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Building the State (1781-1797)

The Constitution and a New Government

The Constitutional Convention



Finally approved on September 17, 1787, the Constitution laid out the framework for the new United States government. It reconciled the differences between the states on the subject of representation, and represented, ultimately, a balance between the delegates' knowledge that the national government had to be strengthened and their fear of despotism and tyranny. Congress was granted the power to lay and collect taxes, to regulate interstate commerce, and to conduct diplomacy as the single voice of the people in international affairs. States were thus disallowed to coin money and tax interstate commerce, and the national government had the power to invoke military action against the states. The Constitution declared all acts and treaties made by Congress to be binding on the states.

The Constitution set forth a government composed of 3 branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch was given certain powers over the others to ensure that no one branch usurped a dangerous amount of power. This system, known as checks and balances, was the cornerstone of the new framework of government. The system of checks and balances represented the solution to the problem of how to empower the central government, yet protect against corruption and despotism.

The President was granted the power to veto acts of Congress deemed unnecessary or unjust, and would be responsible for appointing federal and Supreme Court judges. The Senate had to ratify treaties proposed by the President, and had to approve the President's cabinet appointments. Congress as a joint body was given the power to impeach, try, and remove the President from office, as well as Supreme Court justices, should it become necessary. The judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, had the responsibility and power to interpret the laws passed by Congress.

The Constitution set forth a form of federalism that balanced the authority of the state and national governments. The state legislatures would elect the members of the Senate, as well as select delegates to the Electoral College, which selected the President. Furthermore, the Constitution could be amended by a vote in favor of amendment by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The writers of the Constitution intended to increase the power of the national government, but they were wary of taking too much power from the states.

One debate that was resolved by the Constitution was that of whether slaves should be considered persons or property for reasons of representation. Southern delegates argued that slaves should count toward representative seats, whereas the representatives of northern states, most of which had already or would soon abolish slavery, argued that to count slaves as members of the population would grant an unfair advantage to the southern states. The result of this debate was the adoption of the Three-fifths Clause, which allowed three-fifths of all slaves to be counted as people. The Constitution further forbade any state to refuse to return run-away slaves to the states from which they came. Under the Constitution, Congress was permitted to ban the importation of slaves after 1808, but there was no explicit mention of the framers feelings about the legality of slavery.

Once approved by the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification.


The Constitution set forth a new national government that completely rejected the structure of the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had been founded upon the idea that the United States should be a federation of individual republics, tied by the confines of geography and the requirements of defense into a nation. Each state had been given independent authority over its functions and laws. The Constitution granted powers to the national government that the period under the Articles of Confederation had proven necessary. For instance, the Congress under the Articles had been unable to get total cooperation from the states, and thus had not been able to pass import duties or taxes necessary to the sustenance of the national budget. As a result, the Constitution granted Congress the right to levy and collect taxes. The case of interstate commerce and diplomacy were similar in that the national government had failed to act decisively in either arena due to restrictions on power, which were lifted by the Constitution.

The final form of government represented a compromise between those who advocated power for the states and those who advocated power for the national government. The Constitution set forth a government far more empowering to the states than either the Virginia Plan or the New Jersey Plan had suggested. Undoubtedly, the Constitution established a government system under which the national government was far superior to that of the state, but the final result was a republican balance, which acknowledged the need for some level of state autonomy.

The tripartite format of government laid out by the Constitution was the central feature of the new government. The three separate branches of the national government helped to clearly define the major functions of the central government and enabled the framers to design the system of checks and balances that would protect the people from the corruption of any one branch of government. The system of checks and balances has been hailed ever since the drafting of the Constitution as perhaps the most important contribution of the founders toward the goal of good government.

Slavery proved a divisive issue for the Constitutional Convention, with some radicals even calling for its abolition by the Constitution. For reasons of economics and political tradition, abolition was basically out of the question, but the framers were forced to deal with issues regarding slavery, such as representation and fugitive slave laws. However, the Constitution nowhere clearly states the opinion of the framers on the morality, legality, or future of slavery. This would prove to be an important admission, as the proponents and opponents of slavery squared off over the legality of slavery in an ever increasing zeal that spread through the decades before the civil war. The very mention of slavery in the Constitution convinced many that the framers had accepted the institution of slavery and intended it to be legal. Opponents of slavery claimed that the fact that the framers had given Congress the power to ban the importation of slaves after 1808 proved that abolition had been the framers' ultimate goal. The evidence suggests that the framers, much like their descendents, were split on the topic of slavery, but that most accepted the institution as a necessary evil.

Perhaps the most important effect of the drafting of the Constitution was its reaffirmation of the American people, in the broadest sense, as the ultimate source of political legitimacy in the nation, responsible for the selection of their leaders, and shapers of the future of the nation. Additionally, the framers recognized the need for the Constitution to be a living, evolving document, which the people would have access to and be able to change as the need arose.

The SparkNote on the Constitution contains a great deal more analysis of the constitution and the history out of which it arose.

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