As the Revolutionary War with the British waged on the Second Continental Congress knew that they needed to create some form of rule to govern the 13 colonies. In 1777, they established the Articles of Confederation which were ratified in 1781 and used to govern the new nation until 1787.
By the time the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the Second Continental Congress began to realize that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient to rule the newly won nation. Among the problems with the ruling document was that Congress had no power to raise money or to enforce any of its decisions, it did not provide for any type of executive leadership and did not sufficiently provide for solutions of the many interstate conflicts that were arising.
James Madison, a member of the Virginia Lower House and former student Rev. John Witherspoon, urged that the newly formed states meet to discuss ways to fix and repair the Articles of Confederation. In January 1786, the Virginia Legislature sent invitations to the other 12 states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland to hammer out these issues. The Annapolis Convention was poorly attended and called for a Grand Convention to meet in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787.
On May 14, 1787, the Constitutional Convention met at Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia and elected General George Washington as the Convention President. It soon became clear that it would take too much work to try to amend the Articles of Confederation and that it would be necessary to create a new governing document.
However, over the course of the next few weeks, little progress was made towards that singular goal. The smaller states didn’t want the large states to have more power than they did and the northern and southern states had their differences of opinions on a number of issues including slavery. There was also a great deal of disagreement on what type of government they should adopt. Various “Plans” were put forth including the Virginia Plan (also known and the Large State Plan), the New Jersey Plan (also known as the Small State Plan), the Charles Pinckney Plan, the Hamilton Plan and the Connecticut Compromise.
Tempers often flared in the heat of early summer. Towards the end of June, the Constitutional Convention was on the verge of disbanding without accomplishing anything towards forming a new governing document. At this time, the delegate considered to be the most deist of all of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, asked the Convention President, George Washington for the floor to address his fellow delegates. Upon being granted permission, Franklin gave the following speech:
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own wont of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
In this situation of this Assembly groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance.
I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that ‘except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.”
When the venerable Dr. Franklin finished his address, the room was silent for several moments. Then the resolution for prayer was unanimously approved and the entire atmosphere of the Convention was changed. Every session from then on was opened with prayer.
The delegates started to listen to each other’s concerns and over the next two and half months, they were finally able to agree on a form of government that addressed most of their concerns. On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States of America was adopted and sent to the states for ratification. The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, even though North Carolina and Rhode Island were still holding back. Today, this is the oldest active constitution in the world.
Even though the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, it wasn’t until this day, March 4, 1789, that Congress formally met under the new Constitution for the very first time. It was also the first day that the US Constitution went into effect as the rule of government.
The first meeting of Congress took place in New York City, however, too few members showed up. With only 11 states having ratified the Constitution at this time, Congress consisted of 22 Senators and 59 Representatives but only 9 Senators and 13 Representatives were present. Those few members that were present began to consider and debate a number of proposed amendments, but lacking a quorum, they were unable to vote on them.
Incidentally, it was also the first and only time that Congress met without a President of the United States as George Washington wasn’t inaugurated until April 30, 1789. Additionally, Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790.
Sources for the above include: The Christian Pathway to the Constitution of the United States; CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; Government under the U.S. Constitution begins; The Constitution; THE U.S. CONSTITUTION; Fascinating Facts about the U.S. Constitution; The Opening of the First Congress in New York City