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Chapter 2. The Constitution. Impact of Colonial Experience. J amestown – first permanent English colony (1607); set precedent for a representative assembly

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Chapter 2

The Constitution

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Impact of Colonial Experience

  • Jamestown – first permanent English colony (1607); set precedent for a representative assembly

  • Plymouth – Mayflower Compact (1620) set precedent for social contract based on the consent of the governed; adult males agreed to create and submit to authority of government

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Selected Milestones in the Colonial/Early American Era

  • Stamp Act (1765)

  • First Continental Congress (1774)

  • Second Continental Congress (1775)

  • Revolutionary War (1775-1781)

  • Declaration of Independence (1776)

  • Articles of Confederation drafted (1777)

  • Shays’ Rebellion (1786)

  • Constitutional Convention (1787)

  • U.S. Constitution (1788)

  • Bill of Rights (1791)

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Reading Exercise

  • Consult the Declaration of Independence(pages 371-372)

  • What does Jefferson mean by unalienable Rights? What are they?

  • What is the purpose of government?

  • What is the basis of government’s legitimacy/authority?

  • Under what conditions is Revolution justifiable according to Jefferson?

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Key Ideas in the Declaration of Independence

  • Natural Rights – individuals hold certain rights because they are human; governments cannot take away these “unalienable” (inalienable, can’t be transferred) rights; they are given to us by God

    • Locke describes these rights as “life, liberty, and property”

    • Jefferson describes these rights as “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

  • Social contract – general agreement between the people and the government; people agree to give up some of their liberties so that the remainder are protected

  • Popular sovereignty/government by consent – all legitimate authority flows from consent of people

  • Right/Duty to revolt (Revolution)

  • Adopted by 2nd Continental Congress (July 4, 1776)

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Discussion Question

  • Why did Jefferson write, “…pursuit of happiness” rather than “property”?

    • Let’s assume he wasn’t trying to cover up plagiarism; Locke was widely read at the time, at least among the elite

  • What has been the effect of this phrase, “pursuit of happiness” on American politics?

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Articles of Confederation

  • Drafted by 2nd Continental Congress (1777)

  • Article II guaranteed each state would retain sovereignty

  • Structure of government under Articles

    • Power flowed from the states to the Congress of the Confederation

  • Shays’ Rebellion (1786), although suppressed, illustrated the Confederation’s weaknesses, its inability to maintain order and provide security

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Constitutional Convention (1787)

  • Initially aimed at revising the Articles, but became much more…

  • 55 delegates

    • Secret proceedings

    • Monarchist nationalists

    • Democratic nationalists

    • Delegates opposed to any national government

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Compromises in Drafting the Constitution

  • Great Compromise– resulted in a bicameral legislature, with one house based on equal representation (Senate), the other on population (House)

  • Three-Fifths Compromise– resulted in slaves being counted as “3/5” of a person for the purpose of determining population for representation in the House of Representatives

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  • Were the Great and 3/5’s Compromises necessary and appropriate?

    • Congress outlawed the slave trade in 1808 (importation of slaves, not slavery; Article 1, Section 9)

  • What might have happened if the Constitution had not been ratified?

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Constitution’s Key Characteristics

  • Popular Sovereignty

    • Refer to Preamble, page 373

  • Republican/Representative democracy

  • Limited government

  • Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

    • Dividing governmental powers between legislature (makes laws), judicial (interprets laws), and executive (administers laws)

    • Providing checks on abuse of power

  • Federalism

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  • Federalists argued in favor of ratification; supported strong central government

    • Federalist Papers, Appendix C, pp. 391-396

      • No. 10: argument for representative democracy vs. direct democracy

      • No. 51: Separation of Powers, Checks and Balances, and Federalism

  • Anti-Federalists opposed strong central government

  • Helped by promise of amendments protecting individual rights –Bill of Rights (1791)

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The Bill of Rights (1791)

  • First 10 amendments to the Constitution

  • Designed to protect individuals from a too powerful national government

  • Limited federal encroachments but not state violations until 14th amendment

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Why Such a Difficult Amendment Process?

  • Two-step process: Proposal and Ratification

  • > 11,000 amendments considered by Congress

  • 33 submitted to states; only 27 ratified

  • Fear of tyranny of the majority

  • Oppression of groups or individuals

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Modes of Constitutional Change

  • Formal amendment process

  • Congressional legislation

  • Presidential actions

  • Judicial review

  • Interpretation, custom, usage

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  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of:

    • separation of powers?

    • checks and balances?

    • a difficult amendment process?

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Hot Links to Selected Internet Resources:

  • Book’s Companion Site:

  • Wadsworth’s Political Science Site:

  • Emory University, School of Law, Constitution of the United States:

  • National Constitution Center:

  • Web Guide to the Constitution of the United States: