The Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution, and the Beginning of a New Nation, Coursework Example
In the 1770s, as the American colonies moved closer to waging war for independence from British rule, it became necessary for the colonies to develop new political systems. The first efforts to do so largely happened at the state level, as the colonies began to establish their own constitutions and governing bodies. Opposition to a powerful central government among most colonists meant that any new form of national government would have limited powers over the states. Beginning in 1776, with the war for independence underway, the drafting of the Articles of Confederation began; this was the first effort to establish a central government that would unite the colonies. The Articles of Confederation had a number of weaknesses, however, and would be abandoned soon after the war. The Articles of Confederation were eventually replaced by the U.S. Constitution and an entirely new form of government that attempted to strike a balance between the liberties and powers of the individual states and the collective needs of the states that would necessitate the development of a central government that was powerful enough to meet those needs without infringing on states’ rights.
To understand the context in which the Articles of Confederation were written, as well as why they were eventually scrapped, it is first necessary to understand some of the reasons that the colonies went to war against Britain in the first place. As colonial life expanded and evolved over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the individual colonies became more economically powerful. The revolution of American colonies against British control was not an event that arose overnight; it was the result of a series of events that took place over years, and even decades. Colonists in the different regions often lived very different lives than did their counterparts in other regions. The Southern colonies were largely dominated by landed gentry who owned plantations powered by slave labor, while the economic and political systems in the Northern colonies were established by family farmers, artisans, and businessmen of various types (Schultz, 2012). Despite the varied backgrounds and ways of life of the colonists, they began to share a common belief that British control of the colonies must be ended.
Although the issues of taxation were significant contributors to the rise of the colonial push for independence, they were not the only issues that spurred the war. The fact was that despite the disparities between the different colonies, one common theme of colonial life was the sense of individualism that existed for many (though not for all) colonists (Henretta et al, 2010). There were, of course, large numbers of slaves, especially in the South, as well as other members of society who did not wield much (or any) political or economic power. For many colonists, however, life in the Americas meant opportunity, and the phenomena of the “natural aristocracy” and rights to liberty and freedom rooted in “natural law” began to supplant the traditional aristocracies in Britain and the idea that the power and the right to rule came from divine law (Schultz). In short, the revolution was not prompted simply by the issue of taxation, but reflected fundamental shifts in the ways that many colonists perceived the world.
As the belief that the tyranny of King George III must be opposed gathered steam, the notion that such tyranny must be replaced with a new government did not arise overnight. The first significant decision on the road to independence was the decision to “take up arms” against the British (Henretta et al). By 1776 the colonies were united in the decision to declare independence from Britain, and discussions about how new governments would rule in the absence of British control began. As individual colonies started to develop their own constitutions and governments, a strong anti-federalist sentiment fueled many discussions about what form a new national government would take. The Articles of Confederation were drafted as a means of establishing a national government that would have at least some measure of control over the states; the question of just how extensive such control would be was a matter of significant contention.
The desire for independence that served as one of the few common themes among the diverse colonies also meant that a new national political system that placed too much power in a central government would be unpopular in most states. With this in mind, the central government established by the Articles of Confederation had both a minimal organizational structure and extremely limited powers. The national government would function primarily as an “administrative agency” (Schultz) where representatives of the different states could meet to discuss matters of concern for the states. The new government had only one legislative body; this body was given authority over five primary areas of concern: these included the right to declare war; the right to develop international treaties; the right to oversee affairs related to Indians; establish a national currency; and to provide a national postal service (Schultz). The Articles of Confederation placed only two major powers in the hands of the states, but they would prove to be powers of such importance that state control would quickly undermine the fledgling national government.
The major powers reserved for the states were control over taxation and commerce (Schultz). As the individual colonies had grown, with each developing their own economies, social structures, and ways of life, they became accustomed to these developments and were no going to willingly hand over control of any of them to a central government. The issue of taxation was of enormous concern both for the states and for the new national government, especially after the war had ended. The successful colonial revolution would not mean an end to international trade, but much of the support systems and protections offered to colonial economies had been put in place by the British; in the absence of their political control it would be up to the colonies to develop new systems and protections (Schultz).
In the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War the colonies and the new national government faced a number of challenges along with the need to rebuild trade and economic systems. The government faced enormous debts, yet lacked the authority to levy taxes to raise revenue. There were also problems associated with the increasingly-significant rates of Westward expansion, including issues related to territorial control that could, in some instances, lead to the possibility of war. While the new central government had the authority to declare war, it lacked the power to raise revenue to pay for a war (let alone to pay off the bills from the previous war). This lack of authority meant, in essence, that the new government was ineffective and could not meet the demands vested in its powers and responsibilities. It became clear that a new system would be needed, and the birth of this new system was announced in the form of the United States Constitution.
The drafting of the Constitution was not without controversy, as many of the same issues that had undermined the development of an effective national government in the Articles of Confederation remained; some of these issues had become even more important in the wake of the revolution, as the promise of independence and freedom from British rule gave way to the reality that they had been achieved. One of the primary themes found in the Declaration of Independence was the necessity of throwing off the shackles of tyranny as manifested by the rule of King George III. Any new national government would have to address the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation while also avoiding the creation of a central government that was too powerful; now that the end of King George’s tyranny was no longer a goal but had become a reality, the challenge of striking the right balance between state powers and those of a central government would be more important than ever.
Controversy over the writing of the Constitution erupted from the very beginning, as different factions developed over support for and opposition to a strong central government. Among those who supported a relatively powerful national government were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams (Henretta et al). These men and others were concerned about the ability of a new government to raise revenue to deal with the debts left by the war and the future expenses the nation would face. They wanted the national government to be able to raise revenue through the control of tariffs and international commerce, a move that was staunchly opposed by many colonies. Many colonies in every region had developed strong trade systems of their own, and were used to raising (and spending) money through tariffs (Schultz).
Another area of significant concern for the colonies was the matter of governmental representation. The limited government established by the Articles of Confederation also offered a limited amount of representation, as each colony sent one representative to the national body. Any new form of government that would expand its political and economic reach beyond that which existed in the previous government would also have to allow for adequate representation from each state. The issue of representation was immediately contentious, as the more populous colonies especially fought for proportional representation; that is, the population of each state would determine how many representatives it would send to Congress. This was, naturally, opposed by the smaller, less populous colonies, which feared that in every major decision the desires and interests of the larger colonies would always take precedence over the concerns of the smaller ones.
Concerns about representation and the structure of the new government were eventually resolved in what became known as the “Great Compromise” (McNeese, 2001). This compromise addressed both the structure and the representational form of the new government by establishing a bicameral system of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Each state would send two representatives to the Senate, while the House would utilize proportional representation as determined by a census to be held once every ten years. The powers of the new government were further divided, or separated, by the establishment of administrative and judicial branches. In sum, the Senate and House would serve as the Congress which wrote the laws, the Presidency would oversee administration of the laws, and the Judiciary would ensure that the laws were properly enforced.
The Great Compromise did not resolve every issue that plagued the writing of the Constitution, though it did offer insight into the nature of these issues, as they were all, in one way or another, rooted in the conflicting interests and concerns of the states. The issue of slavery, for example, was a contentious matter; as the Northern states were moving towards abolition and emancipation, the Southern states were becoming increasingly dependent on slave labor. The slave owners found themselves in the position of defending their rights in the context of property rights, which meant that slaves were merely chattel, and also in terms of human rights, as the slave owners fought to maintain control over immigration (and thus, over the Atlantic slave trade).
This position was further complicated by the arguments over proportional representation; while the slave owners wanted to enforce their property rights over slaves, they also wanted to use the slave population in the South when the matter of representation was concerned (blackpast.org). The issue was eventually settled when the Constitution based proportional representation on the citizens of the states and on “other persons,” meaning slaves; these “other persons” would not be considered citizens, but each would be counted as 3/5ths of a person for issues of proportional representation (McNeese). As distasteful as this may appear in a contemporary context, it also marked the beginning of changes both in the laws related to slavery and in the overall discourse related to slavery. It would be another century before the beginning of emancipation, but in this matter and many others, the Constitution has proven to a remarkably resilient, flexible, and powerful basis for the United States government.
Blackpast.org (n.d.). The Deleted Passage of the Declaration of Independence (1776) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Retrieved from http://www.blackpast.org/?q=primary/declaration-independence-and-debate-over-slavery
Henretta, J. A., Edwards, R., & Self, R. O. (2010). America’s history. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
McNeese, T. (2001). The U.S. Constitution. St. Louis, Mo: Milliken Pub.
Schultz, K. M. (2012). HIST2, Volume 1. Retrieved from The University of Phoenix eBook Collection.
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