University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Confederation Congress and the Constitution

According to the 21 February 1787 resolution of Congress the Philadelphia Convention was simply to report its recommendations to Congress. Congress, which was meeting in New York City, received the new Constitution, a letter from the Convention’s President George Washington, and a recommendation for the procedures for ratification of the Constitution. The recommendation for ratification suggested that the Constitution be transmitted to the states for their approval by state conventions. 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 of the debates that occurred in Congress. The official printed journals of Congress indicate little of the maneuverings on 26-28 September within Congress as they 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 the congressional transmittal. Federalists wanted to send the Constitution to the states with congressional approbation. Antifederalists wanted to add amendments before the transmission. 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. Being astute politicians, Federalist delegates to Congress included the word “unanimously” in transmitting the Constitution to the states, thus giving the impression of congressional approbation.

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