Today in History: US Constitution signed by 38 of 41 delegates in 1787

September 17th, 2013

On September 17, 1787, 38 of the 41 present delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the United States Constitution, paving the way for its adoption when nine of the 13 states ratified it. Debate over how to replace the Articles of Confederation was fierce, with sharp disagreement over the issue of state representation in Congress.

While all of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention agreed that the new nation should take the form of a republican government with each state contributing to the makeup of Congress, two central issues remained: how the members of Congress should be elected and how to allocate the votes to each state. Many prominent delegates like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton called for proportional representation in Congress, while delegates from less populous states like William Paterson of New Jersey favored equal representation for each state. The Great Compromise, also known as the Connecticut Compromise, settled the issue by creating a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives) but equal representation between the states in the upper house (the Senate).

On September 17, the Constitution was signed by the delegates at Independence Hall and was sent to the states for ratification, requiring nine of the 13 to consent. Eleven states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia and New York, in order) ratified the Constitution initially, with the Constitution taking effect on March 4, 1789. It was not until months later that the last of the original 13 colonies, North Carolina and Rhode Island, ratified the Constitution. In fact, Rhode Island staunchly opposed federal control of currency and only narrowly ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790 when the US government threatened to sever all commercial trade with the state.  

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were adopted on March 1, 1792 when the states successfully ratified 10 of the 12 proposed amendments. The two failed amendments included a proposal detailing representation in the House of Representatives and a rule preventing any change in congressional salary from taking effect while it is still in session. The second rule was ultimately adopted in 1992 with the ratification of the 27th Amendment.

Check out this lesson plan from iCivics which teaches students about the separation of powers and checks and balances. For more resources, the Center of Civic Education has created K–12 lesson plans for Constitution Day.

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