The American Revolutionary Era, 1754-1789. State constitutions and the Articles of Confederation The federal Constitution. State constitutions.
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Shortly following the Declaration of Independence, one of the major tasks of the new states was to draft constitutions. Although varied from state to state, there were commonalities among these new state governments- all were guided by republican (elective/representative) principles, and most contained a Bill of Rights.
The trial and error processes of formulating these constitutions proved invaluable when the time came to draft a federal constitution. Many of the provisions of the federal Constitution were modeled from the states. The Massachusetts constitution, for example, was used to model the basic arrangement and “separation” of government powers into their respective branches. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 remains the oldest constitution in the world.
The Articles of Confederation was the first constitutional government of the United States. It was formed in the midst of the Revolution, (adopted in 1777, and formally ratified in 1781.)
The Articles created a “confederation” style government, which means that the constituent states were essentially sovereign and independent. The designers of the Articles purposefully established a weak national authority, because they believed that most matters of governance were best left to the governments of each state. The national government, under the Articles, consisted of a single branch- a unicameral Congress, and would only act on matters that affected the 13 states as a whole- national defense, diplomacy with foreign nations, etc.
Through the 1780s, however, the weaknesses of the Articles began to seriously hamper the effectiveness of the national government. Two detrimental weakness came to produce serious problems for the young nation, 1) Congress under the Articles had no power to tax, and 2) no power to regulate commerce between the states.
Despite the lack of power given to the central government under the Articles, there were a number of significant accomplishments achieved by the Articles congresses. The most commonly cited among these was a series of laws known as the Northwest Ordinances.
These laws provided for the survey, division, and sale of public lands in what was then the mostly unsettled (by whites) northwest- the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Ordinances also established a process for the eventual admission of these territories into the union of states. The congress under the Articles correctly predicted the importance of continued westward migration to the growth of the nation, and through the Ordinances helped to ensure an orderly progression for settlement in the territories.
Also of note, the Ordinances banned slavery in the northwest territories, in part reflecting the sentiment among many leaders of the revolutionary era that slavery was inconsistent with American principles and should be limited. This fact also inadvertently had the eventual effect of further polarizing north and south following the cotton boom and the rapid extension of slavery in the southern territories.
One additional provision of the Ordinances was its promotion of public education. The proceeds from one section (1 square mile, 640 acres) of each 36 square-mile township was to be used to fund schools, ensuring that public education would be available as the townships were settled. This forward -thinking provision sprang from the idea that an educated and informed citizenry would be crucial for the republic to flourish, both politically and economically.
In 1786, an event in western Massachusetts put the weaknesses of the national government under the Articles into sharp relief.
Daniel Shays was an army captain during the Revolutionary War. Like many veterans, Shays ran into hard times in the post-Revolution years of inflation, and a corresponding lack of currency. When the Massachusetts government refused to print more paper money and lenders began foreclosing on farmsteads for non-payment, Shays gathered a group of farmers who took up arms and led a full-scale rebellion.
Fearing that the unrest might spread, leaders from various states began to take seriously the idea of altering the Articles to address the fact that the National Congress had no way to regulate the national finances and national economy.
Other events around the same time also convinced various state leaders to address amendments to the Articles. Many states had developed prohibitive trade regulations against other states to try and strengthen their own economies. The effect was contentious inter-state relations, and economic inefficiency in national trade as a whole. Leaders from several states met in 1785 and 1786 to discuss the problem of interstate trade.
These ongoing issues, with the addition of Shays Rebellion, convinced all but Rhode Island to elect delegates to attend yet another meeting in 1787. The meeting was held in Philadelphia, and shortly after it began, the 55 delegates in attendance agreed that simply revising the Articles would not be enough. Rather, an entirely new constitution needed to be drafted. The Philadelphia Convention then turned into the Constitutional Convention.
Once the delegates (now known as the “Framers”) gathered at Philadelphia had determined to scrap the Articles and draft a new Constitution, they had to decide how the new government would be structured, and how much power would be given to the national government.
Several key decisions and compromises were made between the delegates, in the effort to balance the competing interests of the states.
One of the most important compromises achieved at the Constitutional Convention, later known as the “Great Compromise” (also sometimes referred to as the Connecticut Compromise) had to do with how the states would be represented in the national government.
There was a fear, especially among smaller states, that they would have too little say in the newly formed Congress, when compared to the more populous states. A solution was reached by creating a bicameral Congress, where the membership of one house would be determined by population (House of Representatives), while in the other house (Senate) states would be represented equally.
A state’s population determines how many members it has in the House of Representatives. States with large populations have more members in the House. For example, California, the most populous state, has 53. Georgia has 14 House members, and a state like Wyoming, the least populous state in the union, only gets one. In the Senate, all states, regardless of size, have two Senators.
Another major compromise reached at the 1787 Constitutional Convention dealt with the divisive issue of slavery. Some delegates from northern states, all of which had abolished slavery by that point, argued that the slave populations in the South should not be counted for representation in the federal Congress. The southern states thought they should, and a compromise was reached to count 3 out of every 5 slaves for representation and taxation purposes. This is known as the 3/5 Compromise.
Interestingly, the words slavery or slave never appear in the Constitution. Instead, in the clause establishing the 3/5 provision, slave populations are referred to as “other persons.”
The Framers also reached a compromise to place a 20 year moratorium on any laws that would prohibit the slave trade. When the moratorium was satisfied in 1809, Congress passed laws that banned the foreign slave trade, but left the domestic trade intact where it existed.
Once the Constitution was finished, it was sent to the 13 state legislatures to be ratified. 9 of the 13 states had to ratify the new Constitution for it to take effect.
As the document made its way through the various state legislatures and among the public, a great debate emerged about whether to support ratification. Two sides emerged: The Federalists supported ratification, while the Anti-Federalists did not.
The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and others, supported the Constitution because they believed that for the United States to be truly “united,” the central (national) government must be given more power- as the Constitution did by allowing the federal government to tax, regulate trade, and enforce its laws with a chief executive (president).
The Anti-Federalists, led by old-school Patriots like Patrick Henry, were opposed to the Constitution because they thought the government it created was too powerful. They believed that most powers of government should reside with the states.
The Federalist Papers were a series of 89 essays written by leading Federalists Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay. They were intended to convince (especially) New York to ratify the Constitution.
In these essays, the authors made a forceful and eloquent case for ratification, extolling the numerous advantages of the republican form of federal government created by the Constitution, as well as the virtues of a strong executive.
The Anti-Federalists continued to argue that the government created by the Constitution was too powerful and might lead to tyranny. They insisted that a Bill of Rights be amended to the Constitution, and its guarantee proved to be the last major hurdle to get the Constitution ratified, which it finally was on 17 September 1789.