The History of the Constitution of the United States: an overview

by williamdbailey

The United States Constitution was written in 1787 during the Philadelphia Convention. After ratification in eleven states, in 1789 its elected officers of government assembled in New York City, replacing the earlier 1781 Articles of Confederation government. Following its establishment, the original Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times. The meaning of the Constitution is interpreted and extended by judicial review in the federal courts. An original copy of the parchments is held at the National Archives Building.

Two alternative plans were developed in Convention. The nationalist majority, soon to be called “Federalists,” put forth the Virginia Plan, a consolidated government based on proportional representation among the states by population. The “old patriots,” later called “Anti-Federalists,” advocated the New Jersey Plan, a purely federal proposal, based on providing each state with equal representation. The Connecticut Compromise allowed for both plans to work together. Other controversies developed regarding slavery and a Bill of Rights in the original document.

The drafted Constitution was submitted to the Articles Congress. It in turn forwarded the Constitution as drafted to the states for ratification by the Constitutional method proposed. The Federalist Papers provided background and justification for the Constitution. Some states agreed to ratify the Constitution only if the amendments that were to become the Bill of Rights would be taken up immediately by the new government, and they were duly proposed in the first session of the First Congress.

Once the Articles Congress certified that eleven states had ratified the Constitution, elections were held, the new government began on March 4, 1789, and the Articles Congress dissolved itself. Later Amendments address individual liberties and freedoms, federal relationships, election procedures, terms of office, expanding the electorate, ending slavery, financing government, consumption of alcohol and Congressional pay. Criticism over the life of the Constitution has centered on expanding democracy and states rights.

williamdbailey | September 16, 2013 at 9:00 AM | Tags: New Jersey Plan, Virginia Plan | Categories: U.S. Constitution | URL:


The History of the Constitution: the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation

by williamdbailey


The Declaration of Independence

On June 4, 1776, a resolution was introduced in the Second Continental Congress declaring the union with Great Britain to be dissolved, proposing the formation of foreign alliances, and suggesting the drafting of a plan of confederation to be submitted to the respective states. Independence was declared on July 4, 1776; the preparation of a plan of confederation was postponed. Although the Declaration was a statement of principles, it did not create a government or even a framework for how politics would be carried out. It was the Articles of Confederation that provided the necessary structure to the new nation during and after the American Revolution. The Declaration, however, did set forth the ideas of natural rights and the social contract that would help form the foundation of constitutional government.

The era of the Declaration of Independence is sometimes called the “Continental Congress” period. John Adams famously estimated as many as one-third of those resident in the original thirteen colonies were patriots. Scholars such as Gordon Wood describe how Americans were caught up in the Revolutionary fervor and excitement of creating governments, societies, a new nation on the face of the earth by rational choice as Thomas Paine declared in Common Sense.

Republican government and personal liberty for “the people” were to overspread the New World continents and to last forever, a gift to posterity. Most of these were influenced by Enlightenment philosophy. The adherents to this cause seized on English Whig political philosophy as described by historian Forrest McDonald as a means of justifying for most of their changes to received colonial charters and traditions. It was rooted in opposition to monarchy they saw as venal and corrupting to the “permanent interests of the people”.

To these partisans, voting was the only permanent defense of the people. Elected terms for legislature were cut to one year, for Virginia’s Governor, one year without re-election. Property requirements for suffrage for men were reduced to taxes on their tools in some states. Free blacks in New York could vote if they owned enough property. New Hampshire was thinking of abolishing all voting requirements for men but residency and religion. New Jersey let women vote. In some states, senators were now elected by the same voters as the larger electorate for the House, and even judges were elected to one year terms.

These “radical Whigs” were called the people “out-of-doors”. They distrusted not only royal authority, but any small, secretive group as being unrepublican. Crowds of men and women massed at the steps of rural Court Houses during market-militia-court days. Shays Rebellion is a famous example. Urban riots began by the out-of-doors rallies on the steps of an oppressive government official with speakers such as members of the Sons of Liberty holding forth in the “people’s “committees” until some action was decided upon, including hanging his effigy outside a bedroom window, or looting and burning down the offending tyrant’s home.

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The Articles of Confederation, Page 1

The Articles of Confederation was unanimously adopted in 1781 once Maryland agreed. Over the previous four years, it had been used by Congress as a “working document” to administer the early United States government, win the Revolutionary War and secure the Treaty of Paris (1783) with Great Britain. Lasting successes during its life prior to the Constitutional Convention included the Land Ordinance of 1785 where Congress promised settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains full citizenship and eventual statehood. Some historians characterize this period from 1781 to 1789 as weakness, dissension, and turmoil. Other scholars view the evidence as reflecting an underlying stability and prosperity. But signs of returning prosperity in some areas did not slow growing domestic and foreign problems. Nationalists saw that the confederation’s central government was not strong enough to establish a sound financial system, regulate trade, enforce treaties, or go to war when needed.

The Congress was the sole organ of the national government, without a national court to interpret law nor an executive branch to enforce them, in the states or on individuals. Governmental functions, including declarations of war and calls for an army, were supported in some degree for some time, by each state voluntarily, or not. These newly independent states separated from Britain no longer received favored treatment at British ports. The British refused to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785 because the individual American states would not be bound by it. Congress could not act directly upon the States nor upon individuals. It had no authority to regulate foreign or interstate commerce. Every act of government was left to the individual States. Each state levied taxes and tariffs on other states at will, which invited retaliation. Congress could vote itself mediator and judge in state disputes, but states did not have to accept its decisions.

The weak central government could not back its policies with military strength, embarrassing it in foreign affairs. The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the new nation’s Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in the Treaty of Paris of 1783. British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish officers to the south supplied arms to various Native American tribes, allowing them to attack American settlers. The Spanish refused to allow western American farmers to use their port of New Orleans to ship produce.

Revenues were requisitioned by Congressional petition to each state. None paid what they were asked. Some funded only enough to pay interest to their own citizens. Connecticut declared it would not pay at all, not just for one year, but two. Congress appealed to the thirteen states for an amendment to the Articles to tax enough to pay the public debt as principle came due. Twelve states agreed, Rhode Island did not, so it failed. The Articles required super majorities. Amendment proposals to states required ratification by all thirteen states, all important legislation needed 70% approval, at least nine states. Repeatedly, one or two states defeated legislative proposals of major importance.

Without taxes the government could not pay its debt. Seven of the thirteen states printed large quantities of its own paper money, backed by gold, land, or nothing, so there was no fair exchange rate among them. State courts required state creditors to accept payments at face value with a fraction of real purchase power. The same legislation that these states used to wipe out the Revolutionary debt to patriots was used to pay off promised veteran pensions. The measures were popular because they helped both small farmers and plantation owners pay off their debts.

The Massachusetts legislature was one of the five against paper money. It imposed a tightly limited currency and high taxes. Without paper money veterans without cash lost their farms at sheriff’s auction for back taxes. This triggered Shays Rebellion to stop tax collectors and close the courts until the unfair proceedings were dropped. Troops quickly suppressed the rebellion, but nationalists like George Washington warned:

“There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to.”

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George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate

Movement towards replacing the Articles of Confederation began the year after its formal adoption in June 1784. George Washington, the future president of the Convention, hosted Virginia and Maryland commissioners to negotiate joint commercial regulation of the Potomac River. The compact drafted by the Mount Vernon Commission is still in force, but more importantly, they suggested a convention of states to “effectually” provide for a uniform commercial system throughout the United States.

This meant overcoming tariffs that the states had erected against one another during the Articles of Confederation regime. It was an idea for free trade across political boundaries like that advocated by Adam Smith in his influential 1776 Wealth of Nations. Over the next few months in state legislatures and in the Articles Congress, their recommendation was taken up and enlarged concerning individual rights, congressional governance and national security. The Constitution was to establish the largest free trade area in the world.

The Articles Congress received a “Grand Committee” report on August 7, 1786 proposing seven amendments to the states for power to “render the federal government adequate” to its declared purposes. As each achieved unanimous approval, it was to be adopted into the Articles of Confederation. But it did not leave Congress.

Congress was to have “sole and exclusive” power to regulate trade. States could not favor foreigners over citizens. Tax bills would require 70% vote, public debt 85%, not 100%. Congress could charge states a late payment penalty fee. A state withholding troops would be charged for them, plus a penalty. If a state did not pay, Congress could collect directly from its cities and counties. A state payment on another’s requisition would earn annual 6%. There would have been a national court of seven. No-shows at Congress would have been banned from any U.S. or state office. A week later, three states were asked again to explain why they did not pay their national taxes. Eight were “earnestly recommended” to comply with a financial Act of Congress. The “Grand Committee” proposals for seven amendments to the Articles of Confederation were sent back to committee without a vote.

Nine of the thirteen United States appointed commissioners to meet at Annapolis in September 1786. They were to formulate recommendations for improvements in the international trade and interstate commerce that was faltering under the regime of the Articles of Confederation. In the event, only five States were represented, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York. Although centrally located, even appointed delegates from New England and Southern states did not show. Because few states participated, the Annapolis Convention did not deem “it advisable to proceed on the business of their mission.” Leaders including Virginians Edmund Randolph and James Madison wrote a unanimous report suggesting that a convention of delegates from all thirteen states meet at Philadelphia in May 1787. More than trade and commerce, their purpose would be to examine the defects of the Articles of Confederation government and to formulate “a plan for supplying such defects as may be discovered.”

Virginia and five other states immediately approved and appointed their delegations. New York and others hesitated thinking that only the Continental Congress could propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation. George Washington was quite unwilling to attend an irregular convention called in the same way as the failed Annapolis Convention. Congress then called the convention at Philadelphia. The “Federal Constitution” was to be changed to meet the requirements of good government and “the preservation of the Union”. Congress would then approve what measures it allowed, then the state legislatures would unanimously confirm whatever changes of those were to take effect.