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Constitution Day: Virtual Exhibit: Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, 1787-1791

Resources and events for the annual Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, September 17.

Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, 1787-1791

This virtual exhibit highlights 4 major periods of time and events that created the United States Constitution: the Constitutional Convention, 1787, the States' Ratification process which followed the Convention, 1787-1790, the initiation of the new government, 1789, and the incorporation of the Bill of Rights into the new Constitution, 1789-1792.

Look in the left column to see 2 timelines:  the dates of ratification of the Constitution, and dates of ratification of the Bill of Rights.

The Constitutional Convention, 1787

After the ratification of the Articles of Confederation (1778-1781) the new nation faced several mounting problems:  weak federal powers and no way for Congress to enforce the powers it had under the Articles, hints of anarchy and unrest, and general dissatisfaction with the course of affairs with the new, loose federation.  Though controversial, a Constitutional Convention was proposed and eventually formed as an attempt to rectify some of the problems.  These are accounts of the formation of the convention and the proposals, discussions, and arguments that went into the making of the new Constitution:

  • Creating the United States Constitution      Library of Congress exhibit with examples of contemporary documents including The Continental Congress Broadside Collection; Documents from the Continental Congress--documents relating to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, extracts of proceedings of state assemblies and conventions relating to the ratification of the Constitution, and several essays on ratification.
  • A More Perfect Union:  Creation of the U.S. Constitution      National Archives exhibit
  • The Constitutional Convention; A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison.  Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship.  New York:  Modern Library, 2005.  WSU Holland & Terrell KF4510.M33 2005       Includes the drafts and approved text of the Constitution
  • The Constitutional Convention    U.S. Constitution Online
  • The Constitutional Convention of 1787; Lesson Plan (3 lessons) for Grades 9-12   National Endowment for the Arts
  • A brilliant solution:  inventing the American Constitution.  Carol Berkin.  NY: Harcourt, 2002.  WSU Holland & Terrell Libraries   E 303.B47 2002   "In 1787, a group of lawyers and politicians, some famous and others just ordinary men, journeyed to Philadelphia, determined to create a more stable framework of government, hoping that it would last long enough to bring an end to the crisis." --publisher's summary
  • Plain, honest men:  the making of the American Constitution. Richard R. Beeman.  NY: Random House, 2009.   WSU Holland & Terrell KF4510 .B44 2009  "...a dramatic and engrossing account of the men who met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to design a radically new form of government. --publisher's summary.
  • Key Constitutional concepts [videorecording] : a conversation    PJ Productions ; produced in Association with the National Constitution Center ; the Annenberg Foundation Trust.  62 min.   WSU Media Materials & Reserves DVD 1460
  • Our Constitution [videorecording]: a conversation.  Annenberg Foundation at Sunnylands.  30 min.    WSU Media Materials & Reserves DVD 1461   "United States Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer talk about the Constitution with high school students and discuss why we have and need a constitution."--pub. summary 
  • A little rebellion now and then [videorecording].  Los Angeles:  Churchill Films, 1986. 33 min.  WSU Media Materials & Reserves VHS 11423  "Dramatizes Shays' rebellion and the unrest during the two crucial years preceding the Constitutional Convention. Filmed in historic locations, it depicts the conflicts between the well-to-do merchant and governing elites, and the poor settlers after the Revolutionary War."--pub. summary

States' Ratification of the Constitution

Ratification of the proposed Constitution by the original states took from Sept. 1789 to early 1791.  "Debate over the Constitution raged in newspapers, taverns, coffeehouses, and over dinner tables as well as in the Confederation Congress, state legislatures, and state ratifying conventions. People who never left their home towns and were little known except to their neighbors studied the document, knew it well, and on some memorable occasion made their views known. What the people and the convention delegates they chose decided had everything to do with making the United States into what George Washington called a 'respectable nation.'" Pauline Maier, Ratification: the people debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010. p. ix.

The following resources recount the state debates and provide documents of the official discussions.

  • The documentary history of the ratification of the Constitution.  Merrill Jensen, John P. Kaminski, and Gaspare J. Saladino.  Madison:  Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1976-2009.  Holland & Terrell KF4502.D63 v. 1-23.  "This landmark work in historical and legal scholarship draws upon thousands of sources to trace the Constitution's progress through each of the thirteen states' conventions." --http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/RNCN.html
  • Ratification : the people debate the Constitution, 1787-1788.  Pauline Maier.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Holland & Terrell KF 4541.M278 2010. The dramatic story of the debate over the ratification of the Constitution.

The New Government is Put into Place

As soon as 9 states had ratified the Constitution (June 21, 1788) it went into effect.  On March 4, 1789 the 1st Congress of the new Constitution was seated, and in early April George Washington was elected as the 1st President.  Read more about the early federal government in these resources:

  • Creating the Constitution:  the Convention of 1787 and the first Congress.  Thornton Anderson.  Univ. Park: Pennsylvania St. Univ. Press, 1993.  WSU Holland & Terrell Libraries KF4541.A88 1993 
  • Forge of union, anvil of liberty:  a correspondent's report on the first federal elections, the first federal Congress, and the Bill of Rights.  Jeffrey St. John.  Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books. 1992  WSU Holland & Terrell Libraries E303.S79 1992
  • George Washington and the origins of the American presidency.  Mark J. Rozell, William D. Pederson, and Frank J. Williams, eds. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000.  WSU Holland & Terrell Libraries JK511.G48 2000 

The Bill of Rights

"During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government.... They demanded a "bill of rights" that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered.

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States therefore proposed to the state legislatures 12 amendments to the Constitution that met arguments most frequently advanced against it. The first two proposed amendments, which concerned the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified. Articles 3 to 12, however, ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, constitute the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights."--The Charters of Freedom; Bill of Rights.  National Archives online exhibit

Bill of Rights.  Project Gutenberg

These books and electronic resources recount the push for a Bill of Rights to amend the new Constitution:

Bill of Rights. Charters of Freedom online exhibit.  National Archives.

Roots of the Bill of Rights.  Bernard Schwartz, comp. NY: Chelsea House, 1980.  WSU Holland & Terrell Libraries KF 4744 1980  v. 1-5.  Sources for Constitutional amendments 1-10.

Primary Documents in American History:  the Bill of Rights.  and   Creating the United States:  Creating the Bill of Rights.   Library of Congress

The Bill of Rights [electronic book]:  a bicentennial assessment.  Gary C. Bryner and A.D. Sorensen, ed.  Provo, UT: Brigham Young Univ., 1993.  NetLibrary link through WSU WorldCat.

The Bill of Rights in Modern America. David J. Bodenhamer and James W. Ely, Jr., ed.  Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2008. WSU Holland & Terrell Libraries KF4550.A2 B49 2008

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