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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History SparkNotes



After their victory in the American Revolution, America’s leaders were leery about establishing a powerful centralized government, fearful that such a government would only replace the tyranny of King George III with a new form of tyranny. As a result, the first U.S. constitution, the Articles of Confederation, created a decentralized new government. The Articles established the United States as a confederation of states—a system in which the states were largely independent but were bound together by a weak national congress.

Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation proved ineffective, giving Congress little real power over the states, no means to enforce its decisions, and, most critically, no power to levy taxes. As a result, the federal government was left at the mercy of the states, which often chose not to pay their taxes.

Sensing the need for change, delegates from nearly all the states met in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation but ended up drafting an entirely new document: the Constitution. The Constitution created a new government divided into three branches: legislative (Congress), executive (the president), and judicial (headed by the Supreme Court). After much debate, the delegates compromised on a two-house Congress, consisting of an upper house (Senate) with equal representation for each state, and a lower house (House of Representatives) with proportional representation based on population. Congress also was given new abilities to levy national taxes and control interstate commerce.

Although most states ratified the Constitution outright, some, especially New York, had reservations. In response, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison argued the case for the Constitution in a series of essays called the Federalist Papers. These eighty-five essays are now regarded as some of the most important writings in American political thought.

However, many skeptics, or Anti-Federalists, remained unconvinced, believing that a stronger government would endanger the freedoms they had just won during the Revolution. As a compromise, the framers of the Constitution promised to add a series of amendments to guarantee important liberties. Sponsored by James Madison, the first ten amendments became known as the Bill of Rights. Their liberties secured, Anti-Federalists in the last remaining states grudgingly voted for the Constitution.

The 1790s were rocky for the United States: the new government functioned well, but disputes arose about how the government should act in situations in which the Constitution was vague. The foremost of these disagreements involved the question of whether or not the federal government had the right to found a national bank. “Strict constructionists” such as Thomas Jefferson interpreted the Constitution literally, believing that the document forbade everything it did not expressly permit. “Loose constructionists” such as Alexander Hamilton believed that the Constitution’s “elastic clause” permitted everything the document did not expressly forbid—such as the founding of a bank.

Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed often during George Washington’s presidency, and eventually their ideas spread through the country and coalesced into the nation’s first two political parties, the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. Although Washington begged Americans not to separate into dangerous political factions—for he believed that factions and political parties would destroy the republican spirit and tear the Union apart—the party system developed. Indeed, Washington’s successor, the Federalist John Adams, tried to ruin the opposition party with his 1798 Sedition Act, which ultimately only made the Democratic-Republicans stronger.

When Adams’s bitter rival Jefferson was elected president in 1800, many European observers thought the American “experiment” in republicanism would end. But when the transfer of power proved to be peaceful, many Europeans, seeing that republicanism could be viable and stable, began to believe the system might work for them too. The U.S. triumph over Britain and success in establishing a stable government had already encouraged the French to overthrow their own monarch in the French Revolution of 1789. Later, republicanism and democracy would spread beyond France to Britain and the rest of Europe. Thus, the drafting of the Constitution and the years that followed were enormously important in world history as well as American history.

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