US VA History SOL Review: Creating the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation.
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The nation’s first government from 1781 – 1787, the Articles of Confederation had helped Americans to win their independence and secure a Treaty with England. It organized the land ceded by the English in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, as well, with the Northwest Ordinance. But the government had list of weaknesses which outnumbered its virtues.
After witnessing the disorder which prevailed during an incident known as Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, George Washington came to favor a Constitutional Convention to provide the central government more vigor and power. He would preside over the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia, giving the entire meeting the air of legitimacy. He contributed little beyond his reputation, but that was enough to make the meeting productive, instead of treason.
The true brains behind this project, however, was James Madison. The diminutive and ultra-intellectual Virginian came to the Constitutional Convention having studied up, and his Virginia Plan was the starting point of the discussion that summer. Madison’s copious notes are still used by historians to study the Convention’s proceedings. Madison would become a most devoted Federalist during the ratification process; however, it was he who penned most of the Bill of Rights, later.
The United States Constitution which was ratified in 1787 – 1788 would go on to become the “supreme law of the land.” This means that whenever the Constitution comes into conflict with state laws, it is supreme. Whenever the Constitution fails to mention a particular role, however, the rights are reserved to the states or the people of the country. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had held more powers over the national government. Now, the situation would be reversed.
The United States Constitution became the Supreme law of the land when it was ratified in 1788. It’s rules are followed whenever they are in conflict with the states.
In James Madison’s Virginia Plan, the separation of powers was clearly established as a preferred method of government. In order to divide power, three distinct branches of government would be established: the legislative (Congress), the executive (Presidency), and the judicial (Supreme Court.) Each branch of government would have certain checks over the other branches – and thus, no one branch would become dictatorial, usurp power, or attempt to establish a tyranny.
The Separation of Powers and System of Checks and Balances:
President – veto power, power to appoint judges, Commander-in-Chief.
Congress – power of the purse, power to override veto, power to confirm appointments of judges; power to declare war.
Supreme Court – lifetime appointments, power to rule laws unconstitutional.
The House of Representatives:
Every state is represented proportionally, so Virginia has 11 Representatives, while a larger state like California has 53.
The United States Senate:
Every state has two Senators. Originally selected by state legislatures, today, thanks to the 17th Amendment, they are elected by the people. Virginia’s are Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats.
The Three-Fifths Compromise was an agreement to count enslaved men and women as a part of the population of Southern states as three-fifths of a person each. It gave the Southern states greater representation in Congress, and lessened the states’ tax burden. The Constitution protected slavery in other ways as well – with a fugitive slave law and a provision which forbid the banning of the international slave trade until the year 1808.
By counting enslaved people – who had no political rights in the South – as three-fifths of a person, Southern states gained greater power in Congress and lessened their tax burden.
Where the powers given to the national government – the Federal Government we say today – in the Constitution are explicit – it is the “supreme law of the land.” However, certain powers are reserved for the states. In fact, the 10th Amendment to the Constitution makes this abundantly clear.
The Tenth Amendment:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason in 1776, inspired many of the protections of individual rights and liberties which are in the Bill of Rights. Both documents emphasize:
Thomas Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom influenced the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof…” Jefferson, a deist, abhorred the idea of being required to pay taxes to religious institutions his conscience did not support.
The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom was written in the 1770s, but would not become state law until the year 1786. Jefferson, who was not a practicing Christian, admired the teachings of Christ, but preferred religious tolerance above all. The first portion of the First Amendment reflects Virginia’s Statute.
After it was written, the US Constitution had to be ratified by nine of the original thirteen states. People who wanted it to be ratified were called Federalists. They generally favored a strong central government, and wanted the government to influence economic development and internal improvements. George Washington was a Federalist. Three of the most famous Federalists, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, wrote The Federalist Papers to encourage the ratification of the US Constitution.
People who opposed the ratification of the Constitution were called Antifederalists. They generally feared that the Constitution gave too much power to the national government, and most favored a system more like the Articles of Confederation, which gave greater control to the states. Many Antifederalists insisted that the Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution before they would support ratifying the document.
Antifederalists in Virginia put up a fierce resistance to the Constitution. Fearing that the document had no Bill of Rights, George Mason refused to support it. Patrick Henry refused even to attend the Constitutional Convention, stating “I smell a rat.”
Although James Madison was a staunch Federalist who believed that the Constitution should be approved with or without a Bill of Rights, he was committed to fulfilling many of the promises he had made to Antifederalist assembly men who were on the fence about the Constitution. He was the principle author of the Bill of Rights, and introduced the amendments before Congress in 1791. Ten of the twelve measure he proposed passed immediately; one, today’s 27th Amendment, took over 200 years to be ratified; however, it was!
In the case of Marbury V. Madison, the Supreme Court ruled that portions of the Judiciary Act of 1790 were in fact unconstitutional. In doing so, they established the principle of judicial review. This meant that henceforward, the Supreme Court would determine if laws passed by the Congress – and the states for that matter – were constitutional or not. Previously this had been a point of contention – some argued that the states could determine constitutionality of laws on their own.
With his ruling in the case of Marbury V. Madison (1803), Chief Justice John Marshall established the principle of judicial review and made the Supreme Court relevant. The Court alone would determine constitutionality of laws.
When the state of Maryland attempted to put a tax on the Bank of the United States, a federal institution, the US government sued. The US government won the state and Chief Justice John Marshall ruled “the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof are supreme…They control the constitution and laws of the respective states.” Federal institutions were supreme to the states; the National Bank, therefore, could not be taxed by Maryland.
States cannot tax national institutions like the US National Bank, ruled Chief Justice John Marshall in the famous McCullough V. Maryland case of 1819
The state of New York sold Aaron Ogden the exclusive right to run a ferry boat service from New York to New Jersey. The US Federal government granted the same right to Thomas Gibbons. Who’s license was valid? The Supreme Court determined that the US Federal government’s powers were supreme, once again. Because the Constitution gave the power to Congress to regulate interstate trade, they were able to grant licenses in this case. Thomas Gibbons won, and Aaron Ogden was out of luck!
In Gibbons V. Ogden (1824) the federal government’s power to regulate trade – and to grant licenses for interstate commerce – was affirmed as superior to the states. US Government 1, New York, 0.