A New Government for the United States
A New Government for the United States
The thirteen states of the new United States of America began the process of creating state governments during the Revolutionary War. Rhode Island and Connecticut maintained their colonial charters while excising references to British sovereignty, but many states wrote new constitutions. State constitutions differed from traditional British constitutions in that they were written documents ratified by the people and could be amended by popular vote. These constitutions varied widely, but shared the following similarities:
  • By 1784, all thirteen state constitutions contained a bill of rights outlining the civil rights and freedoms accorded citizens.
  • In general, the constitutions established weak executive branches and responsive legislatures. Most called for bicameral legislatures and for appointed, rather than elected, officials.
  • Most reduced property requirements for voting and otherwise increased social equality.
  • Most called for no official state religion.
The Articles of Confederation
In an attempt to create a unified national government, John Dickinson brought the Articles of Confederation to the Continental Congress in July 1776. Congress adopted the Articles and sent copies out for ratification by state legislatures; the Articles became law in 1781.
The Articles of Confederation favored the rights of individual colonies, now called states, instead of a strong centralized system. The central government established by the Articles was virtually powerless. It consisted solely of a severely restricted Congress, with no executive branch or judicial department. Congress had no power to tax, raise troops, regulate interstate commerce, or make binding national treaties; it could only request taxes from states, not demand them, and therefore could not regulate currency or raise money for the nation. The Articles of Confederation demonstrated the colonists’ dislike of centralized authority and their fear of falling under a system as potentially tyrannical as they felt the British system had been.
Three major political challenges arose, testing the viability of the government created by the Articles of Confederation. The first challenge was addressing the nation’s finances. After the war, the United States faced enormous debt. In 1781 and again in 1783, Congress proposed an import tax to finance the national budget and guarantee the payment of war debts, but each time, a state rejected the proposal (Rhode Island in 1781 and New York in 1783). With no power to force taxation on the states without state approval, Congress could do nothing to regulate the economy. The government was financially helpless.
The government faced the challenge of westward expansion with more success. Settlers, speculators, and state governments all pressed for expansion into the lands granted to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris. The government attempted to control this expansion with the Land Ordinance of 1785, which outlined the protocol for settlement. A second ordinance, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, forbade slavery in the territory above the Ohio River, contained a settlers’ bill of rights, and defined the process through which territories could become states. In such expansion efforts, the government faced fierce opposition from the Native Americans and Spanish along the frontier. The Spanish, denying the validity of the Treaty of Paris, closed the port of New Orleans to American ships in 1784.
The third challenge to the Articles of Confederation concerned the government’s ability to maintain law and order. Depression, inflation, and high taxes made life miserable for many Americans. The plight of farmers in western Massachusetts led to Shays’s Rebellion. In August 1786, Daniel Shays, angered by high taxes and debt he could not repay, led about 2,000 men in closing the courts in three western Massachusetts counties to prevent foreclosure on farms. The rebellion exposed the inability of the central government to control revolt and impose order, and heightened an already growing sense of panic nationwide.
For many Americans, Shays’s Rebellion, along with the economic depression, revealed the shortcomings of national government under the Articles of Confederation. Congress could neither suppress revolt nor regulate inflation; it had neither policing nor financial power.
The Constitution
In September 1786, delegates from five states met at the Annapolis Convention. Originally concerned with interstate commerce, the delegates turned their focus to the shortcomings of the national government. They proposed a convention to consider amending the Articles of Confederation. Congress agreed, and asked the states to appoint delegates to convene in Philadelphia.
In May 1787, fifty-five delegates, representing every state except Rhode Island, met in Philadelphia. Notable delegates included George Washington, John Dickinson, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The delegates were convinced of the need for a stronger national government. The first question facing the delegates was whether to amend the Articles of Confederation or to create a new framework of government. The decision was made to create a new framework embodied in a new constitution, and the convention became known as the Constitutional Convention.
Writing the Constitution: Conflict and Resolution
The main difficulty in drafting the Constitution immediately became clear: achieving a balance between the needs of large and small states. James Madison presented the Virginia Plan, a framework of government that contained one potential solution to this problem. The plan called for a bicameral (two house) legislature with representation in both houses proportional to population. These houses of Congress would jointly name the president and federal judges. But the smaller states opposed the Virginia Plan, since representation by population would give more power to the larger states. Smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan, which called for a unicameral (one house) Congress in which each state would have an equal number of seats.
In June 1787, a committee assigned to resolve this conflict approved the Connecticut Compromise, which created a bicameral legislature where each state received an equal vote in the upper house, and representation in the lower house was proportional to population. In September 1787, the new Constitution was approved by the convention and sent to the states for ratification.
The Connecticut Compromise combined the Virginia Plan’s suggestion of proportional representation and the New Jersey Plan’s suggestion of equal representation for all states, creating the House of Representatives and the Senate as we know them today.
A second debate resolved by the Constitution concerned the representation of slave states: whether slaves should be counted as persons or as property for the purposes of representation and taxation. Northern states, where slavery was not as common, argued that to count slaves as members of the population would give the South an unfair advantage in the lower house, where representation was proportional to population. The solution came in the three-fifths clause, which allowed three-fifths of all slaves to be counted as people.
The Constitution Completed
The document that emerged from Philadelphia represented, ultimately, a balance between a number of different forces:
  • The delegates’ acceptance of the need to strengthen the national government and their fear of government despotism and tyranny
  • The interests of the larger and smaller states
  • The interests of northern and southern states
The government was granted the powers to set and collect taxes, to regulate interstate commerce, and to conduct diplomacy in international affairs. The national government was also given 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 proposed a government composed of three branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. A system of checks and balances, in which each branch of the government held certain powers over the others protected against tyranny, and was the cornerstone of the new government. According to the checks and balances:
  • The president, the head of the executive branch, could veto acts of Congress and was responsible for appointing Supreme Court and other federal judges.
  • Congress, as a joint body, was given the power to impeach, try, and remove the president or Supreme Court justices from office, if necessary. The upper house of Congress, the Senate, could ratify or reject treaties proposed by the president, and had to approve the president’s cabinet appointments.
  • The judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, had the power to interpret the laws passed by Congress.
The writers of the Constitution wanted to increase the power of the national government without debilitating the states. They reserved for state legislatures the powers to elect members of the Senate and to select delegates for the Electoral College that elected the President. They further stipulated that the Constitution could be amended by a vote of three-fourths of the state legislatures.
Federal government can: State governments can:
Regulate foreign and interstate commerce Regulate intrastate commerce
Levy taxes Run elections
Conduct international relations Provide education
Declare and wage war Maintain the integrity of state borders
Raise an army and navy Maintain police power
Coin money Ratify proposed constitutional amendments
The centerpiece of the Constitution was the establishment of the checks and balances system, which would prevent any of the three branches of government from becoming too powerful.
The Fight For Ratification
Once approved by the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification. Only two-thirds (nine) of the states were needed to ratify it to put the new government into operation. Since states that did not ratify the Constitution would remain under the authority of the Articles of Confederation, the possibility existed that the United States would be divided into two countries.
The process of ratification began with two opposed and entrenched sides. The supporters of the Constitution called themselves Federalists. Their opponents went by the name Anti-federalists. The Anti-federalists claimed the Constitution granted too much power to the national government. They argued that the Constitution doomed the states to be dominated by a potentially tyrannical central government. Federalists defended the necessity of a strong national government and lauded the Constitution as the best possible framework.
The Federalists pushed ratification through eight state conventions by May 1788, though Rhode Island and North Carolina both rejected the Constitution outright. Virginia and New York, states crucial to the Union in terms of population and economics, remained undecided. In June 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, making the document the legitimate framework of national government. Debate gripped Virginia and New York. In late June 1788, Virginia finally ratified the Constitution by a narrow 53 percent majority. In New York, disputes continued for a month until Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists finally emerged victorious by a margin only slightly greater than that in Virginia.
The writings of the political leaders of this period are an important part of American history. The most notable works are collected in The Federalist Papers, a series of articles written by John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Exactly how much influence these papers had on the ratification of the Constitution is up for debate, but the articles do clearly explain the arguments in favor of the Constitution.
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