Discussion Questions: American History

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Thomas Jefferson was the key author of the United States Declaration of Independence. The opening of the statement reads: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness". It is the statement that "all men are created equal" from the document that continues to elicit numerous views and debates. As Tucker and Hendrickson note, Jefferson envisioned America as a great "Empire of Liberty" (Tucker and Hendrickson, 1990). However, Jefferson ironically owned slaves at the time and up until his death. It could therefore be argued that his statement referred to a different form of equality other than the obvious where all men deserve equal treatment in respect to all aspects of life, politically, socially and economically. Jefferson must therefore have been referring to the equality that we are all created with, that we hold in the eyes of our Creator. That as human beings, we are all endowed, at the time of our birth, with the gift of life, freedom to choose the way we lead this life and the freedom to pursue happiness. The different ways in which we use our freedom is what leads to the introduction of inequality in our society. The inequality that makes one man free and another a slave. All around the world, the meaning of the word 'equal' has been gradually changing and expanding. With regard to human beings, equality in today's dynamic world mainly refers to non-discrimination against any person on the basis of gender, age, race, sexuality or any other status. With numerous human rights organizations creating awareness and fighting for the rights of people in all walks of life, equality has greatly expanded in meaning to incorporate granting equal opportunity, protection and respect for the diversity that exists in the world today.

The Articles of Confederation which was the first constitution of the United States of America comprised of specific laws that were meant to guide the operations and functions of the national government in relation to the 13 states that then made up the United States of America. The constitution was supposed hold together all the 13 states and form a strong nation. However, this was not to be as the Articles left were said to have left the national government weak and vulnerable owing to its many weaknesses. This led to its widespread criticism culminating in the agreement by the 13 states to draft a new constitution to replace the Articles. Among some of the weaknesses cited in the Articles included: granting more power to the state governments than the federal government, lack of authority by the federal government to levy taxes, difficulty in amending any article in the Articles of Confederation as it required unanimous approval by all 13 states and lack of a judicial system in the federal government. It was as a result of these flaws that the foundation was laid for the drafting of a new constitution intended to address these shortcomings and come up with a set of more acceptable and workable laws. The Constitution therefore eliminated most of the drawbacks in the Articles. It provided for the establishment of the judiciary and executive arms of government. The process of amending the constitution was also changed so that only two-thirds of both houses and ¾ of state legislatures was all it required to amend the law. The new law also provided for creation of federal courts that would settle disputes between people as well as state governments. The federal government was also given authority to levy taxes and also to constitute an army for defense purposes. In as much as the Constitution has been regarded as being much better than the Articles of Confederation, it has its own flaws as well according to its critics. It provides for unequal representation in the Senate in the sense that some states are far much bigger and more populated than others. Another notable flaw represents itself in the Electoral College system where a candidate with a majority number of votes could fail to become the President (Dahl, 2001). These are seen as major defects in democracy, democracy that America is well known to passionately advocate for on a global scale. Of the two, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, the latter was better placed then to deal with the concerns of the critics of the former. The Constitution consolidated the unity of the states and enhanced law and order, which are key pillars of development.

The Great Compromise was an agreement reached between proponents of the Virginia (Large-State) Plan and those of the New Jersey (Small-State) Plan during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The two parties had differing views with regard to the national legislature during the Convention meant to revise the Articles of Confederation. On the one hand, The Virginia Plan proposed two houses of Congress and that membership in the lower house be allocated in proportion to state population and candidates be nominated and elected by the people of each state, while membership in the upper house be allocated in the same way, but candidates be nominated by the state legislatures and elected by the members of the lower house. On the other hand, the New Jersey Plan proposed a legislature consisting of a single house. Each state was to have equal representation in this house, regardless of its population. However, the less populous states opposed the proposal fearing that they would have no voice in the federal government. Eventually, a compromise was reached whereby both the New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan incorporated in part. It was agreed that a bicameral legislature be formed as proposed by the Virginia Plan. Its lower house would have representatives elected by the people and in proportion to population of each state. In the upper house, each state would be represented by two members, regardless of its population. It is this structure of the legislature as adopted at the Great Compromise that was incorporated in the American Constitution. The issues that led to the Great Compromise revolved around representation in the legislature, which is the law making organ of the nation. In the current American politics, there are still concerns about the equal representation of all people and groups in terms of their rights and freedoms. For instance, some States have enacted legislation recognizing and accepting same sex unions while others still reject the same.

Great Britain had 13 colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America. These colonies later resisted British rule and declared their independence. Their rejection of British authority was due to a number of reasons. First they did not want to be governed without representation. The British also formulated policies that would see the colonies pay more taxes, a move that was seen to be violating the rights of the Americans since they were not represented in parliament. Under British rule, it was illegal for American merchants to trade with other empires such as France and Spain. Other more oppressive and provocative pieces of legislation were also put in place by the British and this further fuelled resistance from the colonies. As the British further tried to assert their authority over the colonies, protests broke out and colonies began to form Provincial Congresses to reject British rule. One such legislation was the Townshend Acts, which raised taxes on many essential commodities such as paper, glass and tea in order to raise more money to pay British governors and judges. This infuriated the colonists leading to a boycott of British goods. Fighting broke out as a result of Britain's response with combat troops to enforce direct rule to which the colonies resisted using their militias. The American Revolution ended with America's Declaration of Independence. Behind these conflicts and fight for independence by the colonies were a number of philosophical ideologies. Among them were the ideology of the American Enlightenment, republicanism, liberalism, democracy and religious tolerance. These ideologies acted to unify the Americans across the colonies resulting in political unity. For instance, republicanism played a crucial role in the revolution against the British as it spread and took root across the colonies. The republican values required that the people put national duty before of their personal desires. They therefore committed themselves to fight and protect their liberty and rights, a commitment that gave them more energy and drive to resist British rule.

Americans got independence after long conflicts with and wars against the British. One of the most important factors that led to their defeat was their unity as colonies. They mobilized a militia in 1775 that fought the British combat troops. Representatives of the 13 colonies unanimously voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence that formed United States of America. The experience gained during the four chapters of the French and Indian wars were greatly instrumental in fighting the British. There was also the alliance the Americans formed with France in 1778 which greatly strengthened the American militia leading to the capture of two of the British armies in Saratoga and Yorktown. This significantly reduced British power given that the American patriots had already gained control over close to seventy percent of the mainland. After the increase in local taxes by the British Parliament, the Americans got even more united against the British domination, with a strong feeling that their rights were being openly violated. The most significant of these factors was that the thirteen colonies came together and worked in unity, as a result of subscribing to common ideologies, such as republicanism. Their coming together strengthened them against the British as this combined effort proved influential towards defeating the British. They ultimately got their independence. Had they not been united in their unanimous declaration of independence and their rejection of British authority, they would have easily failed in their quest for self rule.