Constitutional Convention, a term applied to a convention of delegates of the people assembled to frame a constitution for the state, which may or may not be submitted to the people for ratification. When the British American colonies took up arms against the crown, the revolutionary congress which had been chosen as an advisory body assumed the general direction of military and foreign affairs, and continued by common consent to possess it after independence was declared. The extent of its authority, however, was wholly undefined, and it was without the means of enforcing its will except through state action and state officers. The necessity for some clear specification of the congressional powers soon became very urgent, and led to the adoption of the articles of confederation, which were proposed in congress and assented to by the states severally. Those articles, however, did not concede the full measure of authority essential to the vigor and efficiency of the government, the establishment of the public credit, or the preservation of faith with the public creditors; and a convention of delegates from the states was therefore called on the recommendation of congress to propose amendments. This convention met at Philadelphia in May, 1787, and organized by the choice of George Washington as its president.
Being satisfied that something beyond mere amendments to the articles of confederation was required, the members proceeded to frame a new constitution, which was completed and agreed upon Sept. 17, 1787, and submitted to a convention of delegates in each state for ratification; it being provided therein that the ratification by nine states should be sufficient for its establishment between the states so ratifying. Favorable action having been obtained in the conventions of eleven states, the government was fully organized and put in operation under the constitution in March, 1789; and the two remaining states signified their assent in due form afterward. The constitution thus adopted contains within itself a provision for the calling of future conventions for amendment or revision; but none has hitherto been called, the amendments thus far having all been made under another provision, by which congress proposes and the states ratify. The constitutions for the individual states have all been established through similar conventions.
When a territory is supposed to possess the proper population for a state, it is customary for congress to pass an enabling act, under which the residents possessing the qualifications prescribed for electors in the act choose delegates to form a constitution, and the instrument agreed upon in this convention is then submitted to the people for adoption or rejection. In some cases these conventions have been called and held without the previous authority of congress; but after a constitution has been framed and adopted, and the state admitted to the Union under it, any irregularity in the incipient steps is cured. The original thirteen states have all adopted constitutions agreed upon in conventions called by legislative authority, and most of these have since been revised in similar conventions. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, however, no constitution was adopted till 1818 and 1842 respectively, the government of those states having continued to be administered under their royal charters. The convention when in session does not exercise the ordinary legislative powers.
It is a disputed question whether, when not required by the act under which it is called, or by an existing constitution, to submit the result of its deliberations to the people for their action, the convention is so possessed for the time being of the sovereign power of the state that it may rightfully of its own authority and without such submission put in force a new constitution or any proposed amendments of the old. There are precedents favoring this power, particularly in the case of early conventions in the original states, and during the disorders following in what were called the border states the outbreak of the late civil war; but in many of these cases the bodies assuming this authority were, under the pressure of a supposed great public necessity, exercising ordinary powers of government, and acting rather as revolutionary conventions than as the bodies which meet to revise or form constitutions in peaceful times. Such an exercise of power is not regarded as legitimate; the convention being looked upon in the light of an advisory body, chosen for the one task of maturing a constitution, and possessing no further authority except to submit the instrument agreed upon to the people for their approval. - The corresponding body in France is called a constituent assembly (assemblee con-stituante). Two such are particularly known under the name.
The first opened at Versailles May 5, 1789, as the states general, consisting of 291 deputies of the clergy, 270 of the nobles, and 584 of the tiers etat, or middle class; but on the refusal of the nobles and clergy to sit with the representatives of the tiers etat, the latter assumed the name of assemblee nationale, and began their deliberations. Louis XVI. caused their hall to be closed against them, but they assembled in a tennis court, resolved to continue united until they should have given a constitution to France, and called upon the nobility and clergy to join them. Of the nobles 47, including the duke of Orleans, yielded to the invitation, and then on command of the king the others followed, and the clergy with them. The sessions continued until Sept. 30,1791. Among the leading members of the body were Mirabeau, Sieyes, Barnave, Cazales, Dupont, Lafayette, and La-meth. The principal measures of the assembly were: Abolition of all feudal privileges, Aug. 4, 1789; the declaration of rights, Aug. 20; freedom of religion and of the press, Aug. 23 and 24; property of the clergy declared to belong to the nation, Nov. 2; creation of assignats, Dec. 19; division of the kingdom into departments, Jan. 15, 1790; suppression of titles of nobility, June 19; the right of pardon withdrawn from the king, June 5, 1791; the king suspended from his functions until the completion of the constitution, July 15; abolition of orders of chivalry, July 30; constitution finished, Sept. 3; accepted by the king, Sept. 18. The second constituent assembly, consisting of 900 delegates from France and its colonies, elected by universal suffrage after the proclamation of the republic, Feb. 24, 1848, met in Paris, May 4, 1848; was attacked May 15 by an insurrection led by Blanqui, but was successfully defended by a battalion of the national guard; on June 23 appointed Cavaignac dictator to put down a revolt growing out of the dissolution of the national workshops; adopted the constitution Nov. 4; ordered the election of president for Dec. 10, and after the choice of Louis Napoleon to that office held its last meeting, May 24, 1849. Each of these constituent assemblies was succeeded by a national assembly styled assemblee legislative.
The sovereign assembly which succeeded the first legislative in 1792 is known as the convention. (See Convention.) The present national assembly of France, which also claims constituent rights, was chosen by universal suffrage Feb. 8, 1871, after resistance to the power of the German army had become hopeless, and with a view primarily to a treaty of peace. It convened at Bordeaux, Feb. 12, 1871, and on the 17th appointed Thiers president of the republic. Preliminary articles of peace were ratified March 1, and the fall of the empire decreed. The assembly assumed full powers of sovereignty, which however were denied to it and resisted by the commune of Paris, and the siege and capture of that city became necessary. On March 4 the assembly adjourned its sessions to Versailles, where it convened March 20. The definitive treaty of peace with Germany, signed May 10, was ratified May 18; the gradual dis-bandment of the national guard was decreed Aug. 24; a formal declaration of the constituent authority of the assembly, which was still disputed by parties in the nation and by a minority of its members, was decreed Aug. 30, and the power of Thiers as president was prolonged during its continuance.
On Nov. 10 the president, who was suspected of monarchical tendencies, formally pronounced for the republic. On Jan. 19,1872, on a disagreement with the assembly on a question of taxation, the president offered his resignation, but the assembly refused to accept it, and it was withdrawn; but on May 24, 1873, the differences between Thiers and a small majority of the assembly becoming irreconcilable, his resignation was renewed and accepted, and Marshal MacMahon was chosen president. - Constituent assemblies have also been held in some of the Spanish American republics.