GW: Life & Times

Slide 7 — Sweating it Out in Philadelphia: Creating a New Government

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Independence Hall (from a map of Philadelphia). Engraved by William Faden, London, England, 1777. Gilder Lehrman Collection 2118.

Long before the Revolutionary War was over, the members of the Continental Congress were already planning for the new "American" government.

The Articles of Confederation that they designed, however, proved ineffective in the 1780s. Fearful of repeating the dangers of a monarchy, the federal government was deliberately devoid of the power to tax. Furthermore, there was no executive branch and no national army. Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts in late 1786 and early 1787 confirmed what many saw as the need for a stronger federal government. That summer, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles. Instead, they hammered out a radically new system.

Washington was in the city from the beginning of May until September 18th, when the final document was sent to Congress. Although he was chosen as "President" of the Convention, we have only one recorded speech of George's to the Convention.

Nor did GW break the delegates' pledge to secrecy in letters written that hot summer. The windows of what is now called Independence Hall were closed to prevent eavesdropping on the proceedings. Our primary source for the debates are James Madison's notes. The only piece of written evidence from Washington is a copy of one of the last drafts of the Constitution, on which GW and the secretary of the convention entered changes that the delegates agreed to over a three-day period.

Even after the members of the Constitutional Convention departed, it wasn't until June 1788 that the condition of 9 of 13 states for ratification had been met. GW's home state of Virginia was not one of them.

Additional Resources

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