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The state legislatures decided who would write the Constitution. They, in consultation with their governors, chose the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, in the same way they had selected representatives to the Second Continental Congress, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and other interstate conferences.

Although James Madison was credited with being the author of the Constitution, he rejected the honor, saying that the document was "not like the fabled goddess of wisdom the offspring of a single brain [but] ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands." Madison himself credited Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania for "the finish given to the style and arrangement." And, indeed, the Preamble – "We the People of the United States . . ." – is Morris's doing.

Madison's name is so closely connected with the Constitution because of a set of resolutions he drafted, later called collectively the Virginia Plan. (It was only after his death and the publication of the journal he kept during the Constitutional Convention that Madison became known as the "Father of the Constitution.") The resolutions were offered by Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia and spokesman for its delegation, when the Convention began the actual business of revising the Articles of Confederation on May 29, 1787. These resolutions, which called for a completely new form of government, formed the basis of the Convention's deliberations and, ultimately, of the Constitution itself.

Madison's resolutions were a major departure from the structure of the Articles of Confederation. They called for the creation of a national government having legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The Articles had only created a Congress, which itself could create some executive departments and quasi-judicial bodies with drastically limited jurisdiction. Madison's national legislature would have two branches, the first to be elected by the people, the second to be elected by the first from nominees chosen by state legislatures. A state's representation in each chamber was to be based on its population. The national body would have power to legislate in all areas in which the individual states would not be competent and in which national uniformity was necessary. The national judiciary would include at least one supreme tribunal. It and the national executive would be chosen by the national legislature. The executive and some members of the national judiciary would constitute a council of revision, with an unconditional veto power over all legislation

Although the Virginia Plan was the focus of the debates at the Constitutional Convention, it was not the only plan offered. In response to the bias in favor of large states inherent in that plan, most notably in the Virginia Plan's provision that both houses of the legislature be apportioned among the states on the basis of the population, William Paterson of New Jersey acted as spokesman for the small states in offering a series of proposals later known as the New Jersey Plan. The critical difference between the two plans was that the New Jersey Plan preserved the form of representation of the Articles of Confederation – that is to say, each state, no matter how large or small, would receive an equal vote in each house of the national legislature. The dispute over representation dragged on for weeks. Although the Convention rejected the New Jersey Plan on June 19, the Convention did not find a way out of the representation dilemma until July 16, when it adopted the Great (or Connecticut) Compromise. This compromise, in which the delegates from Connecticut played the role of brokers and conciliators, provided that the lower house be apportioned on the basis of population and direct taxation, although slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of free persons for both purposes, and that each state would have equal representation in the upper house.

Two other delegates offered their own plans. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina offered his on the same day that Randolph presented the Virginia Plan; although the original version has disappeared, historians who have managed to reconstruct it from the notes of other delegates have shown that it resembled the original Virginia Plan in most respects. In the midst of the debate over the Virginia and New Jersey Plans, Alexander Hamilton of New York offered a proposal for a truly consolidated national government. His plan would have reduce the states to mere administrative districts, created a bicameral legislature in which the members of the upper house would serve "during good behavior" (this meant for life unless removed by impeachment), and provided for an executive who would also serve during good behavior. Hamilton's plan, offered in a six-hour speech delivered on June 18, the day before the New Jersey Plan was rejected, was never seriously considered by the Convention.

During the deliberations, the various resolutions, proposals, and drafts were referred to committees for recasting. Each revised and rewritten draft then formed the basis for the next stage of the Convention's discussions. The committees considered not only formally adopted resolutions but also individual delegates' memoranda as well as informal drafts. All the proposals served as raw material from which the committees prepared the next draft for general discussion.

After more than three months, the Convention, on September 8, created a Committee of Style and Arrangement and appointed to it Madison, Morris, Hamilton, Dr. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, and Rufus King of Massachusetts. In five days, the committee produced a nearly final draft almost identical to the text of the Constitution that was subsequently approved.

With the assistance of the other members of the committee, Morris completely reorganized and rephrased the previous drafts, giving the wording of the Constitution terse dignity and power, especially in the Preamble. His choice of certain phrases was made in a conscious effort to emphasize two major points: that it was the people of the United States, not the states, who were creating the Constitution and empowering the new government, and that the focus of the Constitution was on the centralization of power in a national government. For example, in previous versions the preamble merely listed the states constituting the United States without setting forth purposes and goals. Rather than listing them by name, Morris's Preamble begins, "We the People of the United States." Morris hoped that such a turn of phrase would protect the new government from embarrassment if a state chose not to ratify the Constitution. But those who have studied the Convention's work – and, indeed, Morris, Madison, and James Wilson themselves – also knew that those opening words underscored the nationalist thrust of the Constitution, that the new government would not be another mere confederation of states.

Perhaps the one person who was most critical to the Convention's achievement was Washington. He emerged out of formal retirement from public life to serve as a member of the Virginia delegation, persuaded to do so despite personal doubts about the chances for the Convention's success. His services as commander in chief of the Continental Army had convinced him of the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and had prompted his frequent appeals to give the Confederation Congress more power. Keenly aware of his national prestige, Washington shrewdly used his influence to promote his conception of the national interest. Though he gave only one brief speech during the four months of the Convention, his presence alone was assurance that many Americans would find the Constitution palatable. On top of that, he was unanimously elected president of the Convention, at the suggestion of Franklin, his only likely rival. His acceptance of the office, his endorsement of the Constitution, and his signing of that document and the Convention's letter transmitting the Constitution to the Confederation Congress were essential contributions to the ultimate success of the ratification campaign. Furthermore, Washington's silent dignity and reserve in presiding over the Convention's deliberations helped to preserve the delegates' sense of the seriousness of their task and to hold the Convention together.

One final note: The man who actually penned the original copy of the Constitution – now on display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. – was Jacob Shallus, a Pennsylvanian who was assistant clerk to that state's legislature, which met in Philadelphia in the building now known as Independence Hall. He was paid the equivalent of thirty dollars for the job.

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