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Constitutional Convention Constitution of the United States: Papers Relating to Adoption by the State of Rhode Island

Historical note

On February 21, 1787, Congress resolved: "It is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." On the appointed day, May 14, few representatives were present. The Convention (also known as the Philadelphia Convention) only obtained a quorum—delegates of twelve of the states were there on May 25.

The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation. They represented a wide range of interests, backgrounds, and stations in life, although they shared a common background: the vast majority of them were wealthy landowners and all were white males.

The primary aim of the Constitution was to create a strong elected government that was responsive to the will of the people, although there is some controversy over this. Many of the Founding Fathers believed that the new government needed to be insulated from the will of the people; hence the design of such features as the Electoral College or the election of Senators by the state legislatures. The concept of sovereignty of the people in a republic was new—a key ingredient of republicanism in the United States. By the time the Constitution was adopted, Americans had considerable expertise in the art of self-government. Long before independence was declared, the colonies were functioning governmental units controlled by the people. By 1777, ten of the thirteen states had adopted their own constitutions. Most states had a governor elected by the state legislature. The legislature itself was elected by popular vote. Every state but Pennsylvania had a bicameral legislature as well.

The Articles of Confederation had tried to unite these self-governing states. The Constitution, by contrast, established a strong central, or federal, government with broad powers to regulate relations between the states and with sole responsibility in such areas as foreign affairs and defense.

It was within the power of the old Congress to expedite or block the ratification of the new Constitution. The document that the Philadelphia Convention presented was technically only a revision of the Articles of Confederation. But the last article of the new instrument provided that when ratified by conventions in nine states, it should go into effect among the States so acting. The need for only nine states was a controversial decision at the time, since the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of all the states. However, the new Constitution was ratified by all thirteen states, with Rhode Island signing on last in May 1790.