It was on this day in 1787 that the United States Constitution was signed by delegates at the final meeting of the Constitutional Convention. The war with Britain had officially ended back in 1783, but the new American government was in shambles. More than 10 years earlier, the Second Continental Congress had created the Articles of Confederation to outline the rights of the federal government. But after British rule, the Americans were hesitant to put power in the hands of a central authority, so the United States had no president or other main leader, just a president of Congress. To make things worse, the Second Continental Congress had tasked each of the 13 colonies with creating its own system of government, and the colonies did such a good job that the states’ governments ended up far more powerful than the central government.
By 1787, not a single state was paying all of its federal taxes, and the government had no way to penalize them. Pirates were attacking American ships, and the government didn’t have money to pay them off. Troops were deserting, and the weak national military was no help to states that needed it. Congress technically had the authority to wage war, regulate currency, and conduct foreign policy, but in reality it had none of these powers because it had no way to force the states to supply money or troops. The leaders of the revolution were worried. James Madison said, “If some very strong props are not applied, the present system will tumble to the ground.” So he and other leaders organized the Constitutional Convention as a way to force the states to create a unified central government.
In May of 1787, 55 delegates arrived in Philadelphia, where they spent the next four months attempting to rewrite the Articles of Confederation. It was a hot summer in Philadelphia, and the bugs were terrible — flies and mosquitoes bit through the delegates’ silk stockings. The average age of the delegates was just 42 years old, but overall they were politically experienced and highly educated. The delegates included George Washington, who was immediately elected president and rarely spoke throughout the four months of proceedings; Alexander Hamilton, who skipped out on most of the Convention but afterward emerged as the principal author of the Federalist Papers, famous essays arguing why the Constitution should be ratified; Governor Morris, a charming and witty man with a peg leg and a habit of sleeping with other peoples’ wives, who gave 173 speeches during the course of the Convention and wrote the famous preamble to the Constitution; 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who had to be carried around Philadelphia in a sedan chair because he could no longer walk; and James Madison, who showed up every single day, took detailed notes on all the proceedings, and argued tirelessly for a strong central government.
Madison was a small man, 5’6” and weighing 120 pounds, described by one observer as “no bigger than a half piece of soap,” but he became known as “the Father of the Constitution.” A Georgia delegate wrote of Madison: “Every person seems to acknowledge his greatness. Mr. Madison always comes forward the best informed man of any point in debate.”
The resulting document was not just a revision of the Articles of Confederation, but also its own creation: the Constitution of the United States. The delegates argued about various issues for months, eventually coming to an agreement on the essential purposes of government, a system of checks and balances, the division of federal and state governments, rules for interstate trade, and representation according to population.
At the very end of his notes on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, Madison wrote: “Whilst the last members were signing it, Franklin, looking towards the President’s Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”