, 1787: North Carolina becomes the first state of the year (and fifth overall) to elect its delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

February 21, 1787: The Congress of the Confederation, still the nation’s chief legislative body, passes a resolution in favor of the Philadelphia Convention.

March 14, 1787: Fearing that a new constitution will be biased against smaller states, Rhode Island decides not to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention. It is the only one of the original 13 states not represented.

Teacher’s Corner

Dr. Gordon Lloyd established an online resource enabling the general public to investigate the people, places, and events inside and surrounding the Constitution Convention. Have your class discover the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, reenact the convention in a four-act drama, conduct a thematic analysis, and much more. This resource can be accessed here.

May 25, 1787: The Constitutional Convention is scheduled to open on May 14, but only a few delegates have arrived by that date. A quorum from seven states is not present until May 25. Virginian James Madison uses the intervening period to draft a proposed outline for the Constitution. Known as the Virginia Plan, it is presented to the convention on May 29 and forms the foundation for the group’s discussions.

June 23, 1787: Amid debate surrounding the make-up of the legislative bodies, the executive, and the judiciary, the convention establishes a five-member Committee of Detail to draft a constitution based on Madison’s plan.

July 26, 1787: The convention adjourns to await the report of the Committee of Detail.

August 6, 1787: The committee presents a draft of the Constitution to the reconvened convention. This draft is the basis for the final Constitution.

September 5, 1787: With debate concluded, the convention forms a Committee of Style to produce a final version of the Constitution. Gouverneur Morris—a delegate representing Pennsylvania—condenses the preliminary draft into seven articles and arranges the stirring Preamble, replacing the opening phrase, “We the People of New Hampshire, Massachusetts . . . [and the other original states]” with the introduction “We the People of the United States.”

September 17, 1787: Morris’ document is presented to the convention. Forty-two of the 55 delegates are present. Of these, 39 sign the Constitution, beginning with the president of the convention and the first president of the United States, George Washington.

The story does not end with the signing. Support for the Constitution remains split in state legislatures and among the population; some are dismayed that the final document has no Bill of Rights, others fear a too-strong (or too-weak) central government. In October 1787, Alexander Hamilton publishes the first of his Federalist Papers in support of the newly signed Constitution. His arguments, and the inspiring power of the document, prove persuasive. Three states—Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey—ratify the Constitution by the end of 1787. New Hampshire’s ratification in June 1788, the ninth state to do so, makes the Constitution the law of the land. Today—225 years and 27 amendments later—it remains powerfully so.

Stay tuned all year as the National Constitution Center celebrates the 225th anniversary of the Constitution, culminating in festivities around Constitution Day 2012 in September.

Christopher Munden is a freelance writer for the National Constitution Center. He has read every word of the Committee of Detail’s various drafts of the Constitution.

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