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
- 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
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.
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
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 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
- 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
|Conduct international relations
|Declare and wage war
||Maintain the integrity of state borders
|Raise an army and navy
||Maintain police power
||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
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.