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Digital History ID 3239

 

In late July 1787, a five member Committee of Detail was given the task of arranging and organizing the Constitution and choosing its wording. The members of the committee were James Wilson from Pennsylvania; John Rutledge of South Carolina, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia.

The committee decided that the Constitution would contain "essential principles only; lest the operations of government should be clogged by rendering those provisions permanent and unalterable which ought to be accommodated to times and events." The members vowed to use "simple and precise language" and "general propositions" rather than intricate detail.

The committee first prepared an outline, consolidating the convention's decisions by category: the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. It gave the names to the institutions of government: the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the President of the United States. It listed the powers of each branch and qualifications for office.

The committee enumerated 18 powers for Congress, from the power to tax to the power to regulate commerce and make war. The 18th power, known as the "elastic clause," gave Congress the authority "to make all laws that shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States." The committee members also included a "supremacy clause," which made federal law supreme to "anything in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."

When the committee had completed its assignment, the Convention reopened debate, and made dozens of changes throughout the draft Constitution.

  • To decrease presidential power, the convention reduced the vote required to override a presidential veto from three-fourths of each house to two-thirds;
  • To make it easier to remove a corrupt president, the convention expanded the grounds of impeachment, adding high crimes and misdemeanors to treason and bribery, which had been approved earlier;
  • A provision requiring Congress to call a constitutional convention on the application of two-thirds of the states was added.

The power to appoint judges and ambassadors and to negotiate treaties with foreign powers was in the hands of the Senate until the last weeks of the convention. Then the convention decided that the president would nominate judges and ambassadors and the Senate would have to confirm them. The executive branch would negotiate treaties, with the advice and consent of the Senate.

In an effort to generate support for the new plan of government, Benjamin Franklin said:

I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve.... [But] the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.... I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.

Although a number of individual delegates refused to sign the Constitution, all the state delegations voted for the final draft.

While they were signing, Franklin commented about the chair on the days in which the Convention president had sat. Franklin said he had been studying the chair, which had a sun painted on the headrest. He had often looked at the sun ""without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

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