THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: SEPTEMBER 17, 1787

U.S. Constitution Ratified

US-ConstitutionDelegates sent to Philadelphia from the thirteen states to discuss changes to the existing Confederation government formed the Constitution during the summer of 1787. The delegates tended to be well-educated, wealthy conservatives who worried about the economic and diplomatic problems facing the young United States. Shortly after the beginning of the proceedings, the delegates adopted a rule of debate behind closed doors, so that views could be expressed without fear of repercussions at home. James Madison of Virginia used this opportunity to introduce his plan for revising the government of the United States. Madison’s Virginia Plan meant to scrap the Articles of Confederation, replacing it with a highly centralized government based on federalism. The delegates, realizing that Madison’s plan answered their desire for a government that would protect liberty while ensuring order, began in earnest to create a new government of the United States.

The heart of Madison’s proposal balanced and separated the three most important functions of government: a bicameral legislature, a strong executive, and an independent judiciary. The Constitution models itself on past successful republics in creating a lower house, the members of which are elected according to the respective population of the states, with authority over how money is raised and spent; and an upper house, restricted to two representatives from each state, with functions resembling that of a general court. Executive power is modeled on the consuls of the ancient Roman Republic, who had two general powers: to serve as commander in chief and to execute the laws passed by the legislative power. Madison, who realized the importance of freeing judges from the influence of significant others, created a judicial system independent of the legislative and executive branches. The resulting Constitution balances power among the varying functions of the federal government while creating a method for local, state, and federal governments to share power.

Lawson, Russell. “Constitution of the United States (1787–1788).” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 9. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 169-178. U.S. History in Context. Web. 27


Learn more about the development of the Constitution »

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