Who wrote the U.S. Constitution at the Constitutional Convention?
The easiest answer to the question of who wrote the Constitution is James Madison, who drafted the document after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. But that of course, oversimplifies things. While Madison is recognized as the chief architect of the finished product, the Constitution was the result of nearly four months of arduous deliberation and compromise among dozens of delegates from twelve states at the convention.
The Constitution was made necessary by the utter ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation as a governing document. In the six years prior to the Convention, the Articles had provided a laughably weak central government unable to perform the most basic of functions, including but not limited to: imposing taxes, raising an army, adjudicating disputes between states, conducting foreign policy, and regulating commerce between states.
Notable delegates to the Convention included Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. George Washington presided over the gathering, which lasted from May 27 to September 17, 1787. Many of these delegates were educated and well-read individuals, and their ideas on government had been informed by Enlightenment writers. John Locke (1632-1704) of England and Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) of France were particularly influential on those who wrote the Constitution.
In his Two Treatises on Government, Locke condemned monarchy and cast aside the centuries-old idea that governments derive their legitimacy from divine sanction. Instead, governments owed their legitimacy to the people. The chief function of government, he said, was to secure the rights of life, liberty, and property. According to Locke, the best government is one that is accountable to the people though the democratic election of representatives who may be replaced if they fail to achieve the protection of rights.
Meanwhile, Montesquieu was a prominent Enlightenment thinker who stressed the importance of the separation of powers. In The Spirit of the Laws, he noted that the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government should not reside in the same person or body, but rather be dispersed over multiple branches of government to prevent one from becoming too powerful, or even tyrannical.
Those who wrote the Constitution were keen on these principles. The framers of the Constitution took these insights and set about applying them to their own unique problem of remedying the faults of the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation were drafted during the American Revolution, whereby the 13 American English colonies declared their independence against what the rebelling colonists felt was a tyrannical government. It was therefore no surprise that the Articles called for a particularly weak central government – one that was subordinated to the individual states.
And indeed under the Articles, the states regarded themselves as sovereign nations, which they essentially were. One of the many contentious aspects about the Articles – which came to a head at the Constitutional Convention – was the matter of representation. Under the Articles, each state had one vote in Congress, regardless of size. That meant that Virginia and Delaware, for example, enjoyed equal representation in Congress despite the fact that at the time, Virginia’s population was 12 times that of Delaware’s.
The Convention was called under the pretense of merely revising the Articles of Confederation. But the result was an entirely new document – one that only had to be ratified by nine of the 13 states, instead of unanimously as was called for under the Articles.
Not surprisingly, whatever changes were made, the smaller states wished to keep to the principle of equal representation in Congress: one state, one vote.
For their part, the larger states wanted proportional representation in the national legislature. It hardly seemed fair that the voices of hundreds of thousands of people in one state should carry only the same weight as one with only 40 or 50 thousand.
James Madison’s Virginia Plan addressed big state concerns about representation by proposing a bicameral legislature in which each state’s representation in both chambers was proportional to their respective populations. For states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, it only made sense that the bigger a state’s population, the bigger its vote share.
Naturally, that didn’t sit well with the likes of New Jersey, Delaware, and, had they been there, Rhode Island, which refused to send a delegation.
Eventually, a compromise was worked out by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of the Connecticut delegation. The principle of equal representation of the states would endure in the upper chamber – the Senate – while representation in the lower chamber – the House of Representatives – would be apportioned in accordance with states’ populations.
Originally, although the Constitution called for the direct election of Representatives, it did not provide for the direct election of Senators. That responsibility was left up to the individual state legislatures, which chose Senators until 1913 when the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified.
As for the separation of powers, Congress was tasked with the legislative function of making laws, imposing taxes, regulating interstate commerce, coining money, and so on; the President was tasked with the executive function, which includes signing or vetoing bills, conducting foreign policy, serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces; and the federal judiciary was tasked with adjudicating disputes between the states and other parties.
The Constitution was adopted on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. Three years later in December 15, 1791. the Bill of Rights were added, fulfilling an earlier agreement at the Constitutional Convention that the document would ultimately contain guarantees of individuals rights.
Enjoy learning about who wrote the Constitution? Next, see how British people view each U.S. state. Then read Benjamin Franklin’s astute insights on farting.