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United States Constitution

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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America's constitution divides the national government into three branches, outlines the interaction between the government and the governed, and describes the relationship between the national government and the states.

The Constitution makes itself the supreme law of the land and binds every government official to support it. The U.S. Constitution was designed to prevent anarchy by forging a union of states. The historical roots of the Constitution are revolt against British rule and failure of the subsequent Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation had created an ineffective, weak, unpopular government.

The Confederation Congress had become so unpopular and ineffectual by the mid-1780s that it began to lead an almost waiflike existence. In 1783, its members timidly withdrew from Philadelphia to escape army veterans demanding their back pay. They took refuge for a while in Princeton, New Jersey, then moved on to Annapolis, and in 1785 settled in New York. Delegates were often scarce. Only with great difficulty could Congress produce a quorum to ratify the treaty with Great Britain ending the Revolutionary War. Brinkley, p 142

Forming the US Constitution

Annapolis Convention

Alexander Hamilton was the foremost advocate for a strong national government, and his efforts led to an abortive Annapolis Convention followed by the successful Constitutional Convention.

Alexander Hamilton endeavored for a convention to overhaul the Articles of Confederation. James Madison proved an important ally, when Madison persuaded the Virginia legislature to convene an interstate conference. Though limited to commercial topics, it convened in Annapolis, Maryland in 1786. Only five states sent delegates, but they approved Hamilton's proposal for all the states to send delegates to a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the next year.

There was no reason to predict the Constitutional Convention's success, until Shays' Rebellion shook off apathy toward the Constitutional Convention. George Washington promptly planned to attend the Constitutional Convention, and others soon followed suit.

Constitutional Convention

From May to September 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened at the Philadelphia State House.

Fifty-five men, representing all states except Rhode Island, attended at least one Convention session. Later called the Founding Fathers, they were mostly wealthy landowners with good educations (for their era); and they were were only 44 years old on average. Almost all delegates agreed that the United States needed a stronger central government, but they also feared both majoritarian foolishness and absolute power.

The convention unanimously chose Washington to preside over its sessions, which it closed to the public and the press. It ruled that each state delegate received a single vote, and that major decisions required a simple majority (as opposed to unanimity, as required by the Articles of Confederation).

James Madison put forth the Virginia Plan, which featured proportional representation.

The Virginia Plan provided for a central government with legislative, executive and judicial branches. That much was approved by the Convention. However, the details of the Virginia Plan were not approved, as they inflamed the less populous states. The Virginia Plan had envisioned a two-chamber legislature that could negate state laws; and an executive chosen by the legislature and limited to a single term.

The lower house gave states representation based on their population or taxes paid; and the upper house was elected by the lower house without any rigid system of representation. Smaller states opposed this because they had little representation.

William Patterson put forth the New Jersey Plan, which featured equal representation.

The New Jersey Plan retained the Virginia Plan's structure, but replaced the bicameral legislature with a single house with each state having an equal number of representatives. Also, Congress had expanded powers to tax and to regulate commerce.

The New Jersey Plan was rejected, but what emerged was a compromise between Patterson's and Madison's plans.

The Virginia Plan was modified to give smaller states more power, resulting in the Great Compromise and the Connecticut Compromise. This gave each state equal representation in the Senate; and proportional representation in the House of Representatives.

Revenue bills had to originate in the House, but both chambers had to agree on identical legislation for passage. Also, the executive was now selected by an electoral college, in which a state had the same number of votes as it had Members of Congress.

Another schism centering around representation regarded slaves, though there was no serious attempt to abolish slavery.

Would slaves be counted as part of the population in determining representation in Congress? Or would they be considered property, not entitled to representation? Delegates from the states with large slave populations wanted to have it both ways. They argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation but as property if the new government levied taxes on the states on the basis of population. Representatives from states where slavery had disappeared or was expected soon to disappear argued that slaves should be included in calculating taxation but not representation. Brinkley, p 144

The Convention argued for weeks, and seemed in danger of collapsing -- but the Great Compromise (aka the Connecticut Compromise) settled the issue of taxation and representation.

Ratifying the US Constitution

The Constitution established a republican structure of government. The founders did not intend to create a democracy of majority rule, known as majoritarianism. Replacing the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution had to provide order and protect individuals' freedom. It was not concerned with social and political inequality, which only became issues after the Civil War.

The Constitution had to be approved by nine states before it could take effect. There was intense opposition and support for ratification, with votes in several states quite close. Many people feared the Constitution gave the government too much power, thereby threatening freedom.

The Federalist papers defended the Constitution by arguing that factions (pluralism) were a mechanism of representation and that checks and balances prevented tyranny. In addition, federalists promised that fundamental rights would be included that were beyond the bounds of government interference.



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 preamble defines six objectives: form a more perfect union; establish justice; insure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure liberty.

Interestingly, the preamble does not hold the individual as the central engine, but the community -- a more perfect union. The community has justice, tranquility and liberty; and defends itself as a whole. As the individual is not the central economic engine, but rather the community, the Constitution also serves to promote general welfare.

The Constitution structures a society where decisions are guided by the well-being (welfare) of the whole community, a community imbued with justice, tranquility and liberty.

Articles of the Constitution

Constitutional Amendments

Bill of Rights

In the American system, the values of freedom, equality, and order often conflict. In such cases, each side may claim that its view is rooted in the law. Disputes over issues involving such basic values are usually settled in the courts by our unelected judiciary. Conflicts often arise from different views on the rights of citizens, and a major source of people’s rights is the Constitution—in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. The Constitution guarantees civil rights and civil liberties. A civil right declares what the government must do or provide; a civil liberty is a guarantee to individual citizens that acts as a restraint on government.

Amendment II

The Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms is a source of great controversy. Advocates of gun control see the guarantee as a collective one, centered on the right of states to maintain militias. Opponents of gun control argue that the amendment protects the individual’s right to own guns.

Amendment IX

The Ninth Amendment left open the possibility that there were other rights, not enumerated, that might also be free from government interference. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Supreme Court used the Ninth Amendment as the basis for asserting that people have a right to privacy and that that right allows individuals to make their own choices about birth control and abortion. The appointment of conservative justices under Presidents Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, and G. W. Bush placed gay rights and abortion rights in question, but President Clinton’s more liberal appointees seem more likely to support those unenumerated rights.

The discovery of new rights under the Ninth Amendment creates a difficulty for democracy. It removes questions about value conflicts from the arena of democratic politics and puts them under the protection of the Constitution and the unelected judicial branch.