Skip over navigation

Building the State (1781-1797)

The Constitution and a New Government

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitution and a New Government, page 2

page 1 of 2


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.

More Help

Previous Next

Follow Us