If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Constitutional Convention

The United States government structure, with its Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, was established after the failure of the Articles of Confederation. The Great Compromise balanced representation for large and small states, leading to the creation of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Notable figures like George Washington and James Madison played key roles in this process.

Want to join the conversation?

  • primosaur seedling style avatar for user alehowlin2021
    Were any other prominent political leaders (such as Sam Adams, or Alexander Hamilton) present at the Constitutional Convention?
    (12 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Alan Vitale
      There were several key Founding Fathers present during the Constitutional Convention during the hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. Perhaps the most important figure was tiny James Madison who most world scholars consider to be the father of the modern Constitution. His meticulous planning included researching his opponents and allies from all 13 states and counting their potential votes in gauging how far they could go to create a new strong nationalist government to replace the weakened Articles of Confederation "AOC".
      That something needed to be done was obvious to most. The AOC could not initially muster even the minimum quorum (7 states) necessary to accept George Washington's resignation as general of the Continental Army or even approve the generous terms offered by the British in the Treaty of Paris II (1783). Shockingly, the United States was almost unable to get the minimum number of states to approve the Treaty ending the Revolutionary War.
      The growing failures of the AOC included losing major battles to the Natives in the Ohio River Valley (a conflict which consumed 5/6's of the entire AOC budget), losing control of Vermont to British influence, losing influence in Louisiana and Mississippi to the Spanish, and not being able to keep the peace between the states over trade disputes.

      These problems brought George Washington out of his beloved retirement, but only after being personally lobbied by fellow Virginians James Madison and Edmund Randolph. He was reluctant to put his personal credibility on the line should they lose out. Other key players included Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania, (in poor health and with some nutty ideas like having a committee to serve as president, he would die a short time later) Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris of NY, and the undervalued but important Pinckney of South Carolina.
      The only 2 notable Founding Fathers who were not there were 1) the irritating John Adams who was serving as Ambassador to the British Crown (thanks in part to his legal defense of British soldiers during the Boston Massacre) and 2) Thomas Jefferson who was serving as the ambassador to the French following the death of his beloved wife.

      The Anti-Federalist wing was sitting it out, perhaps because they correctly "smelled a rat" according to Patrick Henry of Virginia. Samuel Adams of Massachusetts and other pro-state opponents also ignored the Convention, perhaps reasoning they could easily oppose it from their vantage point in the state legislatures which would eventually have to approve any such Constitution. If that was their hope, they were outwitted by Madison and company who wound up swaying the states to his side by promising a Bill of Rights. The rest is history!
      (46 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user musicalgrace7
    Is this system of the Great Compromise still used today? If not, when did it change?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      From the author:Yes, it is! The legislative branch of government is still the Senate (with two senators per state) and the House of Representatives (with representatives based on state population). The only thing that's slightly different is how representatives are apportioned and chosen. After the Civil War, the Three-Fifths Compromise ended, and African American citizens were counted the same as white citizens in state populations. Then, in the early twentieth century, the US government decided to cap the number of people in the House of Representatives at 435, so that instead of adding a representative for every 30,000 residents, the proportion of those 435 representatives allotted to each state would be adjusted after each census. Lastly, in the early twentieth century Senators started being directly elected rather than appointed by state legislatures.
      (30 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Alice Daniels
    I don't know whether or not anyone can answer this question, but was Alexander Hamilton at the constitutional convention?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Hamilton served as one of New York's delegates to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, and proposed that senators and the executive serve for life, and that the executive have an absolute veto. Although his proposals were not fully adopted, Hamilton passionately campaigned for the Constitution.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user spansell maxwell
    Why did George Washington come out of retirement if he loved it so much?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user JakeB
    how did farmers come together
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user StevaNatalie
    How did James madisons friendship with Thomas jefferson play a role into American politics
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Jayden Wu
      Well, this is what I learned. Madison and Jeffereson both hate HAMILTON! They tried to overthrow the treasury, overthrow Hamilton, overthrow the national bank and overthrow Hamilton's financial plans. But, the Compromise of 1970 changed things. The Compromise of 1790 was a compromise among Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, where Hamilton won the decision for the national government to take over and pay the state debts, and Jefferson and Madison obtained the national capital, called the District of Columbia, for the South.
      (4 votes)
  • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Nick Winters
    But how did the great compromise help smaller states? If any law still has to pass through the lower house, doesn't it make it useless?
    For example, if 60000 people of Delaware had a legitimate concern, which bigger states do not share, bigger states still could just vote against it when it arrives at the lower house. What am I missing?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • sneak peak yellow style avatar for user William Wang
      The Great Compromise helps distribute power between larger states and smaller states.

      The House of Representatives represents a state population, giving bigger states more power.

      The Senate represents each state equally, which gives more power to smaller states.

      Because most laws require a simple majority, the House of Representatives could more easily influence the vote because bigger states have more voting power. However, small states have a great amount of power in the Senate because they are equal in their number of votes alongside bigger states. If enough 'big states' vote in support of a bill, that bill may pass in the House of Representatives but not pass in the Senate because states might reject it and prevent a simple majority from voting in favor of it.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user weirda64
    George Washington enjoyed his retirement, how come he came out of retirement? Did he not enjoy it as much as he did working?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      That's a wonderful question. Being retired myself (and enjoying it), I can think of three things. 1) Maybe after leading a large organization, like the Army, he felt that life back on the farm was a trifle boring. 2) Maybe, looking around at the other guys who might be chosen to be the first president, he figured that he could do a better job, and volunteered. 3) Maybe someone really persuasive talked him into it.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user esmiebermudez2000
    when the delegates spoke about what should have happened with the articles and gov. type they would end up having , was it a unanimous vote or were certain states angry at what came out of the convention? if so what states?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Brendan Torres
    Why did they combine the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan? It still doesn't make sense to me.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user beeemkcl
      It was largely about the need for smaller States to approve of The Constitution. Represenation wasn't fair given how populous and powerful a State like Virginia was compared to the smaller States.

      But the Bill of Rights might not have happened if approval of the smaller States wasn't as needed.
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

- [Instructor] In the United States today, we know our system of government so well that it hardly bears thinking about. We know that there's a president who's the head of the Executive Branch, there's Congress, which is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and there's the judicial branch, which has the Supreme Court as its head of a whole court system that stretches throughout the United States. But how did the United States end up with this system? We frequently forget that the Constitutional Convention which created this system we know today happened in 1787. That was more than a decade after the Declaration of Independence. So there was this 11-year plus period before the United States had its modern day constitution and during that time, fought the Revolutionary War, won in 1783, and tried out a completely different system of government called the Articles of Confederation, which we talked a little bit more about in another video. Now the Articles of Confederation had a very strong sense of limited government. In fact, you could think of the Articles of Confederation as being a little bit more like a loose confederation of states, where each state had one vote in the legislative branch, the branch that makes laws, and they had to really agree on most things, nine out of 13 for most legislation and unanimous agreement for any kind of amendments to this system. And I think it's clear why the founders first went with this system of limited government because they had just revolted against a monarchy. They thought of the states as being in what they call just kind of a league of friendship, can almost see it as being similar to the European Union today, independent nations who do some things together for foreign policy reasons and economic reasons. Now by the late 1780s, it was becoming clear that the Articles of Confederation were not working. With such a weak central government, it was really hard to get things done. They couldn't raise taxes. They couldn't raise a military. Some states were even putting taxes on the goods of other states. So in 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states, Rhode Island did not participate because Rhode Island was not a big fan of central government, came together in Philadelphia, in the same place where they had signed the Declaration of Independence, to think about how to revise the Articles of Confederation. And some very notable figures were there. George Washington is one of them. See Ben Franklin over here, and James Madison. Although some people that you might have expected to be at the Constitutional Convention were not, namely, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who were out of the country being diplomats at the time. So the delegates at the Constitutional Convention have a pretty difficult problem to solve. They want to have a stronger central government, one that can get things done, make sure the states play well together, raise armies, raise taxes, but they don't want a central government that is too strong because they just escaped from monarchy. They don't wanna recreate monarchy in the United States. So they're looking for a very delicate balance of a government strong enough to get things done but not so strong as to promote tyranny. Now even though the delegates were supposed to be revising the Articles of Confederation, some people had, in secret, been considering completely throwing out the Articles of Confederation and starting anew. But one of the biggest hurdles they had to solve was what would a new sort of legislature look like. So the Virginia delegates suggested a plan for the legislature, it's the law-making body, that would be bicameral, means two room or two house from bi, meaning two, and camera, Latin for room. And their idea was that there would be a lower house, similar to the House of Commons in English Parliament, that would be directly elected as individuals would vote for the representatives but the number of representatives that each state would get would be decided by their population. Now Virginia was the largest state by population by far and so, this plan would have worked out pretty well for them because they would have gotten the largest proportion of representatives. Small states like Delaware, and Georgia, Rhode Island, would have very few representatives indeed, comparatively. They also wanted to have an upper house, similar to the House of Lords in the British Parliament, which would be appointed by state legislatures. But just like the lower house, the number representatives would also be determined by population. Now as you can imagine, the small sates were not big fans of having representation based just on population, so they came back with a different plan. This was called the New Jersey Plan. So the little states said, "All right, the Virginia Plan "gives way too much power to the big states. "We want an equal voice in legislation." So the New Jersey Plan, much like the Articles of Confederation, gave one vote to each of the states so that the small states would have the same representation in Congress as the large states and their plan was for a single chamber or unicameral legislature. So this really wasn't much different from the Articles of Confederation at all. So how did the delegates resolve this issue of how to balance the voices of large states with large populations with small states that had small populations? Because in a situation where all states have an equal number of votes, like in the New Jersey Plan, the 60,000 residents of Delaware could have as much say as the almost 700,000 residents of Virginia. Meaning that the people who live in Delaware were in fact more powerful. But at the same time, you wouldn't want it so that people living in the larger states could get their way all the time. What if the people in Delaware had a very legitimate concern that those in Virginia didn't share? It would be impossible to get all of these states to agree, to amend, or replace the Articles of Confederation if some of them felt like their interests aren't being taken into account at all. So to solve this issue of how to weight the representation of the states, the delegates came up with what's called the Great Compromise or sometimes the Connecticut Compromise. And in a way, what they did was combine these two plans. They made a legislative branch that was bicameral, two house, with a lower and an upper house and this lower house become the House of Representatives, where each state would have representatives in proportion to their population. So states that have large populations have more representatives. States with small populations have fewer representatives. And those representatives would be directly elected by the people. Now, and this time, the people was a fairly small proportion to vote in 1790s. You had to be a white man with fairly significant property, so it wasn't full suffrage. It wasn't event full suffrage for white men, but these folks were elected by vote. And then this upper house would be the Senate. And in the Senate, each state would have two senators, regardless of their size, so that as legislation moved through Congress, first from the lower house, where it would be approved and if approved, sent to the upper house, there, all states would have an equal voice in whether legislation was passed. And in this upper house, the senators would not be directly elected but rather appointed by state legislatures. And in fact, senators were appointed into the 20th century. Now the Great Compromise wasn't the only compromise made at the Constitutional Convention. They made a number more and we'll talk more about those and about the other two branches of the government in the next video.