The Confederation Congress and the Constitution

According to the 21 February 1787 resolution of the Confederation Congress, the Constitutional Convention was to report its recommendations to Congress. Congress, which was meeting in New York City, received the new Constitution, a letter from Convention President George Washington, and a resolution recommending the procedure for ratifying the Constitution. The resolution (and Article VII of the Constitution) suggested that the Constitution be transmitted to the states for their approval by state conventions. When nine states ratified, the Constitution was to go into effect among the ratifying states.

In Congress, however, some delegates wanted to make alterations before sending the Constitution to the states. Because Congress met in secret, Melancton Smith’s notes are the best source of information on the debates that occurred in Congress. The official printed journals of Congress indicate little of the maneuverings on 26-28 September as Congress considered the Constitution. On 27 September, Richard Henry Lee offered extensive amendments to the Constitution, including a bill of rights. Abraham Clark noted that to enter Lee’s proposal “will do injury by coming on the Journal.”

A key issue was the nature of Congress’ transmittal. Federalists wanted to send the Constitution to the states with congressional approbation. Antifederalists wanted to add amendments before sending the new plan of government to the states. A compromise was brokered. The Constitution would be sent to the states without approbation and any record of opposition within Congress would be deleted from the official record. Astute politicians, Federalist delegates to Congress included the words “Resolved unanimously” in the transmittal resolution. This gave the impression of congressional approbation. In reality, Congress had unanimously agreed only to send the Constitution to the states.

For a detailed account of the events of the week that Congress discussed the Constitution, see The Confederation Congress and the Constitution.