Constitution of the United States
History Of The Constitution
When the United States declared itself a country separate from Great Britain in 1776, it did not have a written constitution. Instead, the 13 former colonies each had their own sovereignty and separate bodies of law. How the newly formed United States would act as one nation remained uncertain and undefined. The CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, the first national legislative body of the new nation, attempted to address this state of affairs by drafting the nation's first constitution, the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION, which were ratified in 1781, the same year that hostilities in the Revolutionary War against Britain came to an end at Yorktown, Virginia.
The Articles of Confederation proved an ineffective national constitution. That document did not provide for a strong federal, or central, government and allowed each state its own "sovereignty, freedom and independence" (art. II). It also did not provide the federal government power to tax or regulate commerce.
The problems of a weak federal government with insufficient funds for operation became apparent as a number of problems developed in the 1780s: harmful economic warfare between states, inadequate commercial treaties with foreign countries, and the inability to raise an army to oppose British troops in the Northwest Territory. Particularly disturbing for many critics of the Confederation was the lack of a federal response to Shays's Rebellion in 1786–87, an armed uprising by debtor farmers in western Massachusetts directed against courts of law. GEORGE WASHINGTON reacted to this lack of response with words that expressed his strong desire for a better union of the states:
I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any country. You talk of employing influence to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. Influence is no government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured; or let us know the worst at once.
Seeking to address the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress called for the Constitutional Convention to create a better basis for union between the states. The convention began in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, with the original intention of amending the Articles of Confederation. However, the delegates—including BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, ALEXANDER HAMILTON, JAMES MADISON, and George Washington—soon planned an entirely new constitution.
Fifty-five delegates representing 12 states (all but Rhode Island) discussed different plans for a federal government. They agreed to create a government consisting of three separate branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—with checks and balances to keep any one branch from becoming too powerful. However, they dis-agreed strongly over particulars.
For example, two plans for representation in a national legislature competed for the loyalty of delegates. The so-called Virginia Plan, presented by EDMUND RANDOLPH and designed by James Madison, called for a bicameral, or two-house, legislature. Representation in the lower house would be proportional to population, and representation in the upper house would be elected by the lower house. Delegates from small states felt that such a plan would give too much power to large states. They favored the New Jersey Plan, which called for a unicameral legislature with equal representation to each state. Delegates settled the issue by voting for a compromise plan—called the Great Compromise, or the Connecticut Compromise—which established a Senate that gave each state two representatives and a House of Representatives that granted each state a number of representatives proportional to its population.
On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates signed the completed Constitution. In subsequent months, the document went before each of the states for ratification. The ratification process was accompanied by a spirited debate on the merits of the Constitution. The Federalists, on one side of the debate, supported ratification. Federalist leaders Alexander Hamilton, JOHN JAY, and James Madison argued eloquently on behalf of the Constitution in a series of newspaper essays that were published as The Federalist papers. Those opposed to the Constitution were called Anti-Federalists.
The ratification process, as contained in Article VII of the Constitution, required that nine of the 13 states approve the Constitution in special conventions. Within ten months after the Constitution was completed, ten states had ratified it. Rhode Island was the last of the 13 states to ratify the Constitution, on May 29, 1790, officially making the Constitution the highest law of the land.
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