Episode 3: Birth of the Constitution | History in a Nutshell

Episode 3: Birth of the Constitution | History in a Nutshell

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History In A Nutshell The year was 1783. The American Revolutionary War to gain independence from the grip of Great Britain, and King George III was over. The Treaty of Paris had been signed officially signaling the end of the Revolution. America was free at last, and it was time for the newly formed United States of America to create a permanent government of its own. That begs the question so we won the war… Now what? In order to understand how the Constitution came to be, It’s important to note the impacts of the previous documents leading up to its adoption: the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation Before America’s independence, the American colonies were governed by the First, and later, the Second Continental Congresses. Though these systems were merely provisional ones. A provisional government is a system formed in times of crisis, either during the rise of a new nation or the fall of the previous governing administration. In the case of the American colonies, the Continental Congress’s formation was reactionary towards the dissatisfaction with King George III’s policies The colonies became fed up with the king and drafted a document stating that the thirteen states no longer recognized English rule. This document is of course the Declaration of Independence, signed July 4th, 1776 The Declaration listed grievances against King George III, along with outlining certain legal and natural rights for its citizens “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 This message in the Declaration of Independence would be echoed in the Articles of Confederation, and later the Constitution. It is with the Declaration of Independence where we would first see the names of some of America’s Founding Fathers who would later work on the Constitution: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Hancock, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin The Articles of Confederation served as America’s first constitution. It was approved by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, however, it did not fully go into effect until 1781. The Articles ultimately failed and was replaced by the U.S. Constitution in 1789. But why did the Articles fail? Well, there are several reasons for this. One of its biggest flaws was a weak central government. The concept of a strong central government was not a popular one at the time, for Americans preferred loyalty to their home states. Because of this, the power of the central government was kept as weak as possible in favor of more power to the individual states. Also the government under the Articles lacked an executive branch to enforce acts. Nor was there a centralized court system. No national military either! And a unanimous vote was needed to make any amendments. One of the Articles biggest critics was statesman Alexander Hamilton. According to Hamilton: “The fundamental defect is a want of power in Congress… The confederation itself is defective and requires to be altered. It is neither fit for war, nor peace.” Which leads to another one of the Articles biggest problems: money, or lack thereof. Congress did not have the authority to tax, and the states were unwilling to give money to support the central government. There was no national currency either for each state had its own printed money. Due to these issues, there was no stable national economy, and it became clear to the Founding Fathers that the debt from the Revolution could not be repaid. The mass printing of paper notes, then known as “continentals” caused inflation. The states ended up printing so much money that the value of the Continental became worthless. That’s where the saying “not worth a continental” came from. The crisis reached a boiling point in 1786 with Shay’s Rebellion. American citizens revolted and had had enough with the economic and political chaos. Congress had to act. In 1787, the Founding Fathers convened at the Philadelphia Convention with the goal of fixing the political and economic issues caused by the Articles of Confederation. It was decided during the convention that forming a new system of government, instead of fixing the old one, would be more beneficial. This new document written mostly by James Madison would be known as the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution was an amalgam of ideas borrowed from state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, and political philosophers like Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke. It was proposed during this convention “…that a national government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary.” Of course when it came to creating these new branches of government, not every Founding Father saw eye to eye. Some supported the Virginia Plan, while others supported the New Jersey Plan. This ultimately led to the Great Compromise, which is how the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate came to be. Of course not everybody could be satisfied, and this led to the rise of the first two political parties: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. It was during the rise of these political parties when Alexander Hamilton, James Madison jr., And John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers; a series of commentaries in support of the newly ratified Constitution. The first three articles of this newly ratified Constitution outlined the separation of powers: the Legislative Branch, which makes the laws, the Executive Branch, which enforces the laws, and the Supreme Court which interprets the laws. The Supreme Court still uses the Federalist Papers today to interpret the Constitution when applying it to court cases Lastly, and arguably the most important part of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights comprises the first ten amendments which guarantees rights every American citizen can appreciate, such as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, freedom to practice your religion of choice, protection against wrongful imprisonment, and more! We really should thank the Founding Fathers for this because they would not have even voted to ratify the Constitution, if the Bill of Rights was not included!

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