History of the American Constitution
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Confederation and Constitution
As depression struck the new nation in the mid-1780s, new questions arose about the nature of American democracy. Many conservatives believed that the answer lay in a stronger national government.Most radicals believed it was up to the states to relieve the financial burden of the people. These sentiments fostered a movement for a new constitution. Political differences soon stimulated the creation of political parties.
Compare and contrast the Articles of Confederation with the new Constitution of 1787. What were the strengths and weaknesses of the Articles vis-à-vis the Constitution? Give specific instances that demonstrate the weakness of the Articles (such asthe Western problem).
Then analyze the drafting of the Constitution, using specific details to show how the various states (slave vs. free, east vs. west) compromised in order to effectively draft a constitution.Pay particular attention to Roger Sherman’s plan,the Great Compromise, which broke a stalemate that could have been fatal to the development of the new Constitution.
Finally, compare and contrast the debate over ratification between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. Make sure you cite specific examples from the Federalist Papers to support the Federalist position and contrast it with leading proponents of the opposition (such asJohn Hancock). Analyze how the debate over a bill of rights illustrates the differences between the two parties. Evaluate the relative success of the Bill of Rights in achieving an effective balance between national and states’ interests.
Revolution: From Rebellion to Jeffersonian Democracy
The end of the American Revolution was the beginning of the formation of a new republic. But the transition was not easy, as the Articles of Confederation that first bound the thirteen colonies proved too weak to confront the problems that faced the new nation. The transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution to Jeffersonian Democracy is the focus of this week’s work.
A Different Kind of Revolution
The American Revolution has spawned a vast amount of literature, as it created the first new nation-state of the modern era. Yet, compared with the French and Russian Revolutions that followed, it was a “conservative” revolution. It did not radically change the colonial society that existed before. From 1763 to 1776, the colonists argued that they were fighting for the rights of “Englishmen.” But some historians maintain that the revolution was truly radical, and point to the disestablishment of state religions immediately after the war. But the truth is that several states had already disestablished their state religions before the outbreak of war. Other historians point to the democratic state legislatures created after the war. But again, only Pennsylvania and Rhode Island established truly radical state governments with a unicameral legislature. The truth is that the basic elements of capitalism, money, and slavery remained after the revolution.
Yet the founding fathers did believe that they were creating something new. The great seal proclaims, a “novus ordo seculorum” (a new world order). And world opinion abroad concurred with this opinion. One French observer complained of America’s experiment with “liberty and justice for all.” But the new nation lacked the prerequisites of nationhood: mythical origins, ancient folklore, one church, and common ethnic roots. In 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur published Letters from an American Farmer. He described Americans as a new people, dedicated to the principles of equal opportunity and self-determination. His work provided an understanding of the "New World" that helped create an American identity in the minds of Europeans. Crèvecœur wrote, “What then is the American, this new man?...He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced…Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
Men like Crèvecœur and later Alexis de Tocqueville believed that Americans were truly different because they were tied together by the ideals of the Enlightenment—liberty, individuality, and democracy. The American identity took on the character of a civic religion. George Washington metamorphosed into something more than human. His birthday was made a national holiday in 1799 and Mason Adams carried this sanctification to an extreme with his story of the cherry tree. July 4th became “the” national holiday and the Declaration of Independence became a sacred text. It was only after the Civil War that due emphasis was placed on the Constitution. The national motto, e pluribus unum—from many one—expressed the new American ideal. The founding fathers did see something new in America, but, it was more prescriptive than descriptive. Freedom for many was still an illusion.
From Confederation to Constitution
After the Revolutionary War, the patriots feared giving the new American government too much power. Early state governments argued over how much power to give the people. Some, like Thomas Paine, sought changes that would promote democracy; others like Alexander Hamilton feared giving too much power to the common man. Most states like Massachusetts and New York chose to create a conservative state constitution, with a bicameral legislature. But patriots continued to argue over who should be given the right to vote, with men like John Adams warning that allowing the poor to vote would “confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to the common level.” Over time, the House of Representatives—the most democratic of all institutions—gained power at the expense of the Senate, the more conservative branch of government.
In 1777, the Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation. Drafted under the leadership of John Dickenson of Pennsylvania, the Articles were a loose confederation of thirteen states with very little power given to the federal government. The new federal government consisted of a congress of delegates chosen by state legislatures rather than by voters. It had no President or executive branch. The Articles granted only limited powers to Congress—to declare and conduct war and to regulate foreign affairs. Amending articles was almost impossible, as all thirteen states had to agree. One of the most important accomplishments of the Congress was the creation of the Northwest Territory, a vast area of land west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. The Land Ordinance of 1785 designed a system for distributing the land to settlers and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided a government for the western territories. Eventually, the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin would be carved out of this region.
But the new Congress was too weak to deal with threats from Spain and Britain. Great Britain, who at first tried to cultivate good will with the new nation, returned to a policy of mercantilism, or trade in its own best interest. They prohibited American ships—in particular those from Massachusetts—to trade with the British West Indies. It soon became clear that the Articles themselves were part of the problem. Under the Articles, the federal Congress had no power to deal with the growing national debt. When the Congress tried to seek an amendment to levy a tax on imported goods, the amendment failed for lack of one vote. Meanwhile, with a slowdown in trade, more and more farmers went into debt. In 1787, Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, led about 1,000 farmers in rebellion against the Massachusetts courts. While the rebellion quickly died out, it pointed to the weakness of the federal government in dealing with the growing national debt. The stage was set for the Constitutional Convention of that same year.
Now join in the discussions as a reporter at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. You are encouraged to take notes for your newspaper article at the end of this role-play.
The following timeline traces the evolution of the federal government from the Articles of Confederation to Jeffersonian Democracy. The Articles of Confederation proved too weak for the fledgling republic and so a new Constitution emerged in 1787. This gave rise to the two-party system, with men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison leading the Democratic Republicans and George Washington and Alexander Hamilton remaining Federalists. With the election of Thomas Jefferson as President in 1799, American democracy took on a new, more populist flavor.
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