Today in History

Today in History: September 17

U.S. Constitution

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America

James Madison
James Madison,
Lithograph after a painting by Gilbert Stuart,
circa 1828.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

James Madison, later known as the "Father of our Constitution," was among the most influential delegates at the Constitutional Convention. His notes form the largest single source of materials for Farrand's Records, one of several collections in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1875.

On September 17, 1787, members of the Constitutional Convention signed the final draft of the Constitution. Two days earlier, when a final vote was called, Edmund Randolph called for another convention to carefully review the Constitution as it stood. This motion, supported by George Mason and Elbridge Gerry, was voted down and the Constitution was adopted.

The product of four months of secret debate, the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and proposed an entirely new form of government.

Adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777, but not ratified by the states until 1781, the Articles of Confederation created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government. With the passage of time, the defects in the Articles of Confederation became apparent. The Continental Congress commanded little respect and no support from state governments anxious to maintain their power. Congress could not raise funds, regulate trade, or conduct foreign policy without the voluntary agreement of the states.

Events such as Shays' Rebellion, an armed uprising by debt-ridden farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786 and early 1787, exposed the weaknesses of the federal government and galvanized calls for revising the Articles of Confederation.

In an effort to deal with problems of interstate commerce, a convention in Annapolis was held in September 1786.  Led by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the delegates at the Annapolis Convention issued a proposal for a new convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.

On February 21, 1787, the Continental Congress called for a national convention to meet in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. By May 25, the state delegates had reached a quorum and the Constitutional Convention officially began. George Washington was selected unanimously as president of the Convention.

From the outset, delegates clashed over issues of state sovereignty while small and large states battled over the distribution of power. Fears of creating a too powerful central authority ran high. The Convention tackled basic issues including the essential structure of the government, the basis of representation, and the regulation of interstate trade. As he submitted the Constitution to the Continental Congress, George Washington acknowledged the difficult task the Convention faced:

George Washington
George Washington,
Lithograph after a painting by Gilbert Stuart,
circa 1828.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be preserved; and, on the present occasion, the difficulty was increased by a difference among the several States as to their situation, extent, habits, and particular interests…thus, the Constitution which we now present is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession, which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.

Letter from George Washington to the Confederation Congress, accompanying the Constitution, September 17, 1787,
The Making of the U.S. Constitution,
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875

Although the Constitutional Convention met for the last time on September 17, 1787, public debate over the Constitution was just beginning. The Constitution specified that at least nine states ratify the new form of government, but everyone hoped for nearly unanimous approval. As the states called their own ratifying conventions, arguments for and against the document resurfaced. Writing under the pseudonym Publius, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay defended the proposed plan in a series of newspaper articles, later collected as the Federalist Papers.

The Constitution was officially adopted by the United States when it was ratified by New Hampshire on June 21, 1788, the ninth state to do so. The first Congress under the new Constitution convened in New York City on March 4, 1789, although a quorum was not achieved until early April. On April 30, 1789, President George Washington delivered the first inaugural address, and within his initial term the first ten amendments—known as the Bill of Rights—were adopted, establishing the fundamental rights of U.S. citizens and assuaging many fears associated with the relatively strong central government the Constitution provides.

Learn more about the United States Constitution:

The Battle of Antietam

Of all the days on all the fields where American soldiers have fought, the most terrible by almost any measure was September 17, 1862. The battle waged on that date, close by Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in western Maryland, took a human toll never exceeded on any other single day in the nation's history. So intense and sustained was the violence, a man recalled, that for a moment in his mind's eye the very landscape around him turned red.

Stephen W. Sears,
Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam

Antietam Battlefield on the Day of the Battle
Antietam, Md. Battlefield on the Day of the Battle,
Antietam, Maryland,
Alexander Gardner, photographer, September 17, 1862.
Selected Civil War Photographs

In the days leading up to the Battle of Antietam, Confederate General Robert E. Lee concentrated his invading army outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. Victorious at Manassas in August, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia hoped to garner new recruits and supplies in Maryland, a slave-holding state that remained in the Union. However, Union General George B. McClellan who closely pursued his rival enjoyed a strategic advantage. A scout had discovered a copy of the Confederate battle plan and the contents of Lee's Special Order Number 191 were well known to his rival.

At dawn on September 17, 1862 the hills of Sharpsburg thundered with artillery and musket fire as the Northern and Southern armies struggled for possession of the Miller farm cornfield. For three hours, the battle lines swept back and forth across the field.

Antietam, Md. Confederate dead by a fence on the Hagerstown road
Antietam, Md. Confederate Dead by a Fence on the Hagerstown Road, Antietam, Maryland,
Alexander Gardner, photographer,
September 1862.
Selected Civil War Photographs

By mid-morning, the Confederate line was established along a country lane called Sunken Road. The soldiers crouched behind its high banks, unleashing heavy fire upon advancing Union troops. Eventually, the overwhelming number of Northerners broke the Confederate line. As the Southerners spun to defend their position, Union troops rained bullets lengthwise down the lane onto them. The road came to be known as Bloody Lane because of the tragic toll of death suffered there.

The Southerners retreated towards Sharpsburg, covered by cannon fire from General Stonewall Jackson's artillery. The Union troops fell back in the face of the cannon fire and failed to pursue the Confederates.

Cautious to a fault, McClellan failed to advance quickly on the Confederates who had reached the town. Eventually, General Ambrose Burnside attacked, but was repelled by the ragged Southerners and newly arrived troops under Major General A. P. Hill.

Page 1 of letter

Your name is on every lip and many prayers and good wishes are hourly sent up for your welfare — and McClellan and his slowness are as vehemently discussed…All the distinguished in the land…would almost worship you if you would put a fighting general in the place of McClellan…

Letter, Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln…,
November 2, 1862.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years

By nightfall, Confederates occupied the town of Sharpsburg ending the single bloodiest day in American history. More than 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in action. The next day, Lee began his retreat across the Potomac River.

Search the American Memory Historical collections on Antietam to locate additional documents and photographs:

The Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Harned Walt Whitman Collection Notebooks collection includes Whitman's Hospital Notebook. On page 12, the poet describes a barn and farmhouse used as a field hospital. Whitman's 1862 Notebook provides an account of the fight for the bridge at Antietam on page 139.

Keedysville, Md., vicinity. Confederate wounded at Smith's Barn
Keedysville, Md., Vicinity. Confederate Wounded at Smith's Barn…,
Keedysville, Maryland,
September 1862.
Selected Civil War Photographs