The Constitution of the United States of America is not just the governing foundation of our nation, but the very essence of us as a people. However, when most Americans think of the U.S. Constitution they’re usually referring to one or more of its first ten amendments. A while ago I was talking to a friend about the political state of our country and he said, “We need to go back to the original constitution as it was written,” I said to him, “You mean before freedom of speech, religion, and the press, or the right to bear arms?” “Oh,” he answered, “that’s right, they’re amendments.”
My original plan for these posts was to just write about the history and background around the first ten amendments, and only using the formation of the constitution as background. But as I researched I came to realize that I too only saw the constitution through those amendments, and was missing the amazing journey our founding fathers took in creating this nation of ours.
What were the needs and desires that took us from thirteen separate colonies and turned us into thirteen United States. And what were the fears and concerns that guided those framers to “form a more perfect union,” one that could adapt and grow with the better understanding that comes over time.
So I begin before a nation was born, as we struggled to gain freedom during our Revisionary War.
The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789), the first constitution of the United States
As the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) intensified the Continental Congress saw the urgency to form a stronger union between the states for the purposes of securing loans and other aid from foreign nations.
The first unification proposal was presented by Benjamin Franklin in July of 1775, this was never formally considered. There would be a total of six proposals submitted and rejected. In June of 1776 Pennsylvanian John Dickinson’s proposed Articles were passed on to committee for revisions. The revised Articles were debated by the full Congress, and after a long deliberation were approved and submitted to the thirteen states for ratification on November 15, 1777. On March
1, 1781 John Hanson, President of the Continental Congress, signed the Articles of Confederation into law, creating the new nation of the United States of America. Since Hanson was the President of the first governing congress of the new nation, technically he would be the first President of the United States.
The relationship between the states was described in Article III of the Articles of Confederation as, “a firm league of friendship… for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.” The biggest fear from the states was that a strong central government would take away states’ rights, but under these new Articles the states remained sovereign. The new government would: have one house of Congress with its members elected by the state’s legislation, the authority to form international alliances and treaties, make war, maintain an army and navy, coin money, establish a postal service, and manage Indian affairs. What it couldn’t do was to regulate foreign commerce or raise taxes; revenue would come from each state based on the value of its privately own lands. Also there would be no restrictions of trade between states, and each state would honor all judicial rulings of other states.
One major issue addressed in the Articles was western expansion. Under original colonial charters coastal states as Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Rhode Island were confined to a few hundred miles of Atlantic coast while other state’s charters allowed them to expand westward. Thomas Jefferson led the way with Virginia, that set limits to states expanding their boarder westward; this allowed the new lands to the west to become new states. It’s this article that set the guidelines for us to become our 50 States.
However it soon became evident that giving the states so much authority was a major weakness with the Articles of Confederation, as well as the inability of taxation, forced Congress to take another look at the document.
The 1787 Constitution of the United State of America (1889-present)
With most of the powers of governance in the hands of the states the Articles of Confederation gave the federal government very little authority. This led to much confusion, infighting, and the eventual strain on relationships between the “firm league of friendship” of the states. Also foreign governments were still reluctant to deal with a United States that didn’t seem very united. To try and fix those issues the Continental Congress called a constitutional convention to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1787 with the purpose of revising the Articles.
Convention delegates were sent by each state, and consisted of all sectors of society. So knowledgeable and versed in issues of self-government were these delegates that Thomas Jefferson referred to them as, “an assembly of demigods.”
The delegates’ instructions were to only work on revising the exciting Articles, but as they discussed different options for revision they found it very difficult. After much debate the delegation, led by the 36 year old James Madison from Virginia, decided to scrap the entire Articles of Confederation for a completely new Constitution.
Those delegates with Madison were generally convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of powers was needed over the weaker Articles of Confederation. Madison, along with fellow Virginians Edmund Randolph and George Mason, presented to the delegation as a whole an outline for a new governmental constitution we now call “the Virginia Plan.” This document would become the bedrock for what would finally be the Constitution of the United States of America that we have today.
It took almost a year for the convention’s delegates to work out the new constitution. When finished it consisted of only seven articles that would give the new federal government limited powers while still protecting states’ rights. With the new constitution: articles I-III laid out the three branches of the government, with their authority and powers: the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. This balance of powers Madison believed would keep the republic from becoming a dictatorship.
Article IV addressed the relationship between the states, jumping ahead, article VI declared that this Constitution was the supreme law of the nation, and article VII described the ratification process. Now back to article V, this article gave the guidelines for amending the Constitution; this article would be used even as the Constitution was undergoing ratification by the states.
However there were still many delegates, members of the continental congress, and state legislatures that feared that a strong and powerful central government would infringe on states’ and individuals rights. They had just finished a long and terrible revolutionary war where a strong powerful nation had taken away their basic rights as Englishmen. What the British had done to them during the war was crystal clear in their minds (I’ll be addressing those atrocities in my posts on the first ten amendments). They didn’t want to trade one oppressive government for another.
Soon two groups formed: the Federalists, who supported a new stronger central government, and the Anti-Federalists, that were opposed. James Madison, along with fellow Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Jay published what is known as the Federalist Papers that defended the proposed constitution as what would be best for the country. They saw that their constitution still protected the states as well as individual citizens. The Anti-Federalists, with such revolutionary heroes as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, didn’t see it that way and began demanding that a “Bill of Rights” be added. They feared that without a guarantee of individuals’ rights that the strong national government could suppress the people, leading to the president to become a king.
At first James Madison still believed that his “balance of power” concept would protect the people, and a Bill of Rights wasn’t needed. But after Thomas Jefferson and George Washington wrote to him that some form of a bill of individuals’ rights be included, and that some of the states would refuse ratification without it, Madison and his Federalist finally vowed to create and include a Bill of Rights.
As Madison and the other delegates began deliberating on the addition of individual rights to the constitution the Continental Congress decided to begin the state ratification process without it. But they promised the states that the new Congress, under the new Constitution, would make changes under its Article V.
On September 13, 1788 in New York the Continental Congress, with the required minimum of eleven state ratification under Article VII, began transferring to the new Constitutional government. On March 4, 1889 the new government began operation under the new Constitution of the United States of American, and on April 30 George Washington was inaugurated as the first President under this Constitution.
As promised the new Congress began debate on amending the Constitution with a Bill of Rights.
My upcoming posts
I’ll be exploring what could have been the reasoning for, what resources used, and what caused James Madison and the other framers to select those individual rights to protect in the first ten amendments. I’ll also give the history of how those amendments are looked at today.
Wikipedia. “United States Constitution.” Wikipedia, 24 May 2018, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Consitiution.
Researchers. “Primary Documents in American History.” The Articles of Confederation, Library of Congress, 25 Apr. 2017, http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/articles.html.
“James Madison.” Bill of Rights Institute , Bill of Rights Institute, 2018, http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org.
“Bill of Rights Institute.” Bill of Rights, Bill of Rights Institute, 2018, http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org.