American Constitution

There was bitter debate among the Founding Fathers as to what the basis of the American legal system should be. Before the American Constitution, the United States did have an overarching legal document - the Articles of Confederation. These were very restricting on the federal government, and there were differing views on how to solve the issue. Some felt the problem could be solved simply by amending the Articles, but others thought the only way was to scrap the Articles and start again with a new Constitution. So, just how did this come about? Let's find out!

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Table of contents

    American Constitution Timeline

    Below is a timeline of the important events that occurred before the American Constitution was ratified.

    DateEvent
    4 July 1776Declaration of Independence was signed by the Second Continental Congress.
    15 November 1777Articles of Confederation were ratified and published.
    August 1786 - February 1787Shays' Rebellion.
    25 May 1787 - 17 September 1787Constitutional Convention.
    5 July 1787Report of the Grand Committee.
    21 June 1788US Constitution ratified.
    15 December 1791The First Ten Amendments - known as the Bill of Rights - were ratified.

    Constitution of the United States

    The Constitution was the end product of long debates concerning state rights, representation, and slavery rights. First, we must examine the Articles of Confederation and Shay’s Rebellion to understand the influence each factor had on the Constitution. Afterwards, we will cover the two plans that were introduced before the founders ultimately settled on a framework. We will conclude this article with a brief introduction to the Bill of Rights.

    American Constitution Definition

    The US has possibly the most famous example of a written constitution. It is the most important legal document in the country, and all branches of government are subordinate to it. State and federal law must be constitutional, and courts can strike down laws which they deem not to be constitutional. All state and federal office holders also swear to uphold the Constitution.

    Did you know? The UK is one of only three countries not to have a written constitution, meaning its constitutional arrangements are often comparatively unclear.

    American Constitution Scene at the Signing of the Constitution StudySmarterFig. 1 - "Scene at the Signing of the Consitution of the United States"

    Articles of Confederation

    After freeing itself from Great Britain, America implemented a government that was designed to prevent future tyranny. The Articles of Confederation did exactly that: the federal government was incredibly weak and decentralised so that states had as much independence and sovereignty as possible.

    In theory, the government would only carry out functions of national importance that individual states could not deal with. For example, the government did not have the powers of direct taxation or the ability to regulate interstate commerce. However, Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 exposed the national government’s inability to act. For instance, the federal government's inability to raise any money meant they almost went bankrupt and amassed huge debts operating the military. The Constitution set out to remedy the Articles of Confederation’s shortcomings.

    Shays' Rebellion

    Shays' Rebellion, which took place between August 1786 and February 1787, was an uprising in Massachusetts protesting high taxation rates. Its mission was to force several courts to close to prevent foreclosures and debt processes. In September 1786, the leader, Daniel Shays, along with other local leaders, led several hundred men and successfully forced the Supreme Court in Springfield, Illinois to adjourn.

    Foreclosure

    A legal mechanism for debt recovery when a debtor has stopped paying what they owe to a creditor. It is amongst the most ancient legal mechanisms and remains largely unchanged today.

    American Constitution Daniel Shays StudySmarterFig. 2 - Etching of Daniel Shays

    Conflict broke out on 25 January 1787, when Shays led a force of 1,200 men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Springfield. He was defeated and fled to Vermont. After the rebellion was over, the Massachusetts legislature passed laws that improved debtors’ economic situations.

    Although this rebellion was small in scale and easily repressed, Shays' Rebellion is important because it was used to convince many in government that America needed a stronger national government. It was no longer enough to only amend the Articles of Confederation; it needed to be replaced entirely.

    Constitutional Convention

    The Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia on 25 May 1787 to hash out the issues and decide on how to rectify the issues facing the central government. While only white, property-owning men were invited to attend, they were all like-minded people who agreed that there needed to be a strong centralised government. This did not mean that people agreed on every issue. For example, while Thomas Jefferson favoured a smaller central government with more freedom for individual states, James Madison pushed for a bigger centralised government with more control over individual state law.

    For more information on these figures, check out the Founding Fathers and Articles of Confederation articles!

    The Virginia Plan

    Madison attended the Constitutional Convention with a plan in mind. He began with rhetoric, saying that this plan was needed; that this was a national government established by the people and not the states. If this phrase sounds familiar, it should! Madison began the preamble of the Constitution with:

    We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…

    Madison’s vision included a government with the power to overturn state laws and had national laws that would directly operate on citizens. He called it the Virginia Plan, and fittingly, his plan would benefit large states like Virginia. His plan created a bicameral legislature with two houses in Congress.

    Bicameral

    This means two chambers and is a system of law-making used by most countries, such as the UK's House of Commons and House of Lords. To become law, a Bill must pass both chambers - in the US, this is the House of Representatives (lower) and Senate (upper).

    Firstly, the Lower House would be voted by the people. The members of the Lower House would then elect members of the Upper House. Both the Upper and Lower houses would then elect members to the Supreme Court. The only problem was that more populous states would have more members in the Lower House. People from less populous states hated this plan because they thought that bigger states would dominate the Lower House. Ultimately, it was troublesome that population size would essentially determine the people in the Upper House.

    The New Jersey Plan

    William Paterson, a New Jersey statesman, presented the New Jersey Plan as a counteroffer to the Virginia Plan. Under this plan, Congress would be a unicameral legislature with only one house. States would have equal votes and Congress would elect an executive leader. Paterson argued that rather than get rid of the Articles of Confederation entirely, it would be far better to simply amend it. The form of the government would be preserved, but the government would gain additional powers to raise revenue and regulate commerce and foreign affairs. Paterson was later a signatory of the US Constitution.

    The Grand Committee

    Both plans were fiercely debated, but ultimately, the Virginia Plan ended up being used as a framework. The debate was so divisive that some delegates were contemplating leaving the convention due to their fear that an incredibly strong federal government would emerge. If nothing was achieved, there was the fear that the colonies would become “European fodder”.

    European fodder

    Fodder means food that is generally reserved for cattle or livestock. Colonists were fearful that they would be easily controlled by other European nations.

    When this deadlock arose, Benjamin Franklin arrived and formed the Grand Committee. This committee was made up of delegates who had the most disagreements.

    Benjamin Franklin - Founding Father

    Benjamin Franklin was a Founding Father and a Framer of the Constitution. He was accomplished in many fields and was a respected scientist, businessman, political philosopher and inventor, as well as politician.

    American Constitution Portrait of Benjamin Franklin StudySmarterFig. 3 - Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

    Outside of politics, he is perhaps most famous for using a kite to determine that lightning consists of electricity (not for discovering electricity itself, as is often claimed!). Having owned enslaved people earlier in his life, upon his entry to politics, Franklin became anti-slavery and an abolitionist.

    The Great Compromise

    The Great Compromise incorporated parts of both the Virginia and New Jersey Plans. There would be a bicameral legislature (like the Virginia Plan suggested). The Lower House, which eventually came to be called the House of Representatives, would ensure that more populated states would get more representation. There would be a census every 10 years to count the population. The very first census was in 1790.

    In the Upper house, which came to be called the Senate, each state would get two senators. Since each state had the same number of senators, there would be equal representation and each state would be considered equal.

    The Three-Fifths Compromise

    At the heart of this conflict was slavery. After the announcement of how representatives would be elected to the Lower House, southern states wanted slaves to be counted as part of their population. While having a higher population ensured more representatives, this also meant that the state would pay more in taxes.

    Northern states fiercely opposed this decision - in their view, the South shouldn't have been able to treat the slaves as property but also treat them as people for the census. This then led to Southern states announcing that if they were not allowed to count slaves, they would leave the US. This debate resulted in the Three-Fifths Compromise.

    This compromise ensured that every enslaved person would count as three-fifths of a white person. What is interesting to note is that the word “slavery” did not appear in the Constitution until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.

    Did you know? The Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery in the United States. It was passed on 31 January 1865, following the American Civil War of 1861-4.

    American Constitution Written

    There were many who supported the ratification of a Constitution (labelled Federalists), and many who opposed it (labelled anti-Federalists). It largely came down to disagreements over how big the government should be and how big an influence it should have on states and the lives of daily citizens. In the end, the Constitution set out a system of government essentially the same as that agreed upon by the Great Compromise.

    ArticlesPurpose
    I - IIIEnshrine the separation of powers and divide the Federal Government into its three branches - executive, legislative, and judicial.
    IV - VIState that the US is a federal state, and set out the rights and responsibilities of each state.
    VIISets out the procedure for states to ratify the Constitution.

    Amendments to the Constitution

    There are 27 Amendments to the Constitution, which each carry the same weight as the original Articles of the Constitution. The first ten are the Bill of Rights and were ratified in 1791. Usually, Amendments which have been ratified have spent between one and three years in the process, but the Twenty-Seventh Amendment (preventing members of Congress giving themselves a pay rise) was before the states for 202 years, 225 days! It was proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992.

    Only one Amendment has been repealed; the Eighteenth Amendment introduced Prohibition - the ban on alcohol - in the US in 1919. It was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933.

    The Federalist Papers

    In an effort to get the Constitution ratified, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison worked together to publish a series of essays that came to be known as the Federalist Papers. Their arguments became the classic defences of the Constitution.

    Eventually, Madison left the Federalists because they could not come to an agreement concerning the proper size of the government.

    Anti-Federalists

    This group was made up of country folk and farmers. While this group was significantly less organized than the Federalist group, the people were fearful that state governments would lose power and that the government would be ruled by the wealthy.

    They argued that governments in other republics tended to get too big and that to make the government “by the people”, the government should ultimately be kept as local as possible. The argument was that, ultimately, people who live in a certain area know that area the best and are most clear on what the best course of action to take is. Anti-Federalists would form the core of the Anti-Administration group, which then became the Democratic-Republican Party.

    American Constitution Amendments

    Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution in 1788. Massachusetts only ratified it after a promise that a Bill of Rights would be written. The Bill of Rights was added in 1791 and significantly limited the government’s power over the individual. It is contained in the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment famously ensures that the individual has the freedom of speech, religion, and the press and the right to peaceful assembly and petition. The Bill of Rights also guarantees rights to a fair procedure for people accused of crimes and guarantees a public, quick trial by an impartial, local jury.

    Ambiguity in the Bill of Rights

    Although the Bill of Rights includes many individual civil liberties, the wording in some amendments has been a source of heavy controversy and political debate. For example, the Second Amendment enshrines the right to “keep and bear arms”. For many years now, there has been fierce debate over whether the Second Amendment should be abolished or modified.

    In its original context, it was appropriate for civilians to have arms, as there was no well-organised army or police force, and weapons were very primitive in comparison to the high-powered automatic weapons which are readily available today from a very young age. Today, it's forcefully argued that the Second Amendment has outlived its purpose and the right to bear arms is no longer needed by the ordinary civilian.

    Originally, the Bill of Rights only protected citizens from the national government. For example, even though the Constitution forbids a national religion, the official religion of Massachusetts was Congregationalism until 1833. It then fell on the citizens’ shoulders to look up State Constitutions for the protection of their rights against the overreach of state governments.

    Ultimately, the Constitution was written to strengthen the national government. However, it was created with multiple backstops to ensure that power was never concentrated in one area. For example, separation of powers ensures that the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) oversee different matters and perform checks and balances on each other. In theory, this prevents any one branch from becoming too powerful. The explicit guarantee of unalienable individual rights is an effort to preserve liberty and security. Finding the right balance between authority and liberty was, and is still, the key debate in the administration of the United States.

    American Constitution - Key takeaways

    • The Articles of Confederation created a central government that was incredibly weak.
    • Although Shay’s rebellion was easily quelled, it became a persuasive argument for why the US needed a strong central government. Madison, Jay, and Hamilton wrote a series of essays known as the Federalist Papers in defence of a strong national government.
    • Madison proposed the Virginia Plan and Paterson proposed the New Jersey Plan to replace the Articles of Confederation. The Great Compromise combined both of these plans to create the framework that exists today.
    • Most states were only willing to ratify the Constitution once a Bill of Rights was enshrined, showing the key debate and struggle for balance between personal and state liberty, and the need for a central government to have enough powers to govern effectively.
    Frequently Asked Questions about American Constitution

    What is the 25th amendment of the American Constitution?        

    Put simply, the 25th amendment states that should the President be removed from office, resign, or die, then the Vice President will assume the office of President.

    When was the American Constitution written?

    The American Constitution was written in 1787 following the Constitutional Convention (25 May 1787 - 17 September 1787). It was later ratified on 21 June 1788.

    What is the American Constitution?

    The American Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, working to create a series of laws that strengthened the national government. There are various backstops to make sure that power is not concentrated in one area, such as the separation of powers which divides power between the three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. The Constitution guarantees individual rights, which creates the balance between the authority of the national government and local governments.

    Who wrote the American Constitution?

    James Madison is credited with drafting the American Constitution after the Constitutional Convention (25 May 1787 - 17 September 1787). Madison is hence known as the "Father of the Constitution".

    How democratic is the American Constitution?

    The American Constitution established a Federal Democratic Republic Government in the United States. Through its laws and series of amendments, the Constitution serves to provide a democratic framework for the US to govern, allowing each state to vote through proportional representation based on its population. The Separation of Powers divides power between the three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial to ensure that no one governmental branch is more powerful than the other.

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