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the us constitution

The US Constitution

Politics 19th Century Style!

common sense
Common Sense
  • In 1776, Common Sense challenged the authority of the British government and the royal monarchy. The plain language that Paine used spoke to the common people of America and was the first work to openly ask for independence from Great Britain.
“government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance.
  • If we omit it now, some, Massanello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.”
articles of confederation
Articles of Confederation
  • Prelude to our constitution
  • Benjamin Franklin influenced by Iroquois “confederacy”; Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora who met in a central council called the Long House
the annapolis conference
The Annapolis Conference
  • September 1786 conference called to discuss commerce in the new nation.
  • The national government had no authority to regulate trade
  • The conference was called by Virginia leader James Madison.
  • Only five of the 13 states sent any delegates at all (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), and of those, only three (Delaware, New Jersey, and Virginia) had enough delegates to speak for their states.
  • The delegates decided that another conference, "with more enlarged powers" meet in Philadelphia "take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union."
  • Congress approved the plan to hold another, more sweeping conference on February 21, 1787.
madison and the virginia plan
Madison and the Virginia Plan
  • Virginian James Madison was a critic of the Confederation;
  • States were under no obligation to pay their fair share of the national budget; violated international treaties; ignored the authority of the Congress; and violated each other's rights.
  • The Confederation allowed state sovereignty and weak national council.
  • Madison favored - a republican model based on state representatives
  • His vision included separate authorities with separate responsibilities, allowing no one to control too much of the government; and a dominant national government, curbing the power of the states.
  • From Madison's thoughts, notes, and work, the delegates from Virginia all met prior to the start of the Convention. They hammered out the details of what became known as the Virginia Plan.
virginia plan
Virginia Plan
  • A bicameral legislature (two houses)
  • Both house's membership determined proportionately
  • The lower house was elected by the people
  • The upper house was elected by the lower house
  • The legislature was very powerful
  • An executive was planned, but would exist to ensure the will of the legislature was carried out, and was so chosen by the legislature
  • Formation of a judiciary, with life-terms of service
  • The executive and some of the national judiciary would have the power to veto legislation, subject to override
  • National veto power over any state legislation
  • The Virginia Plan was reported to the Convention by Edmund Randolph, Virginia's governor, on May 29, 1787
sherman and the connecticut great compromise
Sherman and the Connecticut (Great) Compromise
  • Most of the debate in the first few weeks concerned the revision of the Virginia Plan.
  • Roger Sherman of Connecticut rose on the floor and proposed:
  • "That the proportion of suffrage in the 1st. branch should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more.“
  • This was later amended to allow two votes per state
paterson and the new jersey plan
Paterson and the New Jersey Plan
  • New Jersian William Paterson feared that the larger states would dominate the new government.
  • The current Congress was maintained, but granted new powers. For example, the Congress could set taxes and force their collection
  • An executive, elected by Congress, was created - the Plan allowed for a multi-person executive
  • The executives served a single term and were subject to recall based on the request of state governors
  • A judiciary appointed by the executives, with life-terms of service
  • Laws set by the Congress took precedence over state law
  • The New Jersey Plan was more along the lines of what the delegates had been sent to do - draft amendments to the Confederation to ensure that it functioned properly. It also protected the small states from the large ones by ensuring one state, one vote.
  • Paterson reported the plan to the Convention on June 15, 1787. It was ultimately rejected, but gave the small states a rallying point from which to defend their firm beliefs.
hamilton and the british plan
Hamilton and the British Plan
  • For New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, neither the Virginia Plan nor the New Jersey Plan were enough.
  • In politics, he was of the general opinion that the masses could not be trusted to select the leaders of the United States.
  • Hamilton proposed a new government based on a model he and the other delegates knew well, perhaps all too well: that of the British monarchy and parliament.
  • Hamilton advocated virtually doing away with state sovereignty, noting that as long as there was power to be had in the states, people would aspire to acquire that power, to the detriment of the nation as a whole. His plan featured:
A bicameral legislature
  • The lower house, the Assembly, was elected by the people for three year terms
  • The upper house, the Senate, elected by electors chosen by the people, and with a life-term of service
  • An executive called the Governor, elected by electors and with a life-term of service
  • The Governor had an absolute veto over bills
  • A judiciary, with life-terms of service
  • State governors appointed by the national legislature
  • National veto power over any state legislation
  • Hamilton reported his plan to the Convention on June 18, 1787
  • Hamilton's plan was well-received, it seems, with general agreement that it was well thought out and complete. However, no one supported it as a model for a new form of government. The system was too similar to that of Britain, under which the Americans had long-suffered. His plan went no further.
  • However, in the struggle for ratification, Hamilton became a champion of the new Constitution, and was one of the main contributors to the Federalist Papers.
pinckney step father of the constitution
Pinckney - step-father of the Constitution?
  • Pinckney argued that the people could be trusted to make important decisions on a national scale.
  • Historians point out that his feud with Madison resulted in his obscurity.
  • Pinckney was saved, though, in the early 1900's, when the papers of fellow delegate James Wilson were examined and found to contain notes from Pinckney's Plan. Upon examination, it was clear that a great deal of what Pinckney proposed eventually appeared in some form or another in the final Constitution. Among his plan's features:
A bicameral legislature
  • The lower house, the House of Delegates, was elected by the people, with proportional representation
  • The upper house, the Senate, elected by the House of Delegates, four per state, with four year terms
  • An executive called the President, elected by the legislature
  • A Council of Revision consisting of the President and some or all of his Cabinet, with a veto over bills
  • National veto power over any state legislation
  • A judiciary was established
  • Pinckney reported his plan to the Convention on May 29, 1787, the same day as the Virginia Plan was introduced.
  • It is clear from the accounts of other members of the Convention that Pinckney's plan was sent on to the Committee of Detail that drafted the first copies of the Constitution, and many of his ideas and phrases are included in what we read today.
separation of powers
Separation of Powers
  • One thing each of the Plans had in common was a division of the government into "departments." An executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch.
  • In addition to this separation on the national level, there was an additional level of separation between the states and the national government.
  • Some advocated giving the federal government almost total power; with the ability to overrule or approve all state legislation.
  • Another idea was to grant specific powers to the federal government.
  • The Virginia Plan had a body consisting of the executive and judiciary, some control over the legislature was provided for; it also allowed the federal government to overrule the states in some cases.
federal powers
Federal Powers
  • the Convention established a Committee of Detail to take everything discussed thus far and put it into a rough draft.
  • Congress would have the power make all laws deemed "necessary and proper for carrying into execution"
  • Today, it is clear to us how much power the Necessary and Proper clause grants to the federal government.
state powers
State Powers
  • the Virginia Plan proposed a national veto over state laws, but the potential for abuse was easily recognized.
  • Southern states were concerned that the national government would eliminate slavery.
  • However, it was noted that it would be difficult for the federal government to review all state laws.
  • That, plus the idea of Luther Martin to adopt language from the New Jersey Plan that made all national laws and treaties the "supreme law of the respective states," provided some control over the states while not going overboard.
the executive
The Executive
  • When the Convention took up the question of the President, they had a few decisions to make: single individual or committee? Appointed or elected? And what powers should the President, in whatever form, be able to carry out?
  • States rightists wanted a weak executive; nationalists a strong one. It was noted that each of the states had single executives; the idea is well-known and seemed to work. When it came to a vote, the single executive prevailed.
  • The Virginia Plan also called for the President to have a council to advise him, but the idea was deemed unnecessary with the separation of powers being built into the Constitution, and it was eliminated.
  • How the President would be chosen - by the people or by the legislature? The idea of direct election sounds so simple to us today, but in 18th century America, there were no parties, no conventions, no mass media ... how would the people know who to vote for?
the executive branch
The Executive Branch
  • In the Virginia Plan, a weak executive was a single person, who, along with the judiciary, would have some veto power over the legislature. In the New Jersey Plan, the executive was not one person, but a council of sorts, a sort of co-presidency. In both cases, the executive was chosen by the legislature. These presidents were nothing like the president we know today.
  • One of the driving forces behind the strong presidency we have today is a figure virtually unknown today, but who was very prominent in his day, and eventually would serve on the Supreme Court: James Wilson of Pennsylvania.
  • His theory required the direct election of as many representatives as possible; to him, an appointed President was as dangerous, or at least as onerous, as a monarch. He is considered responsible for our peculiar Electoral College.
The Framers did not want to give the power to directly elect the President;
  • Citizens were beholden to local interests, easily fooled, or simply because a national election, in the time of oil lamps and quill pens, was just impractical.
  • The Electoral College, proposed by James Wilson, was the compromise that the Constitutional Convention reached.
  • Though the term is never used in the Constitution itself, the electors that choose the President at each election are traditionally called a College. In the context of the Constitution, the meaning of college is not that of a school, but of a group of people organized toward a common goal.
  • The Electoral College insulates the election of the President from the people by having the people elect not the person of the President, but the person of an Elector who is pledged to vote for a specific person for President.
Each state is allocated "electoral votes" equal to the total number of Senators and Representatives allocated to that state.
  • The District of Columbia is also allocated 3 electoral votes.
  • On election day, voters are actually voting for Electoral College members who promise to vote for the candidates of their respective political parties.
  • In all but two states the party with the greatest number of votes receives all the electoral votes for that state, even if no candidate gets a majority.
  • Nebraska and Maine allow their electoral votes to be split among candidates, but this has not actually happened in modern times.
  •    In order to win, a "ticket" (A party's Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates) must receive 270 votes, one more than half of the total of 538 electoral votes. If no ticket has 270 votes, then the House of Representatives decides the election.   The electoral system forces candidates to carefully allocate their time and money among the states. Each candidate must devise a campaigning strategy which gives him or her the best chance to win at least 270 electoral votes.
At the same time, the term of the President was debated; the delegates toyed with many ideas, including a seven year, non-reselectable term, a three-year reselectable term, and a term which was essentially life, or on good behavior.
  • The detail committee took Wilson's Electoral College idea and expanded upon it; electors would be chosen by the states in whatever manner they desired, which accommodated selection by the state legislature, governor, or the people.
the problem of slavery
The problem of slavery
  • The enslavement of blacks in America was of great concern to the men at the convention.
  • Southern delegates wanted to maintain Southern economy based on slavery.
  • Many of the largest slave holders in the United States were at the Convention.
  • Most Northern delegates opposed slavery, but did not favor racial equality and also feared a large slave revolt
  • Roger Sherman proposed a compromise;
The deal allowed the South to keep the three-fifths count for representation that had been used under the Articles for calculation of state levies, as long as they also had a three-fifths count for calculation of taxes.
The slave trade issue was debated at length
  • The states of the deep south wanted it maintained;
  • The North and the middle south strongly opposed the issue
  • They reached a compromise;

In exchange for a prohibition on export taxes, the South agreed to allowing the slave trade to continue for just 20 more years, and for imported slaves to be taxable.

As a side note, the very day that the slave trade could constitutionally be prohibited, it was: on January 1, 1808.

the bill of rights
The Bill of Rights
  • the Bill of Rights is one of the most recognizable parts of the U.S. Constitution; but the Framers, for the most part, felt one was not necessary.
  • George Mason (the principle author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights), argued in favor of a bill of rights.
  • Many argued that “rights” were a state issue
  • Mason proposed that the entire Constitution be prefaced with a bill of rights - the placement to signify the importance of the rights. He wanted to use the Virginia Declaration as a model to expedite the process.
However, the delegates had been working on the constitution for months and few felt that Mason's ideas be agreed on in a few hours and feared the discussions would end the end the convention.
  • For example, how to add a provision that all men are born equal and free with the specter of slavery looming over the nation?
  • As the completed Constitution went out among the states for debate and ratification, the issue of the lack of a bill of rights was a major point of contention raised by the opponents of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists.
  • December, 1791, the Bill of Rights were added to the end of the Constitution, placing some of the strongest protections of individual rights since before or since into force on a national scale.
  • September 17, 1787, the final draft of the Constitution was signed.
  • Of the 55 people who attended the Convention, 39 actually signed.
  • Some refused to sign in protest, such as Mason.
The Democratic-Republican Party, founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as the Republican party in 1792, was the dominant political party in the United States from 1800 until the 1820s.
  • Foreign policy issues were central; the party opposed the Jay Treaty of 1794 with Britain (then at war with France) and supported good relations with France before 1801.
  • The Party insisted on a strict construction of the Constitution, and denounced many of Hamilton's (federalists) proposals as unconstitutional.
  • The party promoted states' rights and the primacy of the yeoman farmer over bankers, industrialists, merchants, and other financial interests.
  • From 1792 to 1816 the party opposed such Federalist policies as high tariffs, a navy, military spending, a national debt, and a national bank.
the federalists
The Federalists
  • The Federalists were originally those forces in favor of the ratification of the Constitution and were typified by:
  • A desire to establish a strong central government (unlike that which existed under the Articles of Confederation)
  • A corresponding desire for weaker state governments
  • The support of many large landowners, judges, lawyers, leading clergymen and merchants
  • The support of creditor elements who felt that a strong central government would give protection to public and private credit.
  • The term "Federalist" was later applied to the emerging political faction headed by Alexander Hamilton in George Washington's administration.
The Bank of the United States would provide loans to businessmen to assist them in industrialization.
  • The bank also was responsible for controlling inflation by limiting the amount of money that the federal government issued.
  • This would help create a stable currency for the United States and encourage investment in business.
The Federalists were also elitist.
  • Hamilton believed that only the wealthiest and most educated white men should rule in America.
  • If working-class or even middle-class people received power, greed might corrupt them.
The Federalist Party ceased to exist at the end of the War of 1812.
  • Some Federalists opposed the war.
  • Many of these men earned their living through trade. The raging conflict hampered the Federalists' ability to trade with England, America's major economic partner during this time period.
  • In 1814, some Federalists in New England even contemplated breaking away from the United States and forming their own country unless the American government immediately sought peace.
  • With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 and the resulting United States victory, many Americans viewed the Federalists as traitors.
  • The Federalist Party collapsed, leaving the Democratic-Republican Party as the only political party in the United States until the mid 1820s.
check it out
Check it out!
  • The Federalist Papers