Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789


Browse Collection by:

View more collections from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Collection Connection
Classroom resources for teachers from the Learning Page

America During the Age of Revolution, 1776-1789

This time line is drawn largely from the work of Richard B. Morris, in particular his Encyclopedia of American History.



The Constitutional Convention. Every state but Rhode Island sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The gathering included some of the most respected and talented men in America. George Washington was named president.

Edmund Randolph proposed the "Virginia Plan," drafted by James Madison -- a plan that recommended an entirely new form of government, including an executive, a judiciary, and a legislature composed of two houses and including a number of representatives from each state based on their population.

Opposition came from the small states, which feared domination by the more populous states in the legislature. William Paterson proposed the "New Jersey Plan," which essentially revised the Articles of Confederation, preserving equal representation of the states. After much debate, the Convention rejected the New Jersey Plan, deciding instead to work toward an entirely new form of government.

The issue of representation in the two houses of the new national legislature became a major sticking point for the Convention. Roger Sherman was helpful in framing the "Connecticut Compromise," a plan that suggested representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives) based on population, and equal representation in the upper house (the Senate). With this compromise, the Convention succeeded in completing a rough draft of a constitution.

A Committee of Style was appointed to create a final draft; Gouverneur Morris was chosen to write it. After carefully reviewing the draft, the Convention approved the Constitution on September 17. After signing it and sending it to Congress, the Convention adjourned.

Northwest Ordinance. While the Constitutional Convention debated a new government, Congress decided upon a plan for governing all western territories north of the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance provided for a plan of government, the creation of states, the acceptance of each new state as an equal of the original states, freedom of religion, right to a trial by jury, public support of education, and the prohibition of slavery. Arthur St. Clair was named first governor of the territory.

Congress Receives the Constitution. Although some congressmen were displeased at the Convention for doing far more than revising the Articles of Confederation, on September 28 Congress agreed to pass the Constitution on to the states, so each could debate it in separate ratifying conventions. Nine states had to agree to the new Constitution for it to go into effect.

"The Federalist." Supporters of the Constitution -- Federalists -- and opponents of the Constitution -- Antifederalists -- fought fiercely in the press. Seventy-seven essays, written anonymously by "Publius," appeared in New York newspapers, explaining and defending the new Constitution. These essays, published in book form with eight additional essays, were titled The Federalist. Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist was the most organized, coherent effort to defend the Constitution.



The Constitution Is Ratified by Nine States. On June 21, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, making its adoption official. Preceding New Hampshire were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina. Virginia and New York ratified shortly after New Hampshire, followed by North Carolina in November 1789. Rhode Island was last to ratify, not joining the Union until May 1790.

Congress Steps Aside for a New Government. On July 2, Congress announced that the Constitution had been adopted. By September, a committee had prepared for the change in government, naming New York City as the temporary official capital, and setting dates for elections and for the meeting of the first Congress under the new Constitution. Congress completed its business on October 10. Its last action was the granting of ten square miles of land to Congress for a federal town.