The United States Constitution
A Historical Overview
When the U.S. Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, only the members of the Philadelphia
Convention and a handful of printers and clerks had read it or knew what it contained. The public eagerly
anticipated the results of the meeting’s deliberations, but didn’t learn until the Convention ended just how
new its proposals were.
Anyone needing proof that these proposals were indeed revolutionary had only to turn to the last article in the
plan. “The Ratification,” it read, “of the Constitution of nine states, shall be sufficient for the Establishment
of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.” To amend the Articles of Confederation, for
which the Convention had been called in the first place, required the unanimous consent of the state
legislatures. The framers had taken the bold step of calling for an expression of national popular opinion on a
new plan of government.
The political struggle over ratification was a critical moment in American history, for its outcome – and our
history – could easily have taken another turn. It was both a contest of political strategy and maneuver and a
contest of ideas. Opponents of the Constitution narrowly missed opportunities to defeat it; its friends
narrowly gained several victories. The Constitution could have been tabled by Congress. State Legislatures
could have opted not to call conventions. Had Antifederalist candidates defeated ten Federalists in
Massachusetts, or six in New Hampshire or Virginia, or two in New York, their states would not have ratified.
Indeed, North Carolina and Rhode Island originally voted against the Constitution.
Each Federalist victory was the result of careful preparation of the political ground, requiring the shrewd
manipulation of political organization, power, ambition, and personal loyalties and interests – in short, a
skillful application of the art of politics. In politics the one who sets the agenda often gains the a