Chapter 8. Confederation and Constitution

Thirteen states

Thirteen colonies governed by the British joined together to fight for their freedom, and allied with the French and various Indian nations, some giving more in the effort, and some less. In 1781, these states ratified Articles of Confederation to create a loose confederation of sovereign states operating alongside a weak central government. That central government lacked strong legislative, judicial, and executive powers. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 found they could not revise the Articles of Confederation; instead, they threw them out and developed a new constitution, which was ratified in 1790.

Rhode Island sat it out

Rhode Island did not send delegates to participate in writing the constitution in 1787 because it didn’t want a stronger federal government, and it was the last state, in 1790, to ratify it. Until the first ten amendments, the “Bill of Rights,” were ratified, the constitution didn’t protect religious freedom, etcetera.


Large states wanted representation to be proportional to population; small states wanted each state to have an equal representation. The compromise was to divide the legislature. Representation in the House would be proportional; representation in the Senate would be equal. Southern states wanted to count enslaved people for representation. Northern states didn’t want to count them at all. The compromise was that a slave was counted as three-fifths of a person. Northern states thought the trade if enslaved people should be prohibited, and that the export of goods made by slaves should be taxed. The compromise was not to tax any export from a state, and to prohibit any measure that would ban slavery for 21 years.

Bill of Rights

Opponents of signing of the original constitution proposed adding to it a bill of rights, but this motion was rejected. Those who feared that the federal government would become despotic criticized the constitution because it did not protect individual or state rights. Some who opposed adding a bill of rights claimed that the constitution did not deny any right, and the government was not like the British monarchy, but had only powers that were explicitly granted to it. Massachusetts and Rhode Island ratified the constitution only with the promise that a bill of rights be added to it. The first congress took up the task and approved the first ten amendments to the constitution which were ratified by the states in 1791.