American Constitution: Part I

American Constitution: Part I

The Articles of Confederation

  • The Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, on November 15, 1777.
  • The Articles established the first governmental structure unifying the 13 colonies that had fought in the American Revolution. In effect, this document created the structure for the confederation of these newly minted 13 states.
  • It was written during a time when the American people feared strong national government.
  • The Articles created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments.
  • Weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation:
    • The confederation’s central government was not strong enough to establish a sound financial system, regulate trade, enforce treaties, or go to war when needed.
    • The lack of power given to the Continental Congress strangled the federal government. The Articles gave Congress the power to pass laws but no power to enforce those laws. If a state did not support a federal law, that state could simply ignore it.
    • The Congress was the sole organ of the national government, without a national court to interpret law nor an executive branch to enforce them.
    • These newly independent states separated from Britain no longer received favored treatment at British ports. The British refused to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785 because the individual American states would not be bound by it.
    • Congress could not act directly upon the States nor upon individuals.
      • Congress had no authority to regulate foreign or interstate commerce.
      • Every act of government was left to the individual States. Each state levied taxes and tariffs on other states at will, which invited retaliation.
      • Congress could vote itself mediator and judge in state disputes, but states did not have to accept its decisions.
    • The weak central government could not back its policies with military strength, embarrassing it in foreign affairs.
      • The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the new nation’s Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
      • British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish officers to the south supplied arms to Native American tribes, allowing them to attack American settlers.
      • The Spanish refused to allow western American farmers to use their port of New Orleans to ship produce.
    • Revenues were requisitioned by Congressional petition to each state. None paid what they were asked. Connecticut declared it would not pay at all for two years.
    • The Articles required super majorities. Amendment proposals to states required ratification by all thirteen states, all important legislation needed 70% approval, at least nine states. Repeatedly, one or two states defeated legislative proposals of major importance.
      • Congress appealed to the thirteen states for an amendment to the Articles to tax enough to pay the public debt. Twelve states agreed, Rhode Island did not, so it failed.
    • Without taxes the government could not pay its debt. Seven of the thirteen states printed large quantities of its own paper money, backed by gold, land, or nothing, so there was no fair exchange rate among them.
    • The Massachusetts legislature was one of the five against paper money. It imposed a tightly limited currency and high taxes.
      • Without paper money veterans without cash lost their farms at sheriff’s auction for taxes.
      • This triggered Shays Rebellion to stop tax collectors and close the courts until the proceedings were dropped.
      • Troops quickly suppressed the rebellion, but nationalists like George Washington warned, “There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to.”
  • Hence the Articles of Confederation proved too weak to manage the affairs of the United States and its remedy lied to in the ratification of the Constitution.
  • The need for a stronger Federal government eventually led to the Constitutional Convention (Philadelphia Convention) in 1787.
  • The Congress of the Confederation endorsed a plan to revise the Articles of Confederation on February 21, 1787.
  • The present United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation on March 4, 1789.

Drafting of the American Constitution

  • The Constitutional Convention (Philadelphia Convention) was convened on February 21, 1787 in response to dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation and the need for a strong centralized government.
  • After four months of secret debate and many compromises, the members of the Constitutional Convention signed the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and then submitted to the states for approval.
  • The Constitution was eventually ratified and the new Federal government came into existence in 1789. The Constitution established the U.S. government as it exists today.
  • Debates and Compromises
    • Virginia Plan:
      • The Virginia Plan was a proposal by Virginia delegates for a bicameral legislative branch.
      • It was weighted toward the interests of the larger, more populous states.
        • All the powers in the Articles to be transferred to the new government.
        • Congress to have two houses, the ‘house’ apportioned by population. It can enact laws affecting more than one state and Congress can override a veto.
        • The President can enforce the law.
        • The Supreme Court and inferior courts rule on international, U. S. and state law.
        • The Constitution is the supreme law and all state officers swear to uphold the Constitution.
    • New Jersey Plan:
      • The New Jersey Plan (also known as the Small State Plan) was weighted toward the interests of the smaller, less populous states.
      • The plan was created in response to the Virginia Plan. The less populous states were adamantly opposed to giving most of the control of the national government to the more populous states, and so proposed an alternative plan that would have kept the one-vote-per-state representation under one legislative body from the Articles of Confederation.
      • The New Jersey Plan was purely federal, authority flowed from the states. Gradual change should come from the states.
    • Ultimately, the Virginia Plan was used, but some ideas from the New Jersey Plan were added as introduced by the Connecticut Compromise (Great Compromise of 1787), which established a bicameral legislature with the U.S. House of Representatives apportioned by population, as desired by the Virginia Plan, and the Senate granted equal votes per state, as desired by the New Jersey Plan.
    • Hamilton’s Plan:
      • Calling the British government “the best in the world,” Alexander Hamilton proposed a model with few similarity: an executive with veto power over all laws; a senate; the legislature to have power to pass “all laws whatsoever.” He failed to win a following.
    • Slavery in debate:
      • There was the North-South division over the method by which slaves were to be counted for purposes of taxation and representation.
      • The Three-Fifths compromise (1787):
        • The population of slaves would be counted as three-fifths in total when apportioning Representatives, as well as Presidential electors and taxes. (1 slave = 3/5 man)
    • Great Compromise or Connecticut Compromise:
      • The Connecticut Compromise (Great Compromise of 1787) was an agreement that large and small states reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that in part defined the legislative structure and representation that each state would have under the United States Constitution.
      • This compromise blended the Virginia (large-state) and New Jersey (small- state) proposals regarding congressional apportionment.
      • The compromise retained the bicameral legislature along with proportional representation in the lower house but required the upper house to be weighted equally between the states. Each state would have two representatives in the upper House.
    • The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists debate:
      • As the Federalists moved to amend the Articles in favour of stronger centralized government, eventually leading to the Constitutional Convention, they applied the term anti-federalist to their opposition.
      • The Anti-Federalists were composed of diverse elements, including
        • those opposed to the Constitution because they thought that a stronger government threatened the sovereignty and prestige of the states, localities, or individuals;
        • those that claimed a new centralized, disguised “monarchic” power that would only replace the cast-off despotism of Great Britain with the proposed government; and
        • those who simply feared that the new government threatened their personal liberties and that the President would become a king.
      • Some of Anti-Federalists believed that the national government under the Constitution would be too strong. Famous revolutionary figures such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson came out publicly against the Constitution.
      • In many states the opposition to the Constitution was strong, and in two states — North Carolina and Rhode Island—it prevented ratification until the definite establishment of the new government practically forced their adherence.
      • Individualism was the strongest element of opposition; the necessity, or at least the desirability, of a bill of rights was almost universally In Rhode Island resistance against the Constitution was so strong that civil war almost broke out on July 4, 1788, when anti-federalist members marched into Providence with over 1,000 armed protesters.
    • Massachusetts compromise:
      • The Anti-Federalists’ opposition was also strong during the ratification convention in Massachusetts.
      • By this point, five of the states had ratified the Constitution with relative ease, but the Massachusetts convention was far more bitter and contentious.
      • Finally, after long debate, a compromise (known as the “Massachusetts compromise”) was reached.
      • Massachusetts would ratify the Constitution with recommended provisions in the ratifying instrument that the Constitution be amended with a Bill of Rights.
      • Following this compromise, Massachusetts voted to ratify the Constitution on February 6, 1788.
      • Five states subsequently voted for ratification, four of which followed the Massachusetts model of recommending amendments along with their ratification.
      • The Massachusetts compromise helped garner sufficient support for the Constitution in order to ensure its ratification and lead to the adoption of the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights.

4 thoughts on “American Constitution: Part I”

  1. Superb , I could see your effort and the time you might have spent on this. Definitely you have done this with passion over subject. Thank you is belittling your effort I think.

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