Constitutional Convention

The term “constitutional convention,” also known as the “Philadelphia Convention,” refers to the gathering of a group of purpose for the purpose of either drafting a new constitution or editing an existing one. For example, a constitutional convention gathered in May and September of 1787 to discuss the creation of a constitution to cure the government’s weaknesses. As a result, the attendees drafted the U.S. Constitution still used by every court in the United States today. To explore this concept, consider the following constitutional convention definition.

Definition of Constitutional Convention


  1. A gathering of individuals for the purpose of creating a new constitution or modifying an existing one.



What is a Constitutional Convention?

A constitutional convention refers to the meeting up of individuals who are interested in either creating a new constitution or making edits to the one currently in existence. For example, the Constitutional Convention that gathered in the U.S. in 1787 created the Constitution that courts still refer to today when making decisions in civil and criminal cases. Not all constitutional conventions are the Constitutional Convention, however those that gathered in the U.S. met for the sole purpose of discussing and developing the Constitution.

The purpose of the constitutional convention became much more than what the original delegates thought it would be. When the delegates originally gathered for the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they had not referred to the gathering as such. They did not even plan to draft a new Constitution. They believed they were only coming together to discuss ways to improve on the Articles of Confederation, and then edit the Articles accordingly.

However, once the delegates came together in one room, the true purpose of the Constitutional Convention became clear. They agreed that creating a new Constitution would be more beneficial than simply modifying the Articles of Confederation. This is why today’s U.S. government comprises three branches: the judicial branch, the executive branch, and the legislative branch. Amongst the other things decided by the delegates was the creation of a system of checks and balances, proving that the purpose of the Constitutional Convention was even more important than the delegates realized at the time.

Constitutional Convention Examples Not Involving the U.S. Constitution

When discussing the constitutional convention meaning, one is not always referring to the U.S. Constitution. Examples of a constitutional convention occur in other countries as well. One of these constitutional convention examples is the European Convention, which gathered in 2001 for the purpose of drafting the Constitution for Europe. Essentially, constitutional convention examples all illustrate that country’s desire to create a constitution that works for the citizens of that country.

History of the Constitutional Convention

The history of the Constitutional Convention in the U.S. began in May of 1787, when the delegates got together to see how they could strengthen the government by way of modifying the Articles of Confederation. Ultimately, the delegates came to realize that creating a new constitution from scratch would solve their problems more effectively than simply editing the Articles currently in existence.

James Madison is effectively responsible for the true beginning of what became the history of the Constitutional Convention. This was because, after he spent the winter of 1787 studying various confederacies, he came up with an idea for a new version of America’s government. Alexander Hamilton built on this, proposing for the delegates to conform Britain’s Constitution to an American Constitution consisting of an upper house and a legislature.

Connecticut’s representatives rounded out the history of the Constitutional Convention when they came up with the idea to create an upper house consisting of an equal number of delegates from each state. Further, they proposed that the government should also have a lower house consisting of a number of representatives that were in proportion to the populations of their states. With that, the delegates put their plan in motion, finalizing what would eventually become the U.S. Constitution we know today in 1789.

Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation was the U.S.’ first version of the Constitution. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states functioned independently, and Congress’ role was solely as a last resort if the states could not resolve disputes on their own.

The Articles of Confederation also gave Congress the power to make treaties, and to oversee the armed forces and the nation’s currency. However, the government did not have the power to levy taxes or control the economy. As such, the Constitutional Convention came together in 1787 to throw away the Articles of Confederation.

Constitutional Debate

Constitutional debate emerged in 1787, when the constitutional convention came together to ratify the Articles of Confederation. Specifically, the constitutional debate centered on slavery and the executive branch of government, which was new at the time. The constitutional debate continued for four months before the delegates finally reached a compromise and agreed to the U.S. Constitution that we know and use today.

Refining Congress

After the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the American colonies created the Articles of Confederation. This document established a government for the country, though the government it established was rather weak. They called the lawmaking body they created the Confederation Congress, though it would become clear that the act of refining Congress would soon be in order.

The Confederation Congress was able to declare war, borrow or print money, settle state disputes, and sign treaties. Today’s version of Congress can also do these things. However, the delegates were afraid that the Confederation Congress would become too powerful, and so they refused to allow Congress the authority to levy taxes. They soon realized, though, that Congress having this power is a necessary evil, and so they got to work on refining Congress. The Second Continental Congress eventually became the Congress of the Confederation.

Ensuring Congressional Powers

The Necessary and Proper Clause and Supremacy Clause were both necessary insofar as ensuring Congressional powers went. The Necessary and Proper Clause, or “elastic clause,” provides Congress with the authority to make laws, so long as those laws serve the purpose of helping the other branches of government carry out their powers as well.

The Supremacy Clause establishes the U.S. Constitution as the law of the land, and that all state courts are bound by the Constitution. The Supremacy Clause also cements the fact that, in disputes concerning both federal and state laws, federal law must always reign supreme.

States must even refer to constitutional law when creating their own state constitutions. The Supremacy Clause fosters ensuring Congressional powers, so long as Congress, in creating laws, does not violate the provisions of the Constitution.

Constitutional Convention Example of Compromise

The Constitutional Convention was a time of great compromise concerning the issue of slavery. This was because slavery was one of the most hotly debated topics at that time. In fact, at least one-third of the Convention’s delegates owned slaves and, at that point in history, slaves comprised about one-fifth of the country’s total population. Therefore, there are several constitutional convention examples of compromise on the issue of slavery – namely, whether slavery would continue to exist under the new Constitution.

When the Convention was at a loss insofar as what to do going forward, they referred the matter to an 11-member committee to help them decide. Ultimately, the committee came up with a compromise: Congress would have the power to ban the slave trade, however it would not be able to do so for another 20 years.

In exchange, the taxation on slave trades would not only strengthen the federal government’s ability to regulate foreign commerce, but it would also reduce the passage of navigation acts. Previously, the passage of such acts required “yes” votes from two-thirds majorities from both houses of Congress. Going forward, they would only require simple majorities.

Three-Fifths Compromise

The Three-Fifths Compromise referred to the question of whether the Constitution would acknowledge slaves as members of the country’s population. If not, slaves would still be “property” under the law. Those delegates who hailed from states with large slave populations argued that slaves could be people when the issue concerned representation. However, the delegates argued, the law should consider them as property when the issue of taxes came up – specifically those taxes imposed on states based on the total number of that state’s residents.

On the other side of the coin, delegates hailing from states where slavery was dwindling argued the exact opposite: that the law should include slaves in taxation but not when determining representation. Ultimately, James Wilson came up with the Three-Fifths Compromise, which the Convention adopted for the Constitution. The Three-Fifths Compromise held that the law would regard the slave population as “three-fifths” of the population when determining representation, taxes, and those with the power to elect the President. After that, slaves each counted as “three-fifths of a person.”

Signing of the Constitution

The signing of the Constitution took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 17, 1787. Present at the signing of the Constitution were 39 delegates representing 12 states. The signing of the Constitution came after the convention had spent the previous four months tightening it up. In addition to the delegates’ signatures were a statement explaining that the delegates had successfully completed their work on the document and thereby approved of it as the final draft.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Delegate – An individual authorized to represent others, such as an elected representative attending a conference on behalf of his state.
  • Treaty – A formal agreement between countries.