The Constitutional Convention

Fifty-five delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island did not participate) met in Philadelphia in May 1787. While authorized only to "revise" the Articles of Confederation, the participants moved quickly to develop a new structure for the government.

The Virginia Plan

The early debates centered on a proposal by James Madison known as the Virginia Plan. Supported by the large states, it called for a bicameral (two-house) legislature empowered to make laws. The lower house was elected by voters in each state, and the upper house was chosen by the lower house from candidates nominated by the state legislatures. Representation in both houses was based on population. The executive was chosen by the legislature for one term and was responsible for executing all laws. The legislature also appointed the judges to one or more supreme courts and lower national courts. A Council of Revision made up of the executive and judges could veto laws passed by the legislature or the states; a vote by both houses was needed to override a veto by the Council.

The New Jersey Plan

The small states supported a less radical departure from the Articles of Confederation. The New Jersey Plan kept the one-house legislature, with its powers expanded to include raising revenue and regulating commerce. Each state had one vote, and the members were chosen by the state legislatures. A multiperson executive elected by the legislature was proposed. The executives, who were removable by action of the majority of the governors, also appointed judges to the Supreme Court. Laws passed by the legislature were binding on the states, and the multiperson executive was authorized to compel obedience to the law.

The Great Compromise

The New Jersey Plan was rejected, but the apportionment of representation in Congress continued to divide the Convention. The large states wanted proportional representation (by population), and the small states demanded equal representation (one state, one vote). The Great Compromise (also known as the Connecticut Compromise) provided that seats in the House of Representatives would be apportioned according to the population of each state, with members elected directly by the people. In the Senate, each state would have two senators, voting independently, chosen by their legislatures.

Decisions on slavery

Slaves were a significant percentage of the population in the Southern states. The issue of whether or how to count slaves was resolved by a formula used by Congress in 1783. For purposes of representation in the House and assessing direct taxes to the states, population was determined by adding the "whole number of free persons" and "three-fifths of all other persons." The phrase "all other persons" meant slaves. In addition to adopting the Three-Fifths Compromise, the delegates to the Convention allowed the slave trade to continue by denying Congress the power to prohibit it before 1808 and agreed that fugitive slaves should be returned to their masters.

Compromise over the presidency

The Convention accepted a one-person executive but hotly debated how the president should be elected (by Congress or the people) and the term of office. The solution was the Electoral College. The legislatures of each state chose electors equal to their total number of representatives in Congress. The electors then voted for two people, one of whom could not be from their state. The individual who received the most votes became president and the person with the next highest total became vice president. In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives decided the election and each state had one vote. The president's term of office was set at four years, and no express limit was put on the number of terms.