Q. 66: When Was the Constitution Written?

Constitution of the United States
The Constitution of the United States was written in 1787.

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

When was the Constitution written?

Answer:

1787.

The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

Below is a broad answer that covers the process of drafting and creating the document that details the United States Constitution. Delegates from across the colonies came together to draft the document in May of that year, and the final engrossed version was complete by September 16th. However, the was more to the overall process of creating and adopting this vital document. 

A Long Draw Out Process

The approach to writing the constitution was a long one. To say that it was created in 1787 is accurate, but the timeline of important events goes much further than that. The Articles of Confederation were deemed unfit for purpose in 1786, a Constitutional Convention declared the following May, and the final document finished that September. It wasn’t until the following year that enough states ratified it for adoption.

To better understand why and how the American Constitution came to be, we need to look at the issues with the Articles of Confederation, the creation of the Constitutional Convention, the disputes about the new constitution, and the ratification process. 

The Articles of Confederation

Before 1787 and the creation of the United States Constitution, the nation relied on the Articles of Confederation. The Second Continental Congress adopted this document in 1777 to govern the colonies following the Declaration of Independence. It provided a basic level of state sovereignty to the colonies but was soon deemed unfit for purpose.

The problem with this system was that it didn’t provide enough power or appropriate representation across the colonies. Via the Articles, each state had one vote in Congress, which put the states with larger populations on the same level as the smaller colonies. Then, Congress lacked the power to do much regarding taxation, foreign trade, or the enforcement of laws.

This led to the decision to overhaul the document, give Congress the powers needed, and improve representation. The Annapolis Convention of September 1786 concluded that there would be a larger convention the following May “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”

The Constitutional Convention

On May 25th, 1787, delegates from across the colonies gathered in Philadelphia to participate in a convention. The aim was to develop a way of improving the Articles of Confederation and make them better suited to the current climate in America. The result was months of debate and compromise with a complete reworking and the creation of the Constitution of the United States that is still in use today.

The delegates represented the concerns and needs of their home states – apart from Rhode Island, which declined to send a delegate. These framers of the constitution debated key issues for months. They included many leading figures that would go on to bigger things in politics, such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, and George Washington. While May 25th is the official starting date of the debates, some delegates arrived much earlier. It’s worth noting that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not in attendance as they were both overseas.

Drafting the Constitution

Creating the ideal constitution for the nation took so long because there were debates on various issues between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Two key proposals were put forth, the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan, before the later Connecticut Compromise.

Founding Father James Madison’s Virginia Plan became the favored one, and he is cited as the lead writer for the final draft of the constitution. However, a larger group called the Committee of Style was in charge of the drafting process. This also included Hamilton, Rufus King, William Samuel Johnson, and Gouverneur Morris. Morris is credited with the preamble. A printed version of the final draft was created on September 12th before being approved for engrossing on September 15th. 

The Completed Document

Once the final draft of the constitution was complete, the framers needed an engrossed copy that they could then sign and use as an official copy. It is this hand-written version that is on show today in the National Archives. This was a tough task and required a skilled scribe to copy around 4000 words neatly and as error-free as possible. 

Jacob Shallus took on the job and completed four beautifully-written pages in one day on September 16th. The next day, 39 of the delegates from the convention signed the parchment. The constitution was finished, but the process was not. 

Ratification by the Colonies

Completing the final draft of the constitution and meeting the criteria of the compromises wasn’t the final obstacle for the new constitution. For it to be adopted, it had to be ratified by a three-fourths majority of states. This was easier said than done. At the time, there were 13 colonies, which meant that once nine state legislatures signed, there was the majority needed for the constitution to pass.

This may not sound like a lot, but there were many states unconvinced by the terms of the proposed United States Constitution and the Federalist approach. The ratification process produced a steady stream of signatures but took some time to reach the target. Delaware was first on December 7th, 1787, and the target of nine was reached via New Hampshire on June 21st, 1788.

However, the country needed everyone on board, and Federalists fought to win over Virginia and New York that summer, prompting Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers in an attempt to sway opinion. Negotiations began over the inclusion of a Bill of Rights and the new location of the national capital. Rhode Island, unsurprisingly, was the last to sign following threats of being cut off. The constitution was fully adopted by all 13 colonies on May 26th, 1790.

A Detailed Approach That Paid Dividends

In short, while the constitution was written in 1787, there was a lot of work to be accomplished before its ratification. Calls for its creation came in 1786, it wasn’t adopted until 1788, and there were still issues long into 1790. Still, without this process, we wouldn’t have the Bill of Rights nor the government structure we have in place today. 

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