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Ratification of the US Constitution: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the key concepts related to the ratification of the Constitution. 
The US Constitution emerged from the debate about weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and was the product of important compromises over issues of representation and the power of the federal government.
Although the Constitution was eventually ratified, debates over the role of the central government, the powers of state governments, and the rights of individuals remain at the heart of present-day constitutional issues.

Key terms

amendmentA change to the United States Constitution.
Article VThe section of the Constitution that details how to amend the Constitution, either through a congressional proposal or a convention of the states, with final ratification from three-fourths of the states.
Great CompromiseAlso known as the Connecticut Compromise, a major compromise at the Constitutional Convention that created a two-house legislature, with the Senate having equal representation for all states and the House of Representatives having representation proportional to state populations.
Electoral CollegeA body of representatives from every state in the United States who formally cast votes to elect the president and vice president.
Three-Fifths CompromiseAn agreement added to the Constitution that would count each enslaved person as three-fifths of a white person for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives.

Key documents to know

US Constitution (1787) — The fundamental laws and principles that govern the United States. The document was the result of several compromises between Federalists and Anti-Federalists surrounding the ratification of the Constitution.

The amendment process

Amendment process diagram

Important takeaways

Compromises at the Constitutional Convention: When the Articles of Confederation proved to be an ineffective form of government for the United States, delegates from 12 of the 13 states met in Philadelphia. To get the Constitution ratified by all 13 states, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had to reach several compromises.
The three major compromises were the Great Compromise, the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the Electoral College. The Great Compromise settled matters of representation in the federal government. The Three-Fifths Compromise settled matters of representation when it came to the enslaved population of southern states and the importation of enslaved Africans. The Electoral College settled how the president would be elected.
Matters unresolved in the Constitution today: Although these compromises secured ratification of the Constitution, they also left some matters unresolved.
For example, the Great Compromise satisfied both small and large states, but there are questions today about whether the Senate's representation should be based on population, as in the House of Representatives. Differences in population growth have brought into question whether two senators per state is fair to states with large populations.
The Electoral College system has also led to controversy. In both the election of 2000 and the election of 2016, one candidate won the popular vote, but the other candidate won the Electoral College and therefore the presidency. Critics charge that in this system, a small group of representatives decides the presidency, rather than the entire population of the United States, and that states with smaller populations have a disproportionate say in who becomes president.
Constitutional debates that exist today: Even today, some of the issues at the heart of the debates at the Constitutional Convention still exist. Some of these questions include: How strong should the federal government be? What powers do the states have? 3) Which individual rights are protected? These debates surface in issues like the federal government’s surveillance of US citizens following the attacks on September 11th and the role of the federal government in public school education.

Review questions

How did the compromises necessary to secure ratification resolve issues in the Articles of Confederation?
How did Article V of the Constitution resolve a weakness of the Articles of Confederation?

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user HavenM
    How is it that Thomas Jefferson could write that all men are created equal, yet he could still buy and sell human beings? I understand that in Virginia at the time, it wasn't an common occurrence, yet wasn't he afraid of being seen as being hypocritical in the eyes of history? I mean, the authors of the Constitution didn't even use the word slavery, wasn't he embarrassed as well?
    (20 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      Thomas Jefferson was in severe debt for much of his life. While it is by no means excusable, I think that Jefferson kept slaves because of their economic benefit, as slaves really were an important asset in those days. Perhaps he had good ideals, but viewed them as more of a long-term change once the US was more self-sufficient and independent. Or maybe he simply lacked the strength to follow through and really reduce his comfort. Jefferson may have worried about seeming hypocritical, but this may not have been as important to him as his current issues. Publicly, Jefferson was undoubtedly a critic of slavery. In fact, in his first rough draft of the Declaration, Jefferson had a section explicitly calling out the horrors of slavery. But this and some other parts were probably cut out to please some of the Southern states that at this point, slavery was super entrenched in. In fact, even the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was too much for some states, as seen in several early state Constitutions, where they adopted the iconic phrase but instead said all free men were created equal instead of all men.
      (24 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user mouhamadoud7946
    What effect does the Three Fifths Compromise have on the ratification of the US.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user AndrewWei10000
    The compromises necessary rectified issues in the Articles of Confederation. The great compromise balanced the power between larger states and smaller states, and Article V allowed for amendments in the Constitution with just approval from three-fourth of the states.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sam.joh823
    Why are the compromises that were necessary to secure ratification of the Constitution still debated today?
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user Audrey Koster
      To get all 13 states to ratify the constitution they had to make compromises to get everyone to agree.I think the debates that are going on now are based on the argument that since the compromises were made to make people agree, not because they were necessarily right or what the Framers originally had in mind, can't we then just get rid of them/change them?
      Hope that helps:)
      (3 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user 789 Gingersnap
    How did the ratification of the Constitution change the way the federal government worked and how much power the federal government had? I know it affected the sovereignty of the individual states, but I can't really see any examples of that in effect.
    (1 vote)
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  • sneak peak yellow style avatar for user SirZatchary
    What pressures lead to the need for the compromises?
    (0 votes)
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    • female robot ada style avatar for user Angelica Chen
      Everybody of course wanted the best for their own state, so it was hard to get two opponents to make a deal. They all wanted the most power and representation, so they argued about ways they could get it. This is why compromises like our two-house legislative branch and the electoral college came along.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user rajaalocklayer
    How did state rights affect the ratification debate?
    (0 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mary Garcia
    how is the ratification a compromise?
    (0 votes)
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