We the People – The US Constitution

Ben Franklin PrintThe “United States” was in turmoil. The states were hardly united. The Continental Congress printed paper money, which was so depreciated that it ceased to pass as currency, spawning the expression “not worth a continental.” Congress could not levy taxes and could only make requisitions upon the States.

John Adams went to London in 1785 as the first representative of the United States. But he failed to secure a treaty for unrestricted commerce with Britain. Demands were made for favors and there was no assurance that individual states would agree to a treaty. Adams stated it was necessary for the States to confer the power of passing navigation laws to Congress, or that the States themselves pass retaliatory acts against Great Britain. Congress had already requested and failed to get power over navigation laws. Meanwhile, each State acted individually against Great Britain to little effect. When other New England states closed their ports to British shipping, Connecticut hastened to profit by opening its ports.

Political unrest in several states and efforts by debtors to use popular government to erase their debts did not help. The apparent inability of the Congress to redeem debts incurred during the war, or to become a forum for productive cooperation among the states to encourage commerce and economic development, only aggravated a gloomy situation. In 1786-87 Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising of farmers in western Massachusetts against the state court system, threatened the stability of state government.

Ben Franklin PrintMost of Shay’s compatriots were poor farmers angered by crushing debt and taxes. They attempted to prevent the courts from seizing property from indebted farmers by forcing the closure of courts in western Massachusetts. The rebellion started on August 29, 1786, and by January 1787, over 1000 Shaysites had been arrested. A militia that had been raised as a private army defeated an attack on the federal Springfield Armory by the main Shaysite force on February 3, 1787. There was a lack of an institutional response to the uprising, which energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation.

The idea of a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation grew in favor. Alexander Hamilton believed a strong government was necessary to avoid foreign intervention and allay the frustrations due to an ineffectual Congress. Hamilton convened the Annapolis Convention in 1786 to petition Congress to call a constitutional convention to meet in Philadelphia to remedy the long-term crisis.

And so, twelve states, Rhode Island being the only exception, accepted this invitation and sent delegates to convene in May 1787. The resolution calling the Convention specified that its purpose was to propose amendments to the Articles, but through discussion and debate it became clear by mid-June that, rather than amend the existing Articles, the Convention decided to propose a rewritten Constitution. The Philadelphia Convention decided to draft a new fundamental government design. Article VII of the proposed constitution stipulated that only nine of the thirteen states would have to ratify for the new government to go into effect.

Several ideas in the Constitution were new, and a large number were drawn from the literature of Republicanism in the United States, the experiences of the 13 states, and the British experience with mixed government. The most important influence from the European continent was from Montesquieu, who emphasized the need to have balanced forces pushing against each other to prevent tyranny. British political philosopher John Locke was a major influence, and the due process clause of the Constitution was partly based on common law stretching back to The Magna Carta (1215).

Presidents PrintThe US Constitution was born of two plans. The Virginia Plan was the unofficial agenda for the Convention, and was drafted chiefly by James Madison, considered to be “The Father of the Constitution” for his major contributions. It was weighted toward the interests of the larger states, and proposed among other points:

  • A powerful bicameral legislature with a House and a Senate
  • An executive chosen by the legislature
  • A judiciary, with life-terms of service and vague powers
  • The national legislature would be able to veto state laws

An alternative proposal, William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan, included the following points that countered the previous proposal that favored larger states, among others:

  • A unicameral legislature with all states represented in equal numbers in order to insure fairness
  • An executive branch appointed by the legislature
  • A judicial branch appointed by the executive

Roger Sherman of Connecticut brokered The Great Compromise whereby the House would represent the people, a Senate would represent the states, and electors would elect a president.

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was completed. The Convention submitted the Constitution to the Congress of the Confederation, where it received approval according to Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation.

Once the Congress of the Confederation received word of New Hampshire’s ratification, it set a timetable for the start of operations under the new Constitution, and on March 4, 1789, the government began operations.

The United States Constitution is the shortest and oldest written constitution still in use by any nation in the world today.

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