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History of the United States Constitution

This article discusses the history of the United States Constitution.


Articles of Confederation

The way to the Constitution was neither straight nor easy. A draft document emerged in 1787, but only after intense debate and six years of experience with an earlier federal union. The 13 British colonies in America declared their independence from their motherland in 1776. A year before, war had broken out between the colonies and Britain, a war for independence that lasted for six bitter years. While still at war, the colonies now calling themselves the United States of America drafted a compact that bound them together as a nation. The compact, designated the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union," was adopted by a congress of the states in 1777 and formally signed in July 1778. The Articles became binding when they were ratified by the thirteenth state, Maryland, in March 1781.

The Articles of Confederation provided for a loose association of states.
The Articles of Confederation provided for a loose association of states.

The Articles of Confederation devised a loose association among the states and set up a federal government with very limited powers. In such critical matters as defense, public finance, and trade, the federal government was at the mercy of the state legislatures. It was not an arrangement conducive to stability or strength. Within a short time the weakness of the confederation was apparent to many, though others still viewed it as a viable form of government. Politically and economically, the new nation was close to chaos. In the words of George Washington, who would become the first President of the United States in 1789, the thirteen states were united only "by a rope of sand."

Constitutional Convention

On February 21, 1787, Congress resolved: "It is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." On the appointed day, May 14, few representatives were present. The Convention only obtained a quorum—delegates of seven states—on May 25.

The fifty-five delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation. They represented a wide range of interests, backgrounds, and stations in life, although they shared a common background; the vast majority of them were wealthy landowners, and all were white males. All agreed, however, on the central objectives expressed in the preamble to the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The primary aim of the Constitution was to create a strong elected government that was responsive to the will of the people, although there is some controversy over this. Many of the Founding Fathers believed that the new government needed to be insulated from the will of the people; hence the design of such features as the U.S. Electoral College or the election of Senators by the state legislatures. The concept of self-government did not originate with the Americans; indeed, a measure of self-government existed in the United Kingdom at the time. But the degree to which the Constitution committed the United States to rule by the people was unique, even revolutionary, in comparison with other governments around the world. By the time the Constitution was adopted, Americans had considerable expertise in the art of self-government. Long before independence was declared, the colonies were functioning governmental units controlled by the people. After the Revolution had begun between January 1, 1776, and April 20, 1777, ten of the thirteen states had adopted their own constitutions. Most states had a governor elected by the state legislature. The legislature itself was elected by popular vote.

The Articles of Confederation had tried to unite these self-governing states. The Constitution, by contrast, established a strong central, or federal, government with broad powers to regulate relations between the states and with sole responsibility in such areas as foreign affairs and defense.


Centralization proved difficult for many people to accept. America had been settled in large part by Europeans who had left their homelands to escape religious or political oppression, as well as the rigid economic patterns of the Old World that locked individuals into a particular station in life regardless of their skill or energy. These settlers highly prized personal freedom, and they were wary of any power especially that of government that might curtail individual liberties.

The diversity of the new nation was also a formidable obstacle to unity. The people who were empowered by the Constitution in the 18th century to elect and control their central government represented different origins, beliefs, and interests. Most had come from Britain, but Sweden, Norway, France, the Netherlands, Prussia, Poland, and many other countries also sent immigrants to the New World. Their religious beliefs were varied and, in most cases, strongly held. There were Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Huguenots, Lutherans, Quakers, Jews, and many more. Economically and socially, Americans ranged from the land-owning aristocracy to slaves from Africa and indentured servants working off debts. Most Americans fell somewhere in between these two extremes.

Americans then, as now, had widely differing opinions on virtually all issues, including the wisdom of breaking free of the British Crown. During the American Revolution a large number of British Loyalists known as Tories had fled the country, settling mostly in eastern Canada. Those who stayed behind formed a substantial opposition bloc, although they differed among themselves on the reasons for opposing the Revolution and on what accommodation should be made with the new American republic.

It was the continuing job of the Constitution and the government it had created to draw these disparate interests together, to create a common ground and, at the same time, to protect the fundamental rights of all the people.

Compared with the complexities of contemporary government, the problems of governing 4 million people in much less developed economic conditions seem small indeed. But the authors of the Constitution were building for the future as well as the present. They were keenly aware of the need for a structure of government that would work not only in their lifetime but for generations to come. Hence, they included in the Constitution a provision for amending the document when social, economic, or political conditions demanded it. Twenty-seven amendments have been passed since ratification, and the flexibility of the Constitution has proven to be one of its greatest strengths. Without such flexibility, it is inconceivable that a document drafted more than 200 years ago could effectively serve the needs of 290 million people and thousands of governmental units at all levels in the United States today. Nor could it have applied with equal force and precision to the problems of small towns and large cities.

Drafting the Constitution

The period between the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 was one of weakness, dissension, and turmoil. Under the Articles of Confederation, no provisions were made for an executive branch to enforce the laws or for a national court system to interpret them. A legislative congress was the sole organ of the national government, but it had no power to force the states to do anything against their will. It could theoretically declare war and raise an army, but it could not force any state to meet its assigned quota for troops or for the arms and equipment needed to support them. It looked to the states for the income needed to finance its activities, but it could not punish a state for not contributing its share of the federal budget. Control of taxation and tariffs was left to the states, and each state could issue its own currency. In disputes between states--and there were many unsettled quarrels over state boundaries--Congress played the role of mediator and judge but could not require states to accept its decisions.

The result was virtual chaos. Without the power to collect taxes, the federal government plunged into debt. Seven of the 13 states printed large quantities of paper money high in face value but low in real purchasing power in order to pay Revolutionary War veterans and a variety of creditors and to settle debts between small farmers and large plantation owners.

By contrast, the Massachusetts legislature imposed a tightly limited currency and high taxes, triggering the formation of a small army of farmers led by Daniel Shays, a former Revolutionary War army captain. In a bid to take over the Massachusetts statehouse, Shays and others demanded that foreclosures (seizure of land by banks as payment for debts) and unfair mortgages be dropped. Troops were called out to suppress the rebellion, but the federal government took notice.

Absence of a uniform, stable currency also disrupted trade among the states and with other countries. Not only did the value of paper currency vary from state to state, but some states (like New York and Virginia) levied duties on products entering their ports from other states, thereby provoking retaliatory actions. The states could say, as had the federal superintendent of finance, that "our public credit is gone." To compound their problems, these newly independent states, having separated violently from Britain, no longer received favored treatment at British ports. When U.S. Ambassador John Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785, the British refused on the grounds that the individual states would not be bound by it.

A weak central government, without the power to back its policies with military strength, was inevitably handicapped in foreign affairs as well. The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the new nation's Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in the peace treaty of 1783 that marked the end of the Revolutionary War. To make matters worse, British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish officers to the south supplied arms to various American Indian tribes and encouraged them to attack American settlers. The Spanish, who controlled Florida and Louisiana as well as all territory west of the Mississippi River, also refused to allow western farmers to use the port of New Orleans to ship their produce.

Although there were signs of returning prosperity in some areas of the fledgling nation, domestic and foreign problems continued to grow. It became increasingly clear that the confederation's central government was not strong enough to establish a sound financial system, to regulate trade, to enforce treaties, or to exert military force against foreign antagonists when needed. Internal divisions between farmers and merchants, debtors and creditors, and among the states themselves were growing more severe. With Shays' Rebellion of desperate farmers in 1786 vividly in mind, George Washington warned: "There are combustibles in every state which a spark might set fire to."

This sense of potential disaster and the need for drastic change pervaded the Constitutional Convention that began its deliberations on May 25, 1787. All of the delegates were convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the weaker congress established by the Articles of Confederation. Early in the proceedings the delegates agreed that the new government would be composed of three separate branches: legislative, judicial, and executive, each with distinct powers to balance those of the other two branches. It was also agreed that the legislative branch, like the British Parliament, should consist of two houses.

Beyond this point, however, there were sharp differences of opinion that threatened at times to disrupt the convention and cut short its proceedings before a constitution was drafted. The larger states argued in favor of proportional representation in the legislature--that is, each state should have voting power according to its population. The smaller states, fearing domination by the larger ones, insisted on equal representation for all states. The issue was settled by the "Great Compromise," a measure giving every state equal representation in one house of Congress and proportional representation in the other. In the Senate, every state would have two seats. In the House of Representatives, the number of seats would depend on population. Because it was considered more responsive to majority sentiment, the House of Representatives was given the power to originate all legislation dealing with the federal budget and revenues/taxation.

The Great Compromise ended the rift between the large and small states, but throughout the summer the delegates worked out numerous other compromises. Some delegates, fearful of giving too much power to the people, argued for indirect election of all federal officials; others wanted as broad an electoral base as possible. Some wanted to exclude the western territories from eventual statehood; others saw the future strength of the nation in the virgin lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. There were sectional interests to be balanced; differing views to be reconciled on the term, powers, and method of selection of the president; and conflicting ideas on the role of the federal judiciary.

The high quality of the delegates to the convention eased the way to compromise. Only a few of the great leaders of the American Revolution were absent: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both future presidents, were serving as America's envoys to France and Britain, respectively; John Jay was busy as secretary of foreign affairs of the confederation. A handful of others, including Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry, chose not to participate, believing that the existing governmental structure was sound. Of those in attendance, the best known by far was George Washington, commander of American troops and hero of the Revolution, who presided over the convention. Benjamin Franklin, the scientist, scholar, and diplomat, was also there. So, too, were such outstanding men as James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, and Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant young lawyer from New York.

Even the youngest delegates, still in their twenties and thirties, had already displayed political and intellectual gifts. As Thomas Jefferson in Paris wrote to John Adams in London, "It really is an assembly of demigods."

Some of the ideas embodied in the Constitution were new, but many were drawn from Classical Antiquity and the British governmental tradition of mixed government which was in practice among 12 of the 13 states and were advocated by the writings of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. The Declaration of Independence was an important guide, keeping the minds of the delegates fixed on the ideas of self-government and preservation of fundamental human rights. The writings of such European political philosophers as Montesquieu and John Locke were also influential. What they sought to create was a balanced government of checks and balances.

In late July the convention appointed a committee to draft a document based on the agreements that had been reached. After another month of discussion and refinement, a second committee, headed by Gouverneur Morris, produced the final version, which was submitted for signing on September 17. Not all the delegates were pleased with the results; some left before the ceremony, and three of those remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Of the 39 who did sign, probably no one was completely satisfied, and their views were ably summed up by Benjamin Franklin, who said, "There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them." He would accept the Constitution, however, "because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best."


The 13 colonies in 1775
The 13 colonies in 1775

The way was now set for the arduous process of ratification, that is, acceptance of the Constitution by specially constituted conventions, in at least nine states. The need for only nine states was a controversial decision at the time, since the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of all the states. Delaware was the first to ratify, followed swiftly by Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. Of these four states the vote for ratification was unanimous in the three least populous states (i.e. excluding Pennsylanvia). After a further ratification by a large majority in Connecticut, a bitter debate occurred in Massachusetts. That state finally ratified by a narrow majority with a strong recommendation that a bill of rights guaranteeing certain fundamental rights be appended to the Constitution. The rights held to require such explicit protection included freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; the right to trial by jury; and the prohibition of unreasonable searches or arrests. A number of other states added similar provisos, and the result of this pressure--along with support from Thomas Jefferson--was incorporation in the Constitution of the first ten amendments drafted by James Madison, now known as the Bill of Rights (see below), in 1791.

By late June 1788, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire had given their assent, satisfying the requirement for ratification by nine states. Legally, the Constitution was in force. But two powerful and pivotal states, New York and Virginia, remained undecided, as did the two smaller states of North Carolina and Rhode Island. It was clear that without the consent of New York and Virginia, the Constitution would stand on shaky ground.

Virginia was sharply divided, but the influence of James Madison and Governor Edmund Randolph, arguing for ratification, carried the state legislature by a narrow margin on June 26, 1788. Although George Washington was not present at the Virginia convention, his support for the Constitution also influenced the final vote. Opposing ratification in the Richmond, Virginia convention were both George Mason, who had originally supported the Virginia Plan in Philadelphia, and Patrick Henry

The New York convention narrowly voted for approval on July 26, due largely to Hamilton's forensic abilities and his reaching a few key compromises with moderate "antifederalists" led by Melanton Smith. Opposition to ratification was led by Governor George Clinton.

In New York, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay combined to produce a remarkable series of written arguments for the Constitution, The Federalist Papers that were influential in both the Virginia and New York ratification debates. The Federalist Papers are still widely read, discussed, and cited in legal circles and in colleges across the nation. In November 1789, North Carolina added its approval. Rhode Island held out until 1790, when its position as a small and weak state hedged in by a large and powerful republic became untenable.

The process of organizing the government began soon after ratification by Virginia and New York. On September 13, 1788, Congress fixed the city of New York as the seat of the new government. (The capital was moved to Philadelphia in 1790 and to Washington D.C., in 1800.) It set the first Wednesday in January 1789 as the day for choosing presidential electors, the first Wednesday of February for the meeting of the electors to select a president, and the first Wednesday of March for the opening session of the new Congress.

Under the Constitution, each state legislature had the power to decide how presidential electors, as well as representatives and senators, would be chosen. Some states opted for direct elections by the people, others for election by the legislature, and a few for a combination of the two. Rivalries were intense; delays in setting up the first elections under the new Constitution were inevitable. New Jersey, for example, chose direct elections but neglected to set a time for closing the polls, which stayed open for three weeks.

The full and final implementation of the Constitution was set for March 4, 1789. But by that time, only 13 of the 59 representatives and 8 of the 22 senators had arrived in New York City. (Seats allotted to North Carolina and Rhode Island were not filled until those states ratified the Constitution.) A quorum was finally attained in the House on April 1 and in the Senate on April 6. The two houses then met jointly to count the electoral vote.

To no one's surprise, George Washington was unanimously elected the first president, and John Adams of Massachusetts, the vice president. Adams arrived in New York on April 21, and Washington on April 23. They were sworn into office on April 30, 1789. The business of setting up the new government was completed.

Bill of Rights

The Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1789, and it is likely to be further revised in the future. The most sweeping changes occurred within two years of its adoption. In that period, the first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were added. Congress approved these amendments as a block in September 1789, and 11 states had ratified them by the end of 1791.

Much of the initial resistance to the Constitution came not from those opposed to strengthening the federal union but from statesmen who felt that the rights of individuals must be specifically spelled out. One of these was George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was a forerunner of the Bill of Rights. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Mason refused to sign the document because he felt it did not protect individual rights sufficiently. Indeed, Mason's opposition nearly blocked ratification by Virginia. Because of similar feelings in Massachusetts, that state conditioned its ratification on the addition of specific guarantees of individual rights. By the time the First Congress convened, sentiment for adoption of such amendments was nearly unanimous, and the Congress lost little time in drafting them.

See also: United States Bill of Rights

Since the Bill of Rights

Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights cover a wide range of subjects. One of the most far-reaching is the fourteenth, ratified in 1868, which establishes a clear and simple definition of citizenship and guarantees equal treatment under the law. In essence, the Fourteenth Amendment required the states to abide by the protections of the Bill of Rights. Other amendments have limited the judicial power of the national government; changed the method of electing the president; forbidden slavery; protected the right to vote against denial because of race, color, sex, or previous condition of servitude; extended the congressional power to levy taxes to individual incomes; and instituted the election of U.S. senators by popular vote.

The most recent amendments include the twenty-second, limiting the president to two terms in office; the twenty-third, granting citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote; the twenty-fourth, giving citizens the right to vote regardless of failure to pay a poll tax; the twenty-fifth, providing for filling the office of vice president when it becomes vacant in midterm; the twenty-sixth, lowering the voting age to 18; and the twenty-seventh, concerning the compensation of U.S. senators and representatives.

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 04:34:11
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04