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The Founding and the Constitution

The First Government of the United States

Overview

The Constitutional Convention

Americans had significant experience with self-government before the writing of the Constitution in 1787, and this experience shaped the political views of the framers who wrote the Constitution and factored into the formation of the first government. A constitution is a set of rules that determines how power will be used legitimately in a state. Contrary to popular belief, few governments have been created by written constitutions.

The Colonies

Europeans settlers had been living in America for more than 250 years by the time independence from England was declared. Although the colonists were subjects of the British crown, the colonies functioned more or less independently and thus had extensive experience in self-government. Many towns held meetings to discuss public business, for example, and residents had some input into their colonies’ governments.

The colonists rebelled, in part, because they felt that the British were increasingly taking away their powers of self-government. Prior to the 1750s, the colonists paid few taxes to Britain. But when the British Parliament passed a number of taxes on the colonists, the colonists decried the measures as taxation without representation. In the 1760s, for example, the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act enraged many colonists because the acts levied taxes on certain commodities but gave the colonists no say in how the money would be spent.

Angered by the taxes, representatives from the colonies gathered at the First Continental Congress in 1774 and called for a total boycott of British goods. When the British sent troops to enforce the new taxes, many colonists began to agitate for independence. War between the British and the American colonists broke out in 1775.

The table on the next page lists the major events during the early years of the United States.

 
MAJOR EVENTS IN THE FOUNDING OF THE UNITED STATES

Date

Event

1607 First permanent British colony at Jamestown, Virginia
1620 Pilgrims land in Massachusetts
1620–1732 Founding of the thirteen colonies; colonists govern themselves and develop idea of limited government
1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties passed; it protects rights of individuals
1764 Sugar Act taxes sugar
1765 Stamp Act taxes a variety of goods
1770 Boston Massacre
1773 Boston Tea Party
1775 Revolutionary War begins
1776 Second Continental Congress convenes; Declaration of Independence is written
1781 Ratification of the Articles of Confederation
1783 Treaty of Paris ends the Revolutionary War
1786 Shays’ Rebellion begins in western Massachusetts
1786 Annapolis Convention calls on Congress to convene a meeting to fix the Articles
1787 Constitutional Convention
1787–1789 Battle to ratify the Constitution
1789 Constitution ratified; the new United States government takes power

Declaring Independence

The first attempt at national government arose during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). State governments sent representatives to the Second Continental Congress in 1776 to organize American efforts immediately before and during the Revolutionary War. Instead of merely demanding better treatment as British subjects, the congress decided to fight for full independence.

The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to formally break away from Great Britain and to justify the Revolutionary War. According to the Declaration, “all men are created equal” and certain rights and liberties cannot be denied to people. Among those rights is self-government: The people must consent to the government for it to be legitimate. Because the British government had repeatedly abused the rights of the colonists and ignored their wishes, the colonists were no longer obligated to obey the government.

The Articles of Confederation

The Second Continental Congress also wrote a constitution to create a new national government. The Continental Congress approved the Articles of Confederation, which took effect in 1781 during the war. The national government under the Articles of Confederation consisted of a single legislative body called Congress in which each state received one vote. All congressional decisions required a unanimous vote. The government under the Articles did not have a judicial system (national courts) or an executive (such as a president). As a result, each state had a significant degree of sovereignty and autonomy. The national government under the Articles remained in effect until 1789.

Under the Articles, Congress was empowered to do the following:

  • Declare war and make peace
  • Establish armed forces
  • Make treaties
  • Govern western lands owned by the United States
  • Borrow money

Congress lacked a number of key powers, though. It could not collect taxes, compel the states to fund the war, contribute troops, or enforce cooperation. Chaos ensued as the various states fought with one another. Nevertheless, Congress achieved two notable successes:

  • Negotiating and signing the Treaty of Paris (1783) to end the Revolutionary War
  • Passing the Northwest Ordinances (1787) to create a system for admitting new states to the Union
Shays’ Rebellion

Facing large debts and heavy taxes, some farmers in western Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays rebelled in 1786 shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War. Compounding their frustrations was the substantial back pay owed to the veterans of the war. The governor of Massachusetts asked Congress to help quell Shays’ Rebellion, but Congress could not help because it had no army and could not convince the other states to send troops. Even though Massachusetts soldiers managed to defeat Shays and his followers, the rebellion helped convince some Americans that national government was too weak: It could not enforce its authority and could not coerce the individual states to work for the common good of the nation.

The Annapolis Convention

Frustrated by Shays’ Rebellion, a conference of delegates from five states convened in Annapolis in fall 1786. The Annapolis Convention called on Congress to send officials to Philadelphia to revise the Articles to make Congress stronger.

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