The American Constitution A Historical Background Essay, Research Paper
The American Constitution: A Historical Background 1781-1788
Thesis Statement: The ratification of the United States Constitution in 1787 provided the framework for a new system of government.
I. General Background
B. Human Affairs
II. Background of the Constitution
A. Articles of Confederation
B. Shay s Rebellion
III. Constitutional Convention
A. Popular Control
B. Limited Power
IV. Framers of the Constitution
A. George Washington
B. Benjamin Franklin
C. James Madison
D. George Mason
VI. Future Outlook
A. Bill of Rights
B. Additional Amendments
The Constitution of the United States comprises the nation s fundamental law, providing the framework for its governance and the principles under which it must operate. When the constitution was written, it was intended to endure for ages and be flexible and adaptable for future generations. The constitution was intended to be the supreme law of the land.
The Articles of Confederation, which were ratified in 1781 was the first constitution. The Articles of Confederation dealt with three issues: representation, taxation, and the extent of control over western territories. The first issue, representation, gave each of the thirteen states one vote. The second issue, taxation, gave Congress power to request money from the states in the form of taxes. The third and last issue placed emphasis on western lands: people were allowed to own land all the way to the Pacific and Virginia. ( West and Northwest – Caughey, p. 119 ) The Articles of Confederation gave power to the states and was defective as an instrument of government. The lack of unity caused problems in international relations and the defense of the nation. Although the Articles of Confederation gave the states a central government, Congress did not have the power it needed to govern more satisfactory. (Robinson p. 169).
By 1875 it seemed to many patriotic citizens that the confederation was a failure. Washington, Hamilton, Jay, Madison and other leaders repeatedly argued that the government needed to be strengthened. Some Americans had special reasons for wanting a stronger government. Some wanted the government to protect them from Indians, Spaniards, and the British. The groups of merchants, traders, and ship owners suffered from tariff wars among states and from British laws. Men who loaned money to the government during the wars wanted a stronger government so they could be repaid. (America On-line 2).
Many people think of the United States as a young country, and still our constitution is amongst the oldest written constitutions of any major nations in the world. Soon after the Revolutionary War, the three million people who lived in the United States became discontented with the Articles of Confederation. The government seemed too weak to control the people at home or to make the New Republic be respected abroad. Congress lacked power to raise money and could only request money from the states. Some states were poor, others paid too much taxes. Congress had no authority to regulate commerce. All states were suppose to abide by the Articles of Confederation, but some violated them. Some states made treaties with the Indians and with others. They ignored foreign treaties made by Congress and regulated the value of money.
Shays Rebellion (1786-1787) was one event that dramatized the weakness of the central government. When debtors were in desperation, many of them looked to the government for help. In Massachusetts, when legislation refused relief, Daniel Shays led armed men to intimidate the courts from proceeding with foreclosures. ( Caughey p. 126) The insurrectionists held out for almost six months before being overpowered by the state militia. Recognizing that the protesters might have had just cause, the legislature pardoned all but the leaders, but later extending amnesty to Shays himself. (Caughey p.127). As Shays rebellion was beginning, five states sent delegates to Annapolis, Maryland, to try and develop a compact on interstate commerce. Recognizing the problem was complex, these delegates called for a convention to give broader consideration to the problem. In May 1787, delegates chosen by twelve states met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and started the work of revising the Articles of Confederation. (Caughey p. 127).
The delegates of the Constitutional Convention were men like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin. The means by which the objectives could be achieved was lively. (Grolier Electronic Publishing 2). The assignment that brought these men together was to repair the defects of the Articles of Confederation, especially the inadequacy of the central government. How it should be strengthened and by how much, and what would be acceptable to the states. Issues like how to elect the president were debated. Others like the relationships of the government to the people and those between the states. Through the great compromise, the small states were given equal representation with the large states in the Senate, but members of the House of Representatives were elected by the states according to population. The framers provided the ultimate control of the government by the people through the electoral process. The senators were chosen by state legislatures and the president by the Electoral College. State Legislature controlled the selection of senators, presidential electors, and seats in the state legislature. Legislature was won in popular elections, and it was assumed that the population would eventually have an effect on the choosing of senators and presidents. The framers felt that the popular majority must be represented in the federal legislature, yet also felt that not all the power be given to them. Consequently, they approved an arrangement by which one house of the legislature represented majority will and another house serve as a check on the that house.
Issues to be resolved by this union of the framers were: the common defense of the members, the preservation of public peace, protection against external attacks, regulation of commerce between the states and with other nations. (Grolier Electronic Publishing 3).
The specific powers of the president were identified in Article II, sections 2 and 3. The president has the power to veto any bill that congress may pass. The essence of the legislature authority is to enact laws, and to prescribe rules that regulate society, while the president is responsible for the execution of the laws. Presidential power was limited by having only a four year term. ( Grolier Electronic Publishing 3). Judicial power as such was understood by the framers to mean the power to decide cases and controversies. The constitution framers did not want the power of government to be controlled by one person, so that they provided for a separation of power and a system of checks and balances.
Alexander Hamilton called for all states to send delegates to Philadelphia to meet in May 1787. George Washington was chosen as the presiding officer. The constitution was framed by fifty-five delegates from twelve of the thirteen states, as Rhode Island did not appoint delegates. Another important framer was Benjamin Franklin, a senior member delegate who was responsible for suggesting the Electoral College, the way in which the president was to be elected. James Madison was one of the most active framers of the constitution, a leader who was to be called the Father of the Constitution . He was a southerner, slave owner from Virginia, educated in New Jersey. (Robinson p. 209). And another framer was George Mason, from Virginia, who was deeply troubled about the issue of slavery. Mason was the author of the Virginia Seminal Bill of Rights, which began with the assertion that all men are naturally equal . This called the attention of the delegates to the tendency of slavery to weaken the nation s defense against foreign foes. (Robinson p. 211). It was the will of the framers to build a strong and stable government. They also expected the government to coordinated the power of the three branches of government, the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches.
On September 17, 1787, George Washington, President of the Federal Convention, sent the completed constitution to the Congress of the Confederation, urging prompt ratification. The ratification of the constitution would be a gamble for everyone. Much would depend on the attitude with which the congressmen and the delegates to ratifying conventions approached their task. One remarkable note to the ratification process was the lack of controversy aroused by the arrangements in the constitution affecting slavery. (Robinson pp. 234-235).
Massachusetts was the first state to hold full scale debates on the issues involved. Issues discussed were grand jury indictment and how it would be required before a trial for major crimes. Congress would not have the power to establish commercial monopolies, and powers not assigned to the government were reserved for the states. Massachusetts ratified the constitution on January 9, 1788 by a narrow margin. Other states followed. Congress waited for Virginia and New York, and on September 13, 1788, acknowledged that the necessary ratification s had been given, set the dates for the election and the meeting of the Electoral College. New York was to be the seat of the new government and on March 4, 1789 was set as the official start of the new federal regime. (Caughey p 131).
The original ten amendments of the United States Constitution gave us our Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights give us the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The state also has the right to maintain a militia; it is not to quarter soldiers upon people. It also disallows general search warrants. (Caughey p. 135). Other amendments are addressed more directly to protecting each resident of the United States against arbitrary and unreasonable treatment by his or her government.
One only needs to read the Preamble of the Constitution to know what the framers set out to give the people of our great nation:
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.
1. United States. Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States
Washington, D.C.; GPO 1996.
2. Robinson, L. Donald. Slavery in the Structure of American Politics 1765-1920. New York: Jovanovich, Inc., 1971.
3. Grolier Electronic Publishing Encyclopedia. CD ROM 1995.
4. Caughey, W. John. A History of the United States. Chicago: Rand McNally
and Company, 1964.
5. America On-line. Internet Service.