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Forming a More Perfect Union: Virginia and the Debate over the U.S. Constitution

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  • “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union . . .” (Williamsburg: printed by Alexander Purdie in 1777, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection; Portfolio 178, Folder 26. Library of Congress., LOC
    Articles of Confederation
  • “An Act for Appointing Deputies from this Commonwealth to a Convention Proposed to Be Held in the City of Philadelphia in May Next, for the Purpose of Revising the Foederal Constitution.” Richmond: Printed by John Dunlap and James Hayes, 1786, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Continental Congress & Constitutional Convention Broadsides Collection, Library of Congress., LOC
    Appointing Deputies to the Philadephia Convention
  • James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, May 25, 1787, Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress., LOC
    Madison's Notes from the Federal Convention
  • Copy of Plan for New Government in Convention by the State of Virginia (in Washington's hand), George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741–1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697–1799, Virginia Delegates to Congress, May 1787, Library of Congress., LOC
    Virginia Plan
  • Excerpts from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, May 30, 1787, Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651–1827, Library of Congress., LOC
    Washington Letter to Jefferson
  • “Richmond, State of Virginia. In convention, Wednesday, the 25th of June, 1788: The convention . . .” Richmond: Printed by Aug. Davis ... [1788], Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention Broadsides Collection, Library of Congress., LOC
    Virginia Ratifying Convention Journal
  • “Poughkeepsie, July 2, 1788. Just arrived by express, The ratification of the new constitution by the Convention of the State of Virginia . . .” Printed in Poughkeepsie: 1788, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection; Portfolio 111, Folder 15e, Library of Congress., LOC
    Va. Ratifying Convention Letter to N.Y. Convention
  • George Wythe (1726–1806), Marble Bust by Bryant Baker, 1962. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia., LVA
    George Wythe Bust
  • Edmund Randolph (1753–1812), Oil Painting by Flavius Fisher, acquired in 1874. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia., LVA
    Edmund Randolph Portrait
  • Edmund Pendleton (1721–1803), Oil Painting by William L. Sheppard. Acquired in 1904. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia., LVA
    Edmund Pendleton Portrait
  • George Washington (1732–1799), Marble Statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1785–1792. State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia., LVA
    George Washington Statue
  • Constitution, (Philadelphia: Printed by Dunlap & Claypoole) 1787, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention Broadsides Collection, Library of Congress., LVA
    United States Constitution
  • George Mason. “Objections to the Constitution of Government Formed by the Convention,” ca. September 17, 1787. Manuscript document. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress., LOC
    Mason's Objections
  • George Mason to George Washington, October 7, 1787, George Washington Papers, 1741–1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697–1799, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress., LOC
    George Mason Letter to George Washington
  • James Madison Jr. to George Washington, October 18, 1787, George Washington Papers, 1741–1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697–1799, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress., LOC
    James Madison Letter to George Washington
  • Henry B. Dawson, ed.,  The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, As Agreed Upon By the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787 ... (New York: C. Scribner, 1863). Call number JK154 1788, Library of Virginia., LVA
    James Madison, Federalist #10
  • Acts of the General Assembly, October 1646, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 8, Volume 7, Virginia Council and Assembly, 1643–1662, Laws, Library of Congress., LOC
    English and Powhatan Indian Treaty
  • Broadside 179- .P698 FF, Special Collections, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    1790 Pro-slavery Broadside
  • Special Collections, Vault, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia., LVA
    First Virginia Constitution
  • Bryan family. Papers, 1679–1943. Series 1, Box 1, Folder 17. Accession 24882. Personal Papers Collection. Library of Virginia., LVA
    Grayson's Calculations
  • Inman, Henry. John Marshall, Original Oil Painting. State Artwork Collection, Acquired in 1920. Library of Virginia., LVA
    John Marshall
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Forming a More Perfect Union:
Virginia and the Debate over the U.S. Constitution

In the years following the American Revolution, crises faced the new nation that threatened to endanger the hard-won independence of the former British colonies. They centered on the structure and operation of the new American government. Not officially adopted until March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation had numerous problems, which only became more evident as time passed under this system of government. The new government had little or no support from the states, which were anxious to maintain as much individual power as possible and, as a result, the Congress was limited in its abilities to raise funds, to regulate trade, and to conduct foreign policy.

Virginians played a critical role in the campaign for changes to the Articles of Confederation and were instrumental in shaping the document that replaced it, the United States Constitution. Recognizing the problems with the Articles of Confederation, Virginians called for a convention in September 1786 to be held in Annapolis, Maryland. James Madison planned to use the occasion to discuss not only commerce but also the larger failings of the Articles of Confederation. Madison's designs, however, were foiled by lack of participation, but before leaving Annapolis these men prepared a report for all the state legislatures detailing the need for another convention to address the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. They recommended that the state legislatures appoint deputies to meet in convention in Philadelphia the following May.

In the spring and summer of 1787, fifty-five delegates from twelve of the thirteen states met in Philadelphia. The convention was called for May 14, but it was not until May 25 that an adequate number of representatives arrived to make a quorum of seven states. The convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787, at the statehouse in Philadelphia (later renamed Independence Hall). Representing Virginia were John Blair, James Madison, George Mason, James McClurg, Edmund Randolph, George Washington, and George Wythe.

During the convention, Virginians provided key leadership and guidance. On the first day, the delegates unanimously elected Washington president of the convention. As a leader of the convention from its outset, James Madison also took detailed notes of the convention's proceedings, which have become the most thorough account of the debates and day-to-day deliberations of the convention. On May 29, 1787, the governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph presented a series of resolutions to the delegates of the Constitutional Convention. These resolutions became known as the Virginia Plan (or large state plan), and essentially outlined a new form of government. Elements of the subsequently proposed New Jersey Plan (or small state plan) were incorporated into the proposal that emerged from the Virginia Plan. The Virginia Plan ultimately provided the framework of what—after much debate, expansion, development, and compromise by the framers—became the Constitution of the United States.

For all of their leadership and contributions, factions and differences of opinion arose within the Virginia delegation. Of the seven Virginia representatives, only three signed the final document. In his refusal to sign, George Mason expressed his disapproval of the new Constitution for not including a bill of rights, a point that he continued to argue in the weeks after the convention concluded. Mason found so many serious problems with the Constitution that he vowed to defeat its ratification and advocated calling a new convention to revise the proposed Constitution. Governor Randolph also refused to sign the Constitution, and James McClurg and George Wythe left Philadelphia before the convention adjourned.

Once the text was approved on September 17, 1787, the Constitution could not be put into effect until nine of the thirteen states agreed to its ratification. Each of the thirteen states held ratifying conventions at different times in order to determine whether this Constitution should be adopted. By the summer of 1788, eight states had approved the new system of government and, of the remaining five, North Carolina and Rhode Island were not going to ratify. This left the fate of the new government up to Virginia, New York, or New Hampshire. In this way, both Virginia and New York, because of their size, population, and economic significance, held the keys to the success or failure of the new form of government.

When the 168 delegates to the Virginia Convention of 1788 arrived in Richmond in June, the future of the Constitution was in doubt. The Federalists (supporters of ratification) and the Anti-Federalists (opponents of the Constitution) were almost evenly split, and the debate promised to be intense. The delegates included some of the nation's leading political thinkers, and they clearly understood the importance of the situation as they gathered in the State Capitol to debate the merits of the Constitution for more than three weeks.

The Virginia convention ratified the U.S. Constitution on June 25, 1788, by a vote of 89 to 79. Alexander Hamilton, a leading Federalist in New York, had requested James Madison to have a message sent from Richmond to the New York convention in Poughkeepsie by express rider in order to inform the New York convention, which was meeting at the same time, of Virginia's decision. Members of both parties in New York anxiously awaited the news. When the message arrived on July 2, 1788, it helped to convince Anti-Federalist leaders that New York must ratify, which was done on July 26, 1788.

Virginia and New York became the tenth and eleventh states, respectively, to ratify the U.S. Constitution, giving the new nation the strength it needed to recover from the debts of the Revolutionary War and to prepare for future events. The later addition of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution eased the concerns of many of the Anti-Federalists because it guaranteed individual rights.

For Educators

"'We, the People v. We, the States': The Virginia Ratifying Convention"

Virginia Standards of Learning: USI.7 (a, b), CE.6 (a-d), VUS.1 (h), VUS.5 (a, b, d)
National History Standards: 3A (9–12)

Download the lesson plan: Pdf (466 KB) Word (168 KB) Power Point (2 MB)

'We, the People v. We, the States' - High School Script

Download the lesson plan: Word (233 KB)

'We, the People v. We, the States' - Middle School Script

Download the lesson plan: Word (221 KB)

"Meet the Past - Debating Ratification in Virginia"

Virginia Standards of Learning: USI.7 (a, b), CE.6 (a-d), VUS.1 (h), VUS.5 (a, b, d)

National History Standards: 3A (9–12)

Download the lesson plan: Pdf (215 KB) Word (126 KB)

"Taking Sides—Washington, Mason, Madison, and the United States Constitution"

Virginia Standards of Learning: USI.7 (a, b), VUS.1 (h), VUS.5 (a, b, d)
National History Standards: 3A (9–12)

Download the lesson plan: Pdf (151 KB) Word (131 KB)

People Featured in This Unit:

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  • William Grayson (1736–1790)
  • Patrick Henry (1736–1799)
  • Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
  • James Madison (1751–1836)
  • George Mason (1725–1792)
  • George Nicholas (ca. 1754–1799)
  • Edmund Randolph (1753–1813)
  • Adam Stephen (ca. 1721–1791)
  • George Washington (1732–1799)
  • George Wythe (ca. 1726–1806)
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