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12 Key Details About How The Constitution Was Really Written

The Constitution of the United States remains one of the most influential documents ever written, crafted over four torturous months in the midst of summer by men with greatly divergent priorities. It was not an easy or smooth process - controversial bargains had to be struck, uneasy compromises made. Some of those deals would be rued in the future, and some mistakes weren't revealed until much later. While the framers are held in high regard today, it’s easy to forget they were human beings acting in what they thought was their own best interest. 

This explainer takes a peek behind the curtains of the Pennsylvania State House, and the men known to history as the Founding Fathers, to look at how it all came together.

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  • The Articles Of Confederation Needed An Update
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    Before the Constitution, there were the Articles of Confederation, a sort of proto-constitution drawn up in 1777 during the Revolutionary War to provide a framework for states to coordinate efforts. The articles granted very limited powers to the Continental Congress, making it impossible to levy taxes or enforce laws on a national level. A 9/13 majority was necessary to pass most measures, while unanimous consent was required to amend any of the articles. 

    With wartime debts to repay and other pressing legislative issues that could not be resolved under the existing framework, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787.

  • The Convention Took Place In Philadelphia

    The convention convened on May 25, 1787, when enough delegates arrived to begin proceedings. It took place in the East Room of the Pennsylvania State House - the same place where the Declaration of Independence had been signed back in 1776. George Washington was chosen as presiding officer, although The General generally stayed above the fray of the convention.

    In all, 55 men attended, 39 of whom would ultimately sign the completed Constitution. These men were by no means representative of the US at the time; they were wealthy elites and many were college-educated, a rarity for the time. Twenty-five were slave owners.

    Secrecy was the name of the game. The doors and windows remained firmly closed to prying ears; no press were allowed; and nothing was to be printed about the proceedings, so the delegates could speak candidly. It actually took some time before they felt comfortable opening up; the first few days were noticeably taciturn. On June 1, yet another period of silence prompted John Rutledge of South Carolina to voice his concerns over the shyness of the men present. 

    James Madison kept a detailed journal of the proceedings that was published much later. His personal account is a significant source of information for historians, but not one without flaws. Aware of the heavy historical importance his account would have, he hesitated to publish his notes and spent several years revising and correcting his account of the events. Some sections of his journal weren’t even written until years later.

  • There Were Never More Than 11 States Present
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    There Were Never More Than 11 States Present

    Rhode Island’s nickname today is The Ocean State, but back then it had a less flattering moniker: Rogue Island. The state had a history of smuggling and skirting central authority. It refused to take any part in the convention and was staunchly opposed to a strong central government. Even after the Constitution was completed and the First Congress convened in 1789, little Rogue Island continued to drag its feet and batted away no fewer than 11 attempts to ratify the constitution by the state legislature. 

    It was only after some major arm-twisting by the other states - in the form of a punitive bill to restrict trade - that Rhode Island finally relented and narrowly ratified the constitution by 34 votes to 32. 

    New Hampshire was late to the party, so much so that all but one of the delegates from New York had come and gone by the time the representatives from the Granite State made it to Philadelphia. This would have some major repercussions in the final form the constitution would ultimately take. New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island had either abolished or were in the process of abolishing slavery at the time of the convention. In practical terms, this meant that the free states were crucially underrepresented. 

  • It Was Hot, Smelly, And Full Of Tension 

    The need for secrecy meant that the doors and windows of the East Room remained firmly closed throughout the convention. In the late 1700s, the dress code of the aristocracy gave little thought to comfort. The foul smell of horsehair wigs was kept at bay with liberal doses of ground starch scented with lavender, which must have been awfully itchy in the heat. A gentleman of the time wouldn’t be caught dead without his wisket (waistcoat) and the accompanying long frock coat. Men even wore silk stockings over the lower half of their breeches. 

    So, you had a closed room in the midst of summer with the dress code of the day requiring three layers at a time when air conditioning was but a distant future dream. In such close proximity day after day, it wasn't too long before they started getting on each other's nerves. Suffice it to say, it would not have been a pleasant experience for the delegates. 

  • The Convention Didn't Keep Full-Time Hours
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    The Convention Didn't Keep Full-Time Hours

    Each day of convention began, as a French visitor put it, “like every other day in America, [with] a great breakfast.” Once the morning feast was finished, the framers began proceedings at the crack of 10 am and soldiered on until 3 pm. After the day’s second meal, they were done until the following day. Some prepared for the next day’s events; most socialized. An extra hour was tacked onto proceedings in August but soon reverted to the earlier schedule. In all, the framers averaged a 30-hour week for the duration of the convention.

    They took an 11-day break in July to cool off, and a welcome turn in the weather made proceedings slightly more bearable. There was usually something interesting to do or see in Philadelphia outside of the convention; one day's proceedings adjourned early to watch a demonstration of an early steamboat prototype on the Delaware River designed by John Fitch

  • Big States Versus Small States
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    Big States Versus Small States

    The biggest bone of contention at the convention was representation in congress, and at the heart of the conversation was the conflict between the smaller states and the larger states. At the time, about half of the entire population resided in just three states: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The per-state voting of the Articles of Confederation granted vastly disproportionate power to the smaller states. This may have been tolerable to the larger states as a wartime measure, but it was far less acceptable in peace.

    The smaller states feared being drowned out by the more populous states if a proportionate system of representation was adopted. Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey were the main proponents of the smaller states. 

    There was also the question of how much democracy was too much. The framers were wary of giving too much leeway to the masses, believing them to be ignorant and liable to be misled. Systems for checks and balances were another important area of discussion for the convention.