We begin our unit on the Constitution by examining the historical background of America in the 1780’s – the decade in which the Constitution was written. We look at the predecessor of the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation and look at its few strengths and many weaknesses. We look at the deals and compromises that went into the creation of the Constitution – the compromises between direct and representative democracy, between the urban and the rural, between large states and small states and between slavery and freedom.
The American Revolution ends with an American victory in 1781. By 1783, American independence is recognized by the Treaty of Paris. The Americans stayed in a loose confederation form of government during the War, with each state handling its own issues and the only thing done at the national level was the Army. This worked fine during the Revolution and it became the default government for America after the War. The set of rules that controlled this Confederation were known as the “Articles of Confederation.”
Three obvious flaws with the Articles – first, no executive branch, no President to enforce the laws. Enforcement is left up to the states. Next, the legislative body created by the Articles gives one vote to each state, regardless of their size and population. New York has the same voice and power under the Articles as does much smaller Connecticut. Finally, the national government under the Articles had no power to impose taxes and thus, had very little money. No money means no power.
One reason we fought the Revolutionary War was to gain control of the rich Ohio River Valley farmlands and take that control away from the British King. A top priority in the years after the War was to explore, survey and sell off these lands to speculators and to farmers. The law that governed this was known as the Northwest Ordinance. It was the one source of revenue for the Articles government. And it was forward-thinking in that it permanently banned slavery in these territories.
The American economy suffered a slow-down after the War. Many veterans, especially farmers, found it hard to pay their taxes and had their property foreclosed on by the state. In Massachusetts, foreclosed-upon veterans led by Daniel Shay began to organize and refuse to obey foreclosure orders or recognize foreclosure sales. Soon, Shay was in open rebellion against Massachusetts. In the case of open revolt, the national government would be expected to send in the national army to put down the rebellion. Here, the Articles government lacked the funds (and the will) to put down Shay’s Rebellion. The Rebellion becomes a wake-up call for American leaders, it represents the fatal weaknesses of the Articles government.
The core problem with the Articles is the weakness of the national government. Under the Articles, the individual states have all the power – and why would one distant state want to help another? What’s in it for them? What’s their incentive? Under a confederation, it’s literally every state for itself. There is no strong incentive for one state to help another. American leaders that want to abandon the Articles for a stronger national government become known as “Federalists”.
The Federalists organize a Constitutional Convention to be held in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. They are able to persuade the hero of the Revolution, George Washington, to chair the convention where soon, a brand new constitution is being written.
James Madison from Virginia and Alexander Hamilton from New York are the to most prominent Federalists. They begin writing and publishing articles in newspapers (anonymously) to promote their strong central government ideas. There is also a sense that the Constitutional Convention represents a chance for these Enlightenment thinkers to get together and create the most perfect government that had ever been created. A government that would be created and selected and customized for the unique needs of the American people, not a government imposed on them or forced on them from the outside.
The opposition, known as the Anti-Federalists (later they will call themselves the “Democratic Republicans”) are fearful of tyranny. After all, they’ve only been free of British tyranny for less than a decade. They want any strong central government to have its power restricted by a system of checks and balances. They want to make sure that any new government will protect the natural rights of all its citizens.
The biggest compromise in the creation of the Constitution is the two-chamber Congress. One chamber, the Senate, is designed to favor small states with each state getting two Senators. The House of Representatives favors big states, with representation being proportional to population.
Southern states want more representation – they’d like to count each slave as a person in the census. Northern states want to see the South pay more taxes – they’d like to see slave owners pay property taxes on their human property. Again, a compromise solution – slave owners only pay taxes on part of the value of their slaves and slaves only count as 3/5ths of a ”person” in the census. The 3/5ths Compromise demonstrates how deeply embedded the notion of slavery is in our Constitution. We were truly founded on slavery.
The capital will be home to the federal government, the legislature and the judiciary. Thousands of people will need to live and work in the capital. There is tremendous money to be made for the city that hosts the capital. New York City and Philadelphia are early front-runners but Virginia lawmakers want to see the new capital in their state. Anti-slavery lawmakers in the North use this desire to hammer out a compromise. The federal government will be located in northern Virginia, in a brand-new town called the District of Columbia. In exchange, Southern lawmakers agree to end the importation of slaves from Africa within the next twenty years.
The Constitution must be ratified by each of the thirteen states. While many states are nearly unanimous in their support of the Constitution, in other states the vote is very close. Support for the Constitution is not universal, nor is it overwhelming.
Embedded within the Constitution there is a process for changing the Constitution, known as the amendment process. It was designed to not be perfectly democratic, nor quick. The Founders wanted to put up barriers or speed-bumps. For an amendment to become part of the Constitution, it must be first proposed by a supermajority of Congress (or the state legislatures) and then ratified by a super-super-majority (75%) of the state legislatures.
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