Chapter 2: The Constitution and Its Origins
The Pre-Revolutionary Period and the Roots of the American Political Tradition (Link to Section 2.1)
For many years the British colonists in North America had peacefully accepted rule by the king and Parliament. They were proud to be Englishmen. Much of their pride, however, stemmed from their belief that they were heirs to a tradition of limited government and royal acknowledgement of the rights of their subjects.
Colonists’ pride in their English liberties gave way to dismay when they perceived that these liberties were being abused. People had come to regard life, liberty, and property not as gifts from the monarch but as natural rights no government could take away. A chain of incidents—the Proclamation of 1763, the trial of smugglers in courts without juries, the imposition of taxes without the colonists’ consent, and the attempted interference with self-government in the colonies—convinced many colonists that the social contract between the British government and its citizens had been broken. In 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared American independence from Great Britain.
What key tenets of American political thought were influential in the decision to declare independence from Britain?
What actions by the British government convinced the colonists that they needed to declare their independence?
The Articles of Confederation (Link to Section 2.2)
Fearful of creating a system so powerful that it might abuse its citizens, the men who drafted the Articles of Confederation deliberately sought to limit the powers of the national government. The states maintained the right to govern their residents, while the national government could declare war, coin money, and conduct foreign affairs but little else. Its inability to impose taxes, regulate commerce, or raise an army hindered its ability to defend the nation or pay its debts. A solution had to be found.
In what ways did Shays’ Rebellion reveal the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation?
The Development of the Constitution (Link to Section 2.3)
Realizing that flaws in the Articles of Confederation could harm the new country and recognizing that the Articles could not easily be revised as originally intended, delegates from the states who met in Philadelphia from May through September 1787 set about drafting a new governing document. The United States that emerged from the Constitutional Convention in September was not a confederation, but it was a republic whose national government had been strengthened greatly. Congress had been transformed into a bicameral legislature with additional powers, and a national judicial system had been created. Most importantly, a federal system had been established with the power to govern the new country.
To satisfy the concerns of those who feared an overly strong central government, the framers of the Constitution created a system with separation of powers and checks and balances. Although such measures satisfied many, concerns still lingered that the federal government remained too powerful.
What does separation of powers mean?
The Ratification of the Constitution (Link to Section 2.4)
Anti-Federalists objected to the power the Constitution gave the federal government and the absence of a bill of rights to protect individual liberties. The Federalists countered that a strong government was necessary to lead the new nation and promised to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. The Federalist Papers, in particular, argued in favor of ratification and sought to convince people that the new government would not become tyrannical. Finally, in June 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the Constitution, making it the law of the land. The large and prosperous states of Virginia and New York followed shortly thereafter, and the remaining states joined as well.
Why did so many people oppose ratification of the Constitution, and how was their opposition partly overcome?
Constitutional Change (Link to Section 2.5)
One of the problems with the Articles of Confederation was the difficulty of changing it. To prevent this difficulty from recurring, the framers provided a method for amending the Constitution that required a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and in three-quarters of state legislatures to approve a change.
The possibility of amending the Constitution helped ensure its ratification, although many feared the powerful federal government it created would deprive them of their rights. To allay their anxieties, the framers promised that a Bill of Rights safeguarding individual liberties would be added following ratification. These ten amendments were formally added to the document in 1791 and other amendments followed over the years. Among the most important were those ending slavery, granting citizenship to African Americans, and giving the right to vote to Americans regardless of race, color, or sex.
What did the Fourteenth Amendment achieve?