Secrets of the Constitution

What went on behind the scenes when the Framers met in 1787 to draft the nation’s founding document? Here are six things that may surprise you.

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli

They worked in secrecy in a hot, stuffy room guarded by sentries. For four months during the late spring and summer of 1787, 55 men from across the new American nation argued, cut deals, and fashioned difficult compromises.

When they finally emerged from the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, they had created something remarkable: the Constitution of the United States.

The document established the law of the land. Among other things, it set up the federal government in three parts— the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. But for all the Constitution’s importance, how it was drafted remains largely a mystery to many Americans.

Here are six things you may not know.

They worked in secrecy in a hot, stuffy room guarded by sentries. For four months during the late spring and summer of 1787, 55 men from across the new American nation argued, cut deals, and fashioned difficult compromises.

When they finally emerged from the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, they had created something remarkable: the Constitution of the United States.

The document established the law of the land. Among other things, it set up the federal government in three parts— the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. But for all the Constitution’s importance, how it was drafted remains largely a mystery to many Americans.

Here are six things you may not know.

1. The U.S. Constitution wasn’t America’s first constitution.

When the Framers of the Constitution met on May 25, 1787, they didn’t initially plan to write a new constitution but to revise one already in place: the Articles of Confederation. That document, which had been approved six years earlier, had established a national government but left most of the power to the individual states.

Problems emerged, however. The states were hardly “united,” and the central government was weak. There wasn’t even a president as we know it.

So 55 state delegates met in Philadelphia to amend the Articles, with George Washington serving as convention president. It soon became clear, though, that the Articles would be scrapped in favor of a new constitution. Getting everyone on board wouldn’t be easy. While those known as Federalists called for a strong federal government, anti-Federalists distrusted the idea. Rhode Island so opposed a strong central government that it didn’t send any delegates to the convention.

Just 11 years earlier, the Colonies had declared independence from the British crown, cementing their new nation in 1783 with a victory in the Revolutionary War. Why give their freedoms away?

“No American” at the time, says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood, “would have imagined in his wildest dreams that we would have this strong central government.”

When the Framers of the Constitution met on May 25, 1787, they didn’t initially plan to write a new constitution. Instead, they gathered to revise one already in place: the Articles of Confederation. That document had been approved six years earlier. It had established a national government but left most of the power to the individual states.

But problems emerged. The states were hardly “united,” and the central government was weak. There wasn’t even a president as we know it.

So 55 state delegates met in Philadelphia to amend the Articles. George Washington served as the convention’s president. It soon became clear that the Articles would be tossed in favor of a new constitution. But getting everyone on board wouldn’t be easy. While those known as Federalists called for a strong federal government, anti-Federalists distrusted the idea. Rhode Island was so opposed to a strong central government that it didn’t send any delegates to the convention.

Just 11 years earlier, the Colonies had declared independence from the British crown. They cemented their new nation in 1783 with a victory in the Revolutionary War. Why give their freedoms away?

“No American” at the time, says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood, “would have imagined in his wildest dreams that we would have this strong central government.”

2. The convention was almost a failure.

Stock Montage/Getty Images | SOURCE: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The delegates came from vastly different states, each with its own special interests. There were big and small states, states in the South that relied heavily on slavery, and states in the North that were less dependent on slavery (see No. 3). How were they ever going to agree on anything?

It didn’t take long for the convention to turn tense. Five days into the deliberations, a delegate from Delaware was threatening to bolt. And two of New York’s three delegates did end up walking out, leaving Alexander Hamilton as the state’s lone representative.

One of the big issues that almost destroyed the convention was how to apportion members of Congress. Delegates from the larger states, led by Virginia, wanted members of Congress apportioned based on state populations. But the smaller states, led by New Jersey, favored having an equal number of representatives from each state.

After weeks of fierce debates ending in stalemates, many in the room began to doubt whether a new government would ever be formed. Then, on
July 5, Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, presented a solution, known forevermore as the Great Compromise. Each state, regardless of size, would elect two senators, while the House of Representatives would be apportioned based on state populations.

There are still debates today about whether this solution put too much power in the hands of small, less-populous states. But at the time, says Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, “it was a compromise that saved the Constitution.”

The delegates came from very different states, each with its own special interests. There were big and small states, states in the South that relied heavily on slavery, and states in the North that were less dependent on slavery (see No. 3). How were they ever going to agree on anything?

It didn’t take long for the convention to turn tense. Five days into the discussions, a delegate from Delaware was threatening to bolt. And two of New York’s three delegates did end up walking out, leaving Alexander Hamilton as the state’s lone representative.

One of the big issues that almost destroyed the convention was how to allocate members of Congress. Delegates from the larger states, led by Virginia, wanted to base allocations on state populations. But the smaller states, led by New Jersey, favored having an equal number of representatives from each state.

Weeks of fierce debates ended in stalemates. Many in the room began to doubt whether a new government would ever be formed. Then, on July 5, Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, presented a solution. It became known as the Great Compromise. Each state, regardless of size, would elect two senators, while members of the House of Representatives would be allocated based on state populations.

There are still debates today about whether this solution put too much power in the hands of small, less-populous states. But at the time, says Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, “it was a compromise that saved the Constitution.”

3. Slavery was one of the biggest points of contention.

Though the Framers never wrote the words slave or slavery into the Constitution, they had the issue of slavery at the forefront of their minds during the convention. Slavery was woven into the fabric of America at the time. One-sixth of the population in the 13 states was enslaved, and at least a third of the convention delegates themselves enslaved people.

Slavery fueled the South’s economy, but some Northern states had adopted policies to gradually abolish slavery. Virginia delegate James Madison—often called the “Father of the Constitution” and an enslaver of more than 100 people—said the true divisions at the convention were between states “having or not having slaves.”

First, there was the argument over how enslaved people should be counted as part of the population for the purpose of representation. States with large populations of enslaved people—seeking greater representation—argued that enslaved people should be counted, while states with smaller populations of enslaved people opposed that. The delegates came up with what’s known as the Three-Fifths Compromise: Non-“free Persons” would be counted as three-fifths of a person.

The Framers never wrote the words slave or slavery into the Constitution. Still, they had the issue of slavery at the forefront of their minds during the convention. Slavery was woven into the fabric of America at the time. One-sixth of the population in the 13 states was enslaved. And at least a third of the convention delegates themselves enslaved people.

Slavery fueled the South’s economy, but some Northern states had adopted policies to gradually end slavery. Virginia delegate James Madison, who is often called the “Father of the Constitution,” enslaved more than 100 people. He said the true divisions at the convention were between states “having or not having slaves.”

First, there was the argument over how enslaved people should be counted as part of the population for the purpose of representation. States with large populations of enslaved people sought greater representation. They argued that enslaved people should be counted. States with smaller populations of enslaved people opposed that. The delegates came up with what’s known as the Three-Fifths Compromise: Non-“free Persons” would be counted as three-fifths of a person.

The institution of slavery was written into other sections of the Constitution as well. The document protected the international slave trade in the U.S. for 20 more years before ending it. It also declared that any “person held to service or labor” who escaped to another state must be returned—a provision later known as the Fugitive Slave Clause.

So why did the Framers leave out the words slave and slavery from the document?

“Many people in the United States in the late 18th century,” Wood says, “thought slavery was dying a natural death, that it would just wither away.”

Instead, slavery would continue in the U.S. for nearly another century and tear the nation apart with the Civil War (1861-65). It was only after the war that slavery was mentioned by name in the Constitution, when the 13th Amendment banned it except as punishment for a crime.

The institution of slavery was written into other sections of the Constitution as well. The document protected the international slave trade in the U.S. for 20 more years before ending it. It also declared that any “person held to service or labor” who escaped to another state must be returned. Many years later, this provision became known as the Fugitive Slave Clause.

So why did the Framers leave out the words slave and slavery from the document?

“Many people in the United States in the late 18th century,” Wood says, “thought slavery was dying a natural death, that it would just wither away.”

Instead, slavery would continue in the U.S. for nearly another century. It even tore the nation apart with the Civil War (1861-65). Only after the war was slavery even mentioned by name in the Constitution. That occurred when the 13th Amendment banned it except as punishment for a crime.

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli

4. The words “We the people of the United States” were a last-minute change.

By early August, after more than two exhausting months, the delegates had finally written a draft of the Constitution. But it didn’t start how you might expect. The preamble began: “We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island . . .” It went on to list all the states by name.

It was Gouverneur Morris, a Pennsylvania delegate, who revised the opening phrase to “We the people of the United States.” Those iconic words would echo throughout history.

There were practical reasons for the change: It was unclear whether all the states would ratify the Constitution. And what would happen if—and when—new states joined the union?

But the change was also symbolic, signaling that the people have the power—not the individual states and not a king or a queen (though some groups of people, including women, Black Americans, and Native Americans, would be denied equal rights for years to come*).

“The most important idea of the Constitution,” Rosen says, “is in those first three words.”

By early August, the delegates had finally written a draft of the Constitution. It had taken more than two exhausting months to do so. But it didn’t start how you might expect. The preamble began: “We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island . . .” It went on to list all the states by name.

It was Gouverneur Morris, a Pennsylvania delegate, who revised the opening phrase to “We the people of the United States.” Those iconic words would echo throughout history.

There were practical reasons for the change. It was unclear whether all the states would ratify the Constitution. And what would happen if—and when—new states joined the union?

But the change was also symbolic. It signaled that the people have the power—not the individual states and not a king or a queen. Still, some groups of people, including women, Black Americans, and Native Americans, would be denied equal rights for years to come.

“The most important idea of the Constitution,” Rosen says, “is in those first three words.”

5. The Bill of Rights wasn’t included originally.

The freedom of speech and religion, the right to a trial by an impartial jury, the prohibitions against unreasonable searches and “cruel and unusual” punishments—today, they’re considered among the most fundamental parts of the Constitution. But the original document didn’t include these and other civil liberties.

After four months in Philadelphia, just as the delegates prepared to sign the Constitution, some of them noticed a problem: There was no Bill of Rights, a common component of state constitutions at the time. How could they have just fought for liberty from Britain and forgotten to include individual rights in the nation’s Constitution?

George Mason, an influential delegate from Virginia, feared that the Constitution, as written, would turn the federal government into a monarchy. He said he’d rather “chop off his right hand” than sign it. (He was one of 16 delegates at the convention who never signed the Constitution; he would later be nicknamed the Forgotten Founder.)

The Framers, however, decided to move forward without the Bill of Rights. Many wanted to go home to their families and get on with their lives. They finished their work on September 17, 1787. But when the first Congress convened in the fall of 1789, the members quickly approved 12 Amendments guaranteeing personal freedoms. The first 10 were ratified by the states two years later and took effect as the Bill of Rights.

The freedom of speech and religion, the right to a trial by an impartial jury, the prohibitions against unreasonable searches and “cruel and unusual” punishments—today, they’re considered among the cornerstones of the Constitution. But the original document didn’t include these and other civil liberties.

After four months in Philadelphia, the delegates prepared to sign the Constitution. But then some of them noticed a problem. There was no Bill of Rights, a common element of state constitutions at the time. How could they have just fought for liberty from Britain and forgotten to include individual rights in the nation’s Constitution?

George Mason, an influential delegate from Virginia, feared that the Constitution, as written, would turn the federal government into a monarchy. He said he’d rather “chop off his right hand” than sign it. He was one of 16 delegates at the convention who never signed the Constitution. And he would later be nicknamed the Forgotten Founder.

But the Framers decided to move forward without the Bill of Rights. Many wanted to go home to their families and get on with their lives. They finished their work on September 17, 1787. But when the first Congress convened in the fall of 1789, the members quickly approved 12 Amendments protecting personal freedoms. The first 10 were ratified by the states two years later and took effect as the Bill of Rights.

Illustration by Thomas Pitilli

6. The Framers never intended the Supreme Court to be so powerful.

The Supreme Court is best known for having the power to strike down any law or executive action it views as unconstitutional. But that power, called judicial review, wasn’t included in the Constitution. Madison wrote that it would give the nation’s highest court too much authority over the legislative and executive branches, “which was never intended, and can never be proper.” Today, debates about whether the Court has too much power are still playing out.

So how did the Supreme Court justices become the guardians of the Constitution? It dates back to, of all things, a Supreme Court case. In Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Court ruled for the first time that an act of Congress was unconstitutional. Doing so established the precedent that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and that the justices have the final say on whether laws or acts violate the Constitution.

But that doesn’t mean the justices always agree on the meaning of the 234-year-old document. In fact, far from it. That’s why rulings are decided by a majority vote of the nine justices.

“Trying to interpret this document is one of the single most important things people do,” Wood says. We’ll continue to debate its meaning, he adds, “as long as the Constitution exists.”

The Supreme Court is best known for having the power to strike down any law or executive action it views as unconstitutional. But that power, called judicial review, wasn’t included in the Constitution. Madison wrote that it would give the nation’s highest court too much authority over the legislative and executive branches, “which was never intended, and can never be proper.” Today, debates about whether the Court has too much power are still playing out.

So how did the Supreme Court justices become the guardians of the Constitution? It dates back to, of all things, a Supreme Court case. In Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Court ruled for the first time that an act of Congress was unconstitutional. Doing so established the precedent that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The ruling also affirmed that the justices have the final say on whether laws or acts violate the Constitution.

But that doesn’t mean the justices always agree on the meaning of the 234-year-old document. In fact, far from it. That’s why rulings are decided by a majority vote of the nine justices.

“Trying to interpret this document is one of the single most important things people do,” Wood says. We’ll continue to debate its meaning, he adds, “as long as the Constitution exists.”

*The Constitution left voter qualifications up to the states. In most states, only White male landowners were allowed to vote at first. From 1870 to 1965, amendments and acts of Congress extended the right to vote to women, Black Americans, and other people of color.

*The Constitution left voter qualifications up to the states. In most states, only White male landowners were allowed to vote at first. From 1870 to 1965, amendments and acts of Congress extended the right to vote to women, Black Americans, and other people of color.