Delegates of the Continental and Confederation Congresses Who Signed the United States Constitution
One of the legacies of the Continental and Confederation Congresses was the convening of the Federal Convention of 1787. Six years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, which established the first national government, a majority of Delegates to Congress agreed that the Articles needed significant revisions. On February 21, 1787, the Congress resolved that “a convention of delegates . . . appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”1
The Articles’ failure to empower the central government to carry out essential functions was their primary weakness. The Articles protected the sovereignty of the states at the expense of the central government, which lacked the power to raise revenue or conduct diplomatic relations. The central government also could not manage the western territories in an effective manner. After the Continental Congress decided to act on the problem, 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island abstained) chose 70 delegates to represent them at the Federal Convention. Out of those appointees, only 55 attended. Forty of the 55 attendees had served in the Continental and/or Confederation Congresses at some point in their careers.2
When the delegates of the Federal Convention met in the Pennsylvania state house (now Independence Hall) in May 1787, Edmund Randolph of Virginia offered the most comprehensive plan, essentially bypassing revisions and suggesting an entirely new government. The “Virginia Plan” had been drafted by fellow delegate, James Madison. While some believed the Articles should be “corrected and enlarged as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution,” the Virginia Plan called for completely replacing it with a strong central government based on popular consent and proportional representation.3 Its distinguishing features included a bicameral legislature, a separate executive, and judiciary branch with a national jurisdiction.
The Virginia Plan received support from states with large populations such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. A number of smaller states, however, proposed the “New Jersey Plan,” drafted by William Paterson, which retained the essential features of the original Articles: a unicameral legislature where all states had equal representation, the appointment of a plural executive, and a supreme court of limited jurisdiction. The convention debated these competing proposals from May to July 1787, before turning over plans to a Grand Committee to hash out an agreement. The committee’s report, dubbed the Great Compromise, ironed out many contentious points. It resolved the delegates’ sharpest disagreement by prescribing a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the House and equal state representation in the Senate. After two more months of intense debates and revisions, the delegates produced the document we now know as the Constitution, which expanded the power of the central government while protecting the prerogatives of the states.4 A total of 39 delegates signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787.5
Not all of the delegates agreed with the final product. Some expressed reservations but signed the Constitution, anticipating vigorous debates within their states. Three delegates, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, George Mason of Virginia, and Randolph, did not sign it at all. Critics who shared the views of these delegates preferred the decentralized nature of the Articles of Confederation as a check on the power of the central government. Dubbed "Anti-Federalists" by their opponents, Americans would debate the benefits of a new Constitution for the next ten months.6 By June 1788, the requisite 9 states had ratified the Constitution as the law of the land, and the Confederation Congress announced that the new government would begin in March 1789.
Listed below are the 34 Continental and Confederation Congress Delegates who signed the United States Constitution. The state listings reflect the states they represented during the Federal Convention:
1Roscoe R. Hill, ed. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789: Volume XXXII. 1787 January 17–July 20 (Washington: GPO, 1936): 74: http://memory.loc.gov (accessed 27 August 2014).
2Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979): 333–359; Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982): 620–621.
3Clinton J. Rossiter, 1787: The Grand Convention (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966): 361.
4Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789: 629–640; Rossiter, 1787, The Grand Convention: 169–171, 185–196.
5The five signatories who signed the Constitution but did not serve in the Continental or Confederation Congresses are Richard Bassett of Delaware, John Blair of Virginia, David Brearley of New Jersey, Jacob Broom of Delaware, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina. For a complete list of signatories, see "The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription," www.archives.gov (accessed 23 June 2014).
6Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789: 648; Jackson Turner Main, The Anti-Federalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781–1788 (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964): ix-xiii; Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, rev. ed. (1911; repr., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 2: 648–649. A member of Virginia's General Assembly, George Mason did not serve in the Continental or Confederation Congresses at any point during his political career.