I. The Articles of Confederation: Dysfunctional Government?
During the Revolutionary War and during the rest of the 1780s, the United States of America had been governed by the Articles of Confederation. This was a written constitution (but not “the United States Constitution” – see below) that provided the ground rules how the government of this new country would operate (namely, via single, central legislature) but was very weak. The central government had no authority to tax, no authority to regulate trade and commerce, had no president, and no court system. It required a two-thirds majority to pass a law, and only lasted from 1781-1787. The Articles are oftentimes forgotten in public discussions and invocations of American history but, among historians, they are usually interpreted as having done little to help, and much to hinder, the growth of the United States.
Having said that, the Articles of Confederation were not a total failure. The Articles did succeeded in overseeing westward expansion. (This is, again, usually pointed to as their only success.) With the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Articles provided for a system to survey land and divide it into townships that were six square miles, and then divide that into sections that were 1 square mile, or 640 acres. Essentially, this was a process for building new territories and later new states. Some of the thirteen colonies did not have western boundaries in their colonial charters, so there was some negotiation of where the old colonies (now states) should end and new ones could begin. Of course, enlarging the size of the country (all the way to the Mississippi River, at this point) would only be beneficial if Americans moved west and settled the land. So the land that was surveyed and cut up into parcels was sold at a cost of $1 an acre. Thus, westward lands were opened up to speculators, who could buy up lots of land cheaply ((because the speculators had lots of cash on hand), and sell it at a mark-up to poor but land-hungry settlers (who would often have to borrow money to pay for their purchases).
This system for marking land, selling it, and encouraging growth eventually called for the expansion of governance systems to enforce law and order in these new lands. Here we see the most important contribution made by the Articles to American history -- the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Northwest Territory would be eventually divided up into six states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. (Remember, the Mississippi River was the western border of the US at this time.) The Northwest Ordinance said that there would be three stages to get these new lands to statehood:
1. The Territory would divide into smaller regions that would be unorganized regions run by the U.S. government
2. The regions would have a territorial government, with an appointed governor, but would have their own legislature
3. Once they had a population of 60,000 people, the regions could write their own constitutions, and could become states.
It should be noted that slavery was prohibited in all the Northwest Territories. Thomas Jefferson was largely responsible for the Northwest Ordinance. He also wanted a Southwest Ordinance, but this never happened. It was much later—1820s—that the Deep South was settled. Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence and later the third US President) had a vision for the USA that was a nation full of small farmers, who were citizens actively making decisions about government at the local level.
However, the Articles of Confederation had several shortcomings:
1. International relations were a problem for the new nation under the articles, since there was not really one voice who could speak for the United States and conduct diplomacy. Instead, each state more-or-less operated as its own sovereign entity.
2. With a lack of stronger authority for the national government (that would be granted to the federal government under the eventual Constitution), as well as a leader to serve as the head of state (which would also come under the eventual Constitution), the Americans were having a hard time getting the Europeans to recognize the country as legitimate.
3. The British troops remained on frontier forts near the Great Lakes and refused to leave.
4. The United States (i.e. the national government) needed to negotiate trade treaties, but lacked the authority to do so.
5. The British were complaining that Americans hadn’t returned confiscated Loyalist property.
6. The Spanish owned Louisiana and controlled the Mississippi River. In 1784 they closed the port to US citizens for a short time. America would need access to the river as it settled westward, to ship farm goods down the river.
7. There was not enough power to maintain a national army and to conduct diplomacy. The army had been disbanded and thus there had to be some way to protect the settlers in the west and to deal with national security.
These were challenges that we might call “international relations” in the present-day but what is important to understand, is that the original US government (under the Articles of Confederation) could not deal with these challenges, either because it did not have the authority to do so, or because it did not have the authority to take the steps necessary to do so.
In addition, there were also domestic problems that needed to be resolved:
1. The states were treating each other as if they were separate nations, and were each negotiating trade agreements with one another.
2. In 1785, Virginia and Maryland got together at Mount Vernon to discuss these trade-related issues, solved their differences, and agreed to meet the following year. James Madison suggested another meeting this time with all colonies to discuss trade issues in general, and in 1786, at the Annapolis Convention only 5 colonies met, and 4 others came late. Nothing got done at the Annapolis Convention, because it was more informal. Alexander Hamilton, a delegate from New York, proposed a convention in Philadelphia the next year, 1787, to discuss amending the Articles of Confederation.
3. In the Mid-1780s, a depression hit. Each state had a different solution for dealing with the economic crisis. Most printed their own money, which made for an inconsistent financial system. Many people were in debt. Massachusetts was unsympathetic to debtors, kept taxes high, and foreclosed on people who could not pay their taxes and threw them in jail. People in the Massachusetts countryside responded and began closing the courts. Led by farmer Daniel Shays, a crew of as many as 12-1500 marched on the state supreme court. The rebellion showed many people that the government under the Articles was broken and that the Country was headed for economic ruin and anarchy. After Shays Rebellion, Congress decided to call a convention to discuss the Articles as Hamilton had proposed, however, all the people involved just wanted to revise the articles, not write a Constitution.
60-Second Quiz #1: What were some of the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation? Which of the following was NOT a shortcoming of the Articles?
a. The US government could not impose any taxes
b. The US government did not have a single head of state to represent its interests internationally
c. The US government did not have a mechanism for expanding the country and creating new states
d. Any changes to the laws enforced by the US government required a 2/3 vote from the legislature to approve them (making them unlikely to be approved).
II. The U.S. Constitution: Correcting the Errors?
At this point, it seemed clear that the confederation had failed; it was not unified, there had been power struggles, conflicts between the states, taxation and commerce issues, money issues, foreign debts and foreign affairs, Indian problems, disputes over borders. The delegates feared that if they failed in their task, evil would result. Liberty was at stake. Anarchy and chaos and civil disruptions and foreign intrusions could result. Further disruptions like Shay’s Rebellion could strike at any time. The country must be united. Delegates to this convention shared these goals, but their visions for the future of the country differed, and during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, they hammered out a new Constitution.
The delegates consisted of wealthy merchants, planters, generals, governors, and especially lawyers, most from old families in America. Most were Anglicans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Of the fifty-five delegates from twelve states that attended (Rhode Island did not attend), more than half had attended college, and 10 of those 28 had gone to Princeton. The youngest delegate was 26, the oldest, Benjamin Franklin, was 81. The majority were in their forties and fifties, and had served in the war. There were eight that had signed the Declaration of Independence. Of the delegates, the single-most influential person at the convention was the diminutive James Madison, five-foot nothing, one hundred and nothing, he became the father of the Constitution. He had read over 200 books in the past year about governments—basically history and political science books, and he was really the leading figure in the Constitution. He also kept detailed records, which helps us to understand what happened and how the debate proceeded.
That summer, the delegates had a difficult task—they had to balance the need for a powerful central government against the need for states’ rights. They ended up scrapping the articles of Confederation and writing a new Constitution. It was nothing short of a political miracle; the delegates created a constitution in which they compromised personal, local, and state interests for the good of the nation. As the delegates decided how to set up the legislature, executive (presidency), and court system of the new country, there were several compromises that the delegates reached:
1. The Legislature. Their first discussions were over representation—the legislature. After their experience with the British Parliament, and their long controversy with Britain over the powers of Parliament, the delegates regarded the legislature as the most important branch of government; only if they resolved the knotty problems of representation in the new Congress could they assure success. Had they failed to reach agreement on this matter, the Convention probably would have broken up in disarray.
There were two plans: In late-May Edmund Randolph of Virginia proposed the Virginia plan. In mid-June after a few weeks of debate, William Paterson proposed the New Jersey plan. Both valued a system that enabled the legislature to levy taxes, regulate commerce, protect property, and enforce the laws, but each plan was a little different: The Virginia plan reflected the interests of the larger stronger states, to dominate the smaller states, and to create a federal republic with effective powers. The New Jersey plan was really an assembly of states, not a government of the people. The New Jersey plan would give the smaller states more influence in the legislature; it would protect them commercially, and would be a looser government.
The Virginia Plan had a 2-branch legislature based on representation of the people at large. One branch would consist of members with 3 year terms, the other would have members over 30 years of age, chosen by the state legislatures, and holding a 7 year term. The New Jersey plan had one single legislature, rather than both a Senate and House of Reps.
The Virginia plan depended on proportional rep—the House of Representatives that it proposed would be based on the state’s population—thus Virginia might have ten representatives, but Delaware might have only two. The New Jersey plan was based on equality of the states—for example, all states would have two delegates, regardless of their population.
Ultimately, the delegates discussed different options, including one vote for each state in the second branch. To solve the conflict, the delegates appointed a committee. The Great Compromise, first suggested by Benjamin Franklin, resolved the differences between the large states' and the small states. Connecticut’s delegates, picking up Franklin’s lead, proposed what is today called the Connecticut Compromise, or the Sherman Plan (named after delegate Roger Sherman).
They proposed that Congress consist of two houses: a Senate and House of Representatives, that the House be elected on the basis of proportional representation and would have the power to initiate bills and laws for collecting revenues and operating the budget, and the Senate would be elected on the basis of equal representation and would only accept or reject the bills proposed by the House of Representatives. The upper house (Senate) to be composed of nominees selected by state assemblies for six year terms; the lower house (House of Representatives) to be elected every two years by popular vote.
As a result of the Great Compromise, everybody gained something. The large states were happy because they got more members in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives was the only house of Congress that could write bills to create taxes. The small states were happy because they got equal representation in the Senate. In other aspects, the two houses of Congress were equal. The result was that the large states would have slightly more influence over the creation of laws on taxation and how money would be spent. Bills passed by the House could always be checked, or rejected, by the Senate where the small states had equal representation.
2. The Executive Branch. The issue of an executive, or president, was also tossed around. The Virginia plan provided for a single executive with a fixed, seven year term. They would be voted by the majority popular vote. In the Virginia Plan, the executive could be removed by impeachment and conviction. The New Jersey Plan was a little different. It provided for a plurality as head of government, or basically a governing committee of co-presidents to share the power. The executives could only be removed by the states.
Ultimately the delegates agreed that the Executive Branch would be headed by a chief executive (President) elected every four years by presidential electors from the states. The President is granted sweeping powers including: veto power over Congress which can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in each house; commander in chief of the armies; power to make treaties with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate; power to appoint judges, diplomats and other officers with the consent of the Senate; power to recommend legislation and responsibility for execution of the laws. The President is required to report each year to the legislative branch on the state of the nation. The legislative branch has the power to remove the President from office. The House can impeach the President for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors with actual removal from office occurring by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.
3. Judicial Branch. Both groups agreed on the necessity of a Supreme Court and a court system. Both basically agreed on the judicial system but the Virginia Plan called for the Supreme Court judges to be appointed by the Senate and the New Jersey Plan called for them to be appointed by the executive. Finally the delegates decided that the judicial branch would consist of a Supreme Court, and that the new Congress would somehow figure out how to set up the lesser courts. The Supreme Court justices would be appointed by the president but approved by the Senate. Finally, the court had the implied power to review laws that allegedly conflicted with the Constitution.
4. The issue of slavery—how to count the slaves for taxation and representation. The southern states wanted to have slaves because it was crucial to their economies, but did not want to be taxed fully because of them. The northern states worried that slaves were not considered citizens. Some were concerned that the northern states, numbering 8 would outweigh the southern states, with slaves, numbering 5. They worried that to count the slaves as a full person when determining representation, as the southern states proposed, would give the southern states more representatives in the House. They thought this would give the South an unfair advantage in votes taken in the House of Representatives. Madison even suggested one branch be based on all inhabitants, the other on free inhabitants. After much debate, finally the two sides reached a compromise. The slaves would count as 3/5 of a person for representation to the House of Representatives. The southern states would be allowed to keep slaves, yet would only be taxed based on 3/5 of that number. This agreement was called the Three-Fifths Compromise. Southern delegates agreed that Congress had the right to end the slave trade in 1808, which it did. (Note the slave TRADE, which is the importation of new slaves, NOT the existence of slavery.)
On September 17, 1787, after about three months of discussions, a draft of the Constitution was finally ready. Delegates had agreed on the following:
1. By late September, the proposed Constitution was made public.
2. Congress voted to send the Constitution to the state legislatures.
3. When nine of the thirteen approved, a two-thirds majority, then it would become official.
60-second Quiz #2. What were some of the main points of disagreement over the U.S. Constitution? Which of the following compromises is CORRECTLY explained?
a. The Virginia Plan called for a legislature in one chamber, with equal representation for all the states, giving smaller states an advantage in the Congress
b. The New Jersey Plan called for a legislature in two chambers, with representation for the states based on their populations, giving larger states an advantage in the Congress
c. The New Jersey Plan called for the populations of slaves held in southern states to be counted as 3/5 of a free person, limiting the ability of southern states to wield their slave populations as a source of power in the Congress or the Electoral College
d. The Virginia Plan called for the executive branch to be headed by a President, who could be impeached and convicted if necessary to remove them from office
III. The Disunited States of America?
A storm of controversy soon arose as most people had only expected a revision of the Articles of Confederation, not a new central government with similarities to the British system that they had just overthrown. Many Americans opposed the Constitution, right off the bat, there were skeptics. There were also many of the delegates who believed in the Constitution. So two groups developed: federalists and anti-federalists.
Federalists supported the Constitution, and those who didn’t were the Anti-federalists. The anti-federalists believed that the delegates had gone too far, and should have just revised the Articles in a less drastic way. They believed that the national government had become too strong, and that the Senate would be ruled by rich people—like the English House of Lords. They were furious that there was no Bill of Rights.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, three people at the Constitutional Convention, and three Federalists, wrote a series of 85 Newspapers articles in New York published under false names and reprinted throughout the colonies. These articles are collectively called the Federalist Papers. They dealt with the articles of the constitution and defended the Constitution against the Anti-federalists’ arguments.
As Congress began to draft a Bill of Rights (a listing of certain rights and liberties that individual citizens possessed, and which could not be suspended or stripped away by the new national government), the states continued to ratify the constitution and by early 1789, the government began to operate, with a presidential election in February, and the arrival of the House of Representatives and Senators in March in New York, which was chosen as the new national capital.
George Washington learned of his election in mid-April and made his way to New York City, greeted as a hero all along the way.
The new nation had officially begun its business.
60-second Quiz #3. What were some of the reactions Americans felt towards the new Constitution? Which statement is NOT correct?
a. Federalists opposed the new Constitution, believing it to give the new US government too much power
b. Anti-federalists opposed the new Constitution, believing it to give the new US government too much new power
c. The Federalist Papers were authored by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton
d. Congress wrote a Bill of Rights to assuage those who had doubts about the Constitution, to list out certain rights that could not be taken away by the new US government.
KEY for 60-second quizzes:
1. c. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (which set out the rules for creating new states) is usually identified as one of the only things the Articles did well.
2. d. The Virginia Plan called for a legislature in two chambers, with representation for the states based on their populations, giving larger states (like Virginia) an advantage in the Congress. The New Jersey Plan called for a legislature in one chamber with equal representation for all the states, giving smaller states (like New Jersey) an advantage in the Congress. The Three-Fifths Compromise called for the populations of slaves held in southern states to be counted as 3/5 of a free person, limiting the ability of southern states to wield their slave populations as a source of power in the Congress or the Electoral College
3. a. Federalists supported the new Constitution