United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

$87.99

Per volume

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Pricing

Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

$63.90

Hardcover print text only

MacMillan

Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition

$87.99

Per volume

Pearson

Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013

$79.60

Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

Customizable

Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Norton

Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition

MacMillan

Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes

McGraw-Hill

McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 7: Uncertain Experiments: The Struggle for Democratic Stability, 1777-1789


Pre-Chapter Discussion

Before reading the chapter below, write down what you know about the Constitution and the development of the United States government. What do you think led to the development of the Constitution? What names or events do you associate with it? Which Founding Fathers do you think were the most important to the process?


Figure 7.1: Howard Chandler Christy’s famous painting, “The Signing of Constitution of the United States,” (1940) hangs in the United States House of Representatives. Note the heroic imagery, the way that George Washington dominates the scene, and the fact that Christy included all of the most important figures from the Constitutional Convention, including Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton. [1]​

Chapter Overview

Today, more than 225 years after ratification, the United States Constitution is the oldest and most famous written constitution still serving as the foundation for a sovereign government anywhere in the world. It is a remarkably concise document, composed of fewer than 8,000 words originally set forth on five pages of parchment, and has been amended only twenty- seven times since 1788. The Constitution enshrined principles of federalism, separation of powers, and, following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, civil liberties that became hallmarks of a new and utterly unique form of national government. It has lasted so long, and weathered so many challenges – from the Civil War to the Great Depression and from the Second World War to the digital age – that for many Americans it represents a never-to-be-repeated moment of genius associated with the birth of the United States (Figure 7.1). Indeed, in some quarters, it is now so universally celebrated that the men who wrote it have achieved a kind of mythical status, and it is associated so closely with the American victory in the Revolutionary War that students often believe that the Constitution formed the first national government.

Compressing the Revolution and Constitution too closely together, however, ignores the Articles of Confederation and masks the extraordinary and distinctive people and times that finally produced a stable federal government. It did not spring naturally from the minds of geniuses, or emerge easily during, or immediately after, the Revolution. It was never unanimously supported, always controversial, bitterly debated, and the product of a tumultuous thirteen years between 1775 and 1788 that witnessed revolution, experimentation with representative government in every state, the creation and destruction of a national governing system, and a vigorous debate at the Constitutional Convention that risked fracturing the union and might easily have failed. The Constitution was conceived in secret by men who had limited faith in pure democracy, and ratified by state constitutional conventions that bypassed the existing state legislatures. It represents a particular time, place, and generation in American history, and it can only be understood and appreciated in the context of that era. That it became a remarkably resilient basis for government and admired around the world we now take for granted that it became a remarkably resilient basis for government and admired around the world, but that outcome was far from guaranteed.  

Chapter Objectives

  • Understand the origins and importance of the U.S. Constitution
  • Be able to explain the political world view of the Founders and where their beliefs regarding government, democracy, and history came from
  • Be able to provide examples of state constitutions developed during the American Revolution
  • Explain the origins of the Articles of Confederation and their strengths and weaknesses
  • Be able to explain Shays’ Rebellion and the series of events that led some of the Founders to push for a Constitutional Convention and a new national government
  • Understand the most important debates at the Constitutional Convention, and the compromises that resolved them
  • Explain the process of ratification, and the strengths and weaknesses of the new government the Constitution created
  • Be familiar with who the most important Founders were, and understand the role played by George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, and others in creating the Constitution


The Political World of the Founders

One way to think about the extraordinarily rapid political and social change that took place in the United States during the late 1700s is to consider an average farmer in one of the original 13 colonies in 1765 and then again in 1800. In 1765, that farmer likely believed in the British monarchy and had no expectation of being treated as an equal by people who represented higher social classes. In 1800, he or she likely believed in democracy and equality (at least for men), and men of 1800 expected to take part in state and national elections by voting and perhaps even holding office. Men also likely believed that they could rise or fall in social status based on their merits and willingness to work, an idea which would have been unthinkable in 1765. How did this sweeping change in assumptions about the nature of society and government take place?

Part of the answer lies in the work of the generation of revolutionaries and great thinkers who rebelled against Great Britain and conceived of the Constitution. They are often referred to collectively as the Founding Fathers of the United States, and they created a republic that attempted to restrain both government authority and democracy in a balanced manner that avoided the excesses and tyranny of monarchy and the weaknesses and instability of unrestrained rule by the people.

This remarkable transformation, from dependent colonies in a monarchial system to an enormous democratic republic, took place in less than 35 years even though no distinctively American political or social identity really existed prior to 1765. To be sure, the English colonies in North America were distinctive. They were geographically huge, remarkably diverse in terms of population and religious belief, and shaped by the frontier and the long struggles against Native Americans and the French. Colonial cities were inferior by any standard to their European counterparts, but they were dynamic centers of economic activity and hubs for commercial networks constantly seeking expansion overseas and into the vast interior of North America. Socially, American colonists often struck European visitors as unrefined and poorly educated, and settlers were less deferential or subordinate than many of their counterparts in Great Britain. Yet the colonists celebrated English holidays and traditions, submitted to English law, often served in the British army and navy, and saw themselves as an integral part of an extended empire of English men and women.

While America may have looked strange from London, the colonies were still organized around English principles. Their subjects were English citizens, who for the most part believed in hierarchy, dependence, patronage, and authority. Hierarchy meant that society included various levels, or classes, into which a person was born, and that social and economic inequality among people was a constant. The barriers between classes were not always rigid, but people were still expected to know their place and act accordingly when in the presence of those who were socially superior or inferior to themselves. Dependence meant that those in the lower levels depended on those above to take care of them – to rule, to assume positions of social, political, and military leadership, and to manage economic affairs and businesses so that they benefited as many people as possible. Patronage represented the idea that social superiors were required to support those below them, whether that meant taking on apprentices in their businesses, or financially supporting community initiatives, churches, or families in need when possible. Finally, authority meant that everyone obeyed the law and those above them, all the way up to the king, and that the power to rule came from God and the King and extended downward.

This complex social system assumed that a single social interest could be known for everyone, and that it could be clearly articulated by the gentlemen who ruled. It also depended on the idea that ordinary people understood their role to obey and socially defer to their betters in all things in exchange for being reasonably cared for by those above them, and that government would serve the common good. It was not a world universally open to promoting talent, and it provided limited opportunities to men who did not own land and even less to women. It rigidly limited the role of slaves and Native Americans, and by modern standards seems remarkably inequitable and extraordinarily limiting. However, it was usually stable and productive, and it provided more freedom for colonists than could be found in most other societies. By the middle of the 18th century the American colonies in North America enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world. 

Figure 7.2: John Singleton Copley’s 1765 portrait of John Hancock symbolizes the proper role of colonial gentlemen – educated, well-mannered, and ready to lead. Hancock served as President of the Continental Congress and was a two- term governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. [2]


7.01 - Level 1

The idea that social superiors were required to support those below them was known as ________.

A

Hierarchy

B

Dependence

C

Authority

D

Patronage


7.02 - Level 1

A wealthy landowner who mistreated his apprentice violated which philosophical principle?

A

Authority

B

Dependence

C

Patronage

D

Hierarchy


Many of the best educated among the colonial elite, including John Hancock (Figure 7.2) and others, colored these views with faith in what they called republicanism, which meant that balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy created a virtuous republic featuring the best traits of each. Too much monarchy meant tyranny; aristocracy alone equaled oligarchy; democracy by itself led to anarchy and corruption. Only when all three concepts were in balance could society thrive in an ordered manner, and most Englishmen found this truth rooted in ancient Greek and Roman history as well as the relatively recent English Civil Wars. 

Many argued that Great Britain had found that balance, with the king balanced against Parliament, colonial governors checked by colonial legislatures, and a limited democracy in which the right to vote was confined to those most qualified by virtue of their wealth, education, and property. Others argued that true republicanism had been thwarted by the monarchy, which held too much power and depended on a corrupt aristocracy that ignored the needs of the people. The debate that ensued among the elite was rooted in antiquity and promoted during the Renaissance by Niccolo Machiavelli and others, then carried into English political culture by John Milton, James Harrington, and others. Such ideas became popular among many European intellectuals, and for some, the American frontier seemed the perfect place to expand on these notions of limited government because it represented a new and untamed land where experimentation was more likely to be successful than in Western Europe, where monarchial power remained deeply entrenched. In this view, the simple farmers of the American colonies were not outcasts on the edge of civilization; they were independent citizens uniquely equipped to create a new society along enlightened principle of republican virtue.  

7.03 - Level 1

The concept of Republicanism centered on balancing aristocracy, democracy, and what else?

A

Hierarchy

B

Paternalism

C

Mercantilism

D

Monarchy


Revolution, State Constitutions, and the Article of Confederation

By destroying so many existing governmental institutions, the Revolutionary War provided Americans with the opportunity to experiment with all of these ideas and unleashed a wave of social and political change in the colonies, which proved both exhilarating and deeply frightening. The existing British system of rule and social classes collapsed, Loyalists were thrown out of office in many areas, and new opportunities in the militia, the Continental Army, and legislatures across the land suddenly opened up to men who only a few years before could never have dreamed of holding socially or politically prominent roles. Those who supported the Revolution saw themselves creating a bold new society free of the corruption of monarchy, while those who remained loyal to Britain watched with dismay as all of their bedrock institutions were attacked during a destructive war that promised no clear path forward. The uncertainty of the times seemed to risk anarchy, and the seismic changes unleashed by the Revolution took decades to fully develop in politics as well as society. Independence from Great Britain, achieved through a bloody and destructive revolution between 1775 and 1783, proved the first critical step towards creating the United States politically, but by no means settled the cultural upheaval begun by the war. The infant nation struggled to find a political and social equilibrium after 1783, and risked losing all that it had fought for unless stable state and national governments could be created. That challenge proved extraordinarily difficult, and it began with the states.

All thirteen states drafted their own constitutions beginning in 1776, for they ceased to exist as colonies the moment they declared independence. The new constitutions generally reduced the power of government in an emotional reaction against the perceived excesses of the British crown. They reflected the convictions of dedicated republicans (not be confused with modern meanings or political parties) who believed that all of the evils associated with the Old World – the poverty, the abuse of power, the entrenched notions of privilege associated with the aristocracy and the king – were the result of a centralized government that had become too powerful and then too corrupt. Rather than promote distinctions among people through titles, monopolies, the award of government offices, the entitlement of certain religious beliefs, and exemption from certain taxes, these republicans argued that government should promote natural merit and equality between citizens committed to serving one another. In that sense, republicanism had a moral component that rejected selfish individualism and stressed devotion to the common good. That idea was reflected in several states, including Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, that adopted the name “commonwealth” to express their intent to serve the collective interests of all of the people.

There were risks in these ideas. Most political theorists believed that republics could only work if they were small, as in the case of the Netherlands or many Swiss city-states. Large experiments were assumed to always end in dictatorship—as the English had found with Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War—because in large populations, there were too many divergent groups to function effectively together without strong governmental oversight and control. Republics had to be held together from the bottom, by the people, rather than from the top, and so the challenge facing state leaders in 1776 and beyond was to create systems that could maintain order without repeating what they perceived as the mistakes and excesses of King George III and Parliament.

Republicanism, which grew more popular as the war progressed, became more radical over time because it depended in large measure on the virtue of ordinary people. Indeed, if ordinary citizens were to rule themselves, they had to collectively devote themselves to the common good. If they became too corrupt, too lazy, too devoted to luxury, or too self-interested, then any republic risked sinking into decay and decline. While not all Americans believed themselves or any people capable of such benign self-rule, there were those who argued that America was special because the people were largely self-sufficient. Supporters of this line of reasoning argued that farmers who owned land were not dependent on the government, and that the frontier had made them hardy and independent. Thomas Jefferson, for example, argued that yeoman-farmers were the “chosen people of God,” and that land-owning men were capable of free will in a way that most Europeans were not, precisely because they were more independent financially and more able to pursue enlightened self-interest socially, politically, and economically.

As the Revolution progressed, the old social order gave way to the idea of equality as described in the Declaration of Independence. That idea became the most powerful driving force in American history and played a decisive role in shaping the evolution of society long after American independence had been assured. Yet equality meant something very different to the Founders than it does to people in the 21st century. Even the most ardent revolutionaries never intended for equality to extend to everyone. It was a vital element in opening American society to talent and creating a natural aristocracy that would rise to social influence and power through merit, but could not, in their minds, reasonably be extended to those who did not own land or were not qualified to rule. Thus, women, Native Americans, slaves, and poor whites who did not own property were expected to remain dependent, while successive generations would recognize their own leaders like George Washington and celebrate disinterested and enlightened Republican rule that stemmed from individual freedom and promised to avoid the excesses, factional politics, and inequality of the colonial years. That, at least, was the dream, and it was never entirely fulfilled. The focus on unselfish, collective good clashed with the growing emphasis on individual freedom and economic gain. However, it was a remarkably revolutionary idea for that time and place, and it laid the foundation for all of the subsequent freedoms that came later in American society.

The challenge of turning these ideas into practical governance came first at the state level, where leaders responded to resolutions passed by the Second Continental Congress in 1776 to establish new governments “under the authority of the people.” By the end of the year, new governments were declared in Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, and New Jersey, among others, and the rest of the states soon followed suit.

These state governments were new in the sense that they relied on constitutions as bulwarks against centralized power. In England, “constitution” had typically referred to the arrangement and organization of government rather than a written document that existed above ordinary day-to-day laws. The Americans, however, had long before used colonial charters to limit royal authority and feared untrammeled executive power—whether wielded by a king or a governor—to such an extent that constitutions came to be seen as vital documents that expressly limited the powers of government and specified the rights of citizens.

In the ensuing zealous drive among patriots—for not all Americans supported the revolution—most states dramatically limited the powers of state governors. Their previous discretion in creating electoral districts, calling assemblies to meet, granting lands, pardoning crimes, and appointing individuals to office was dramatically reduced or eliminated. Most were elected annually, often by the assemblies, subject to impeachment, and limited in the number of times they could run for reelection. Such limitations were meant to avoid what many Americans saw as the traditional corruption of monarchial governments – the distribution of honors, special favors, and lucrative offices by the crown to select individuals who were then beholden to the government. This marked a significant change from the English system and developed the idea of separation of powers later entrenched in the Constitution. The desire to separate powers, however, did not stem from a perceived need to keep the judicial, legislative and executive branches from overstepping their bounds with each other. The overriding desire was to keep the judicial and legislative branches free from the executive, which meant that all states forbade executive officials (governors, attorney generals, etc.) from holding seats in the legislatures. That precluded the kind of parliamentary government that existed in England and marked yet another departure from the old order for the Americans.

Virtually all of the powers taken from governors were moved to legislatures, including the right to grant pardons and make alliances, and the states made strong efforts to promote actual representation (as opposed to virtual representation in Parliament under British rule) and explicit rather than implied consent. They created electoral districts of equal size, expanded suffrage, mandated annual elections, required residency within state boundaries for voters and office holders, and permitted citizens to instruct their legislators. Representation was often extended into previously underrepresented western areas, and a few constitutions stipulated that population formed the basis of representation. New York went a step further, calling for regular adjustment of representation based on population movements so that people might always be proportionately represented.

7.04 - Level 1

Who did Thomas Jefferson envision as the model citizen of the new United States?

A

The small independent farmer

B

The wealthy plantation owner

C

The industrious merchant

D

The humble indentured servant


7.05 - Level 2

Click on the three original 13 colonies that became “commonwealths” rather than “states.” (Note: Today's Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820)


Some states went even farther in their zeal to promote the power of the people. Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Vermont, for example, chose to create unicameral (one house) legislatures. Pennsylvania also precluded the recognition of any sort of aristocracy, limited legislators to serving a single year before running for re-election, required that every meeting of the legislature be open to the public, stipulated that legislation had to be passed by successive legislatures in order to become law, and extended the right to vote to first-born sons. The Pennsylvania Constitution proved unworkable and did not last, but it is an excellent example of the kind of experimentation going on in all thirteen states during the Revolution.

All of the other states recognized the need for a bi-cameral (two house) legislature, featuring upper and lower bodies tasked with different and overlapping responsibilities, so that the upper house could prove a check on the lower, along with weakened executive and judicial branches. None recognized a formal aristocracy, so both the legislature and the executive were designed to represent the people. Many leaders believed that a natural aristocracy would still emerge in every state, but abandoned the idea of aristocratic classes in the face of the demand from so many Americans that government and society reflect the idea of equality put forth in the Declaration of Independence. 

7.06 - Level 2

Match the following states with the form of legislature they chose in their first constitutions.

Premise
Response
1

Pennsylvania

A

Unicameral

2

Georgia

B

Unicameral

3

Vermont

C

Bicameral

4

Virginia

D

Bicameral

5

Massachusetts

E

Unicameral


This process of creating new state constitutions took several years and represented a significant achievement. The colonists had declared independence and formed new state governments with radically different premises than existed under English rule, and done so in remarkably short period. Their constitutions were read throughout Europe, and for a time, they represented the most impressive political achievement of the Revolution. They symbolized the new spirit of republicanism at work in America and foreshadowed the eventual creation of the Constitution. 

Figure 7.3: John Adams played a key role in the Continental Congress during the American Revolution and then wrote much of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He eventually served as the first Vice President and the second President of the United States. Gilbert Stuart completed this portrait in 1821. ​​[3]


While state leaders like John Adams (Figure 7.3) took the lead in grappling with the need for new governments, the Continental Congress followed their lead and slowly considered doing the same at the national level. People, as a rule, concentrated on their states first, but due to the exigencies of war, the Congress had been forced to act on their behalf, and representatives began arguing that it needed some formal and permanent basis for its authority. It had, after all, formed an army, issued money, defined crimes against the country, negotiated with foreign powers, created commercial regulations, established a military legal code, and taken innumerable other steps necessary to prosecute the battle against Great Britain. It had done so despite the fact that representatives, or delegates, had not been elected by the people. Most had been appointed or selected by either Committees of Correspondence or legislatures of some kind, and therefore represented only the states themselves and those Americans who supported the Revolution. To remedy this situation, delegates began work on a draft of a plan of confederation in 1776 and submitted it to the states for ratification the following year. It took four years of often acrimonious debate and revision, until March of 1781, for the states to accept what became known as the Articles of Confederation.

Government Under the Articles of Confederation

Figure 7.4: Western land cessions by various states were the most important precursor to forming a government under the Articles of Confederation.​​


Agreement on the Articles came very slowly, primarily because of differences over competing claims for western lands (Figure 7.4). Royal charters in Connecticut, Virginia, Massachusetts, and other states asserted control over territory extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean. States without similar claims, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, refused to accept the Articles until the largest claims were reduced and remaining lands ceded to Congress. This finally occurred in 1781, when Virginia, frightened by a British army led by Lord Cornwallis, became the last of the large claim states to abandon its western claims.

Following ratification of the Articles, the government that emerged at the national level created a union of sovereign, largely independent states with a shared culture but very little political unity. In that way, the Articles symbolized the decisive swing away from the idea of a centralized national government that had taken place in the minds of most Americans during the Revolution. The Articles gave the new country its name – The United States of America – and established a confederation of equal parts with very limited national oversight. Each state had two representatives in a unicameral Congress which held the power to declare war, conduct treaties, regulate currency, and raise armies and navies. Citizens were guaranteed the privileges enjoyed by their counterparts in every state, trade and travel restrictions between states were eliminated, and judicial rulings in a single state were valid in each of the others. These requirements made the confederation a very strong republic by historic standards and provided a great deal of freedom to the individual states. 

Question 7.07

7.07 - Level 4

What are some of the shared cultural beliefs that linked the new states together? What were some issues that challenged their political unity?

Click here to see the answer to Question 7.07

In practice, however, the Articles proved lacking in several key areas. On major issues, the national government could act only when nine states agreed, and that almost never happened. Minor actions required agreement by seven states, which also proved a high bar. The government had no power independent of the states to levy taxes or regulate commerce, no judicial or executive branch, and no enforcement mechanism for legislation. It depended on the cooperation of a sizeable majority of the states to operate, and that cooperation almost never came, in part because Congress had difficulty getting enough representatives present to have a quorum after the war. Many of the states approached the articles as a treaty of friendship between sovereign states and saw their delegates as diplomats rather than representatives expected to cooperate as part of a larger government. Most did not see the Articles as limiting their sovereignty in any meaningful way, and proved reluctant to think in national or international terms. Instead, they were consumed with local concerns just as they had been during the Revolution, and this mindset stymied virtually all efforts to confront the serious national problems that emerged in the 1780s.

Question 7.08

7.08 - Level 5

Why do you think the creators of the Articles of Confederation established such a high bar for agreements at the national level? What were they trying to achieve? What effect do you think this had on the functionality of the government?

Click he5re to see the answer to Question 7.08.

The most notable successes of the new government were prosecuting the Revolution to a successful conclusion in 1783 and passing three extremely significant land ordinances. The first, in 1784, created a process through which new territories could be admitted to the union on an equal basis with other states when they reached a population of 60,000. This was crucial because more than 30,000 land-hungry settlers had already crossed the Appalachians and settled in Kentucky and Tennessee, and far more were on the way. The second ordinance, passed in 1785, created a grid system for new lands west of the Appalachians and north of the Ohio River and called for the creation of townships divided into sections at regular intervals and sold at auction. Sections were set aside to support public education, and settlers were guaranteed basic legal and political rights. The ordinance called for division of the land into three to five territories, for sales of townships in both large and small blocks so that poor people could buy land, and banned prices lower than $1 an acre. Finally, the Land Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the new territories of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, marking the first time the government prohibited slavery in the United States. These ordinances extended the sectional divide over slavery and implicitly invalidated all Native American claims to land in the West. However, they also created an extraordinarily successful and stable system of land acquisition and settlement for the nation and served as the basis for territorial expansion until passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. 

Figure 7.5: The original cover of the Articles of Confederation [4]

Spotlight on Primary Source

Read the full text of the Articles of Confederation and note the manner in which the powers and rights of the states are described. 

Question 7.09

7.09 - Level 4

Does the document seem to reflect the work of a united country or of thirteen separate countries/colonies? Why?

Click here to see the answer to Question 7.09.


Balanced against this success was the failure of government under the Articles (Figure 7.5) to deal with the many problems that arose after the Revolution. Those problems were eventually severe, and to some, they seemed to threaten the survival of the infant republic. Economically, the United States suffered because it had dropped out of the British Empire immediately after winning the Revolution. Shortages of consumer goods ended after the war when British goods flooded American markets, but demand drove up prices and created tremendous inflation. Americans merchants had no opportunity to respond in kind, as Great Britain closed its ports to American goods after 1783 in accordance with mercantilism. This closure included British ports in the Caribbean, which proved a particularly frustrating loss for merchants who remembered the lucrative trade between the colonies and the Caribbean before the Revolution. American banks had very little money to finance business loans, and few could be had from British banks because the United States was so deeply in debt at both the national and state levels. Merchants who depended on selling goods overseas sometimes managed to trade with France or other European powers, but they were also vulnerable to piracy on the high seas because the Royal Navy no longer protected U.S. shipping. In July of 1785, for example, pirates captured the U.S. ships Maria and Dauphin near Portugal and took the crews as hostages. They were two among many ships captured or destroyed during the period, when no U.S. Navy existed and U.S. diplomats (including Jefferson, serving in France) struggled to negotiate because they were not allowed to speak on behalf of the individual states.

These economic woes were intensified by enormous state debts accrued during the Revolution. Most states had been extremely reluctant to tax their people, and because Congress had no independent power to tax, the war effort was funded through borrowing. Congress and each of the states supplemented those efforts by printing paper money, which fueled inflation. More than $400 million was printed by the states and Congress, but the money – known as Continentals (Figure 7.6) at the national level or sometimes as bills of credit - had almost no real value in gold or silver. Desperate farmers and the working poor often sold their Continentals and their state bills at a fraction of their real value to pay for daily needs, which in turn reduced their faith in government and benefited only the relatively wealthy individuals or businesses who could afford to buy the bills and wait for better times when their value might return.

Figure 7.6: A fifty-five dollar bank note issued in 1779. Wartime currency depreciated tremendously by the mid-1780s. [5]


7.10 - Level 2

Bank notes produced by Congress during the Revolution were often called what?

question description
A

Greenbacks

B

Continentals

C

Pounds

D

Liberty Notes


On the frontier, Native American raids escalated, in part due to encouragement from Great Britain in the hopes that settlers in the Northwest might break away from the United States and rejoin the British Empire. Westerners grew resentful of the national government because it failed to protect them, particularly when Spain also began to threaten American interests in the Southwest. The Spanish went so far as to close New Orleans and the Mississippi River to American trade in 1784, which threatened the survival of most farmers west of the Appalachians because it prevented them from exporting their crops to market. As with other woes, Congress proved virtually powerless to address the situation. No substantial national military force existed, for Congress had reduced the Continental Army to 84 men following the Revolution. Most states showed no interest in calling out their militias or raising taxes to support creating a new army, and they refused to attempt limiting the flood of settlers and land speculators streaming into the West. This guaranteed that the fighting with Native Americans—instigated by both sides—would continue to plague the frontier. Even diplomacy with foreign powers, which might have mitigated piracy or support for Native American raids, proved elusive because the United States had no money to with which to trade or pay bribes and no military leverage at all. The nation was, as Jefferson wrote despairingly from Paris, considered a laughing stock amongst many Europeans and was not taken seriously. 

7.11 - Level 2

Which area of the United States was most affected by the Spanish closure of the Mississippi?

A

Everything west of the Appalachian Mountains

B

Everything east of the Appalachian Mountains

C

The deep south


To make matters worse, many of the Revolutionary generation were appalled by social changes in American society. State assemblies had become democratized in the general push for equality during and after the war. This altered their numbers and their character, filling them with men who were often less educated, less wealthy, and far more focused on local matters than their predecessors. Open competition for offices increased dramatically, as did the number of elections, the number of newspapers devoted to politics, and the number of new laws. These changes were exhilarating to Americans, who were able to participate in and benefit from political participation in ways they had never known before, but that excitement came hand in hand with political volatility and a spirit of localism that leaders like Madison argued threatened the larger interests of the community. Worse, in a drive to deal with the need for taxes, confiscate property from former loyalists, and the general economic woes, some of the new legislatures began assuming executive and judicial responsibilities, leading Thomas Jefferson to write in Notes on Virginia that an “elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” These developments were not the fault of the Articles directly, but in the minds of many colonial leaders, they were another sign that a new kind of government was needed at both the state and the national level, one that provided a more stable system of checks and balances against excessive influence from any single branch of government or, just as importantly, from the people.

All of these pressures, exacerbated by emerging trade barriers between individual states, and an inability on the part of the government to borrow money overseas except at exorbitant interest rates, eventually made revision of the Articles unavoidable. When commissioners from Virginia and Maryland met at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, in 1785 to address state laws regulating trade on the Potomac River, Madison suggested that they reconvene the following year at a meeting that included all of the states to consider sweeping changing in the national government. That meeting commenced in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786, and delegates concluded that trade barriers and difficulties in regulating commerce were not isolated from the other problems plaguing the Articles. Additionally, since only 12 delegates from five states had even attended, no quorum (the minimum number of people considered necessary to do business) was reached and formal action proved impossible. Delegates instead called for a larger convention the following year in Philadelphia to consider more sweeping revisions and amendments, and Congress approved their recommendation in February 1787. 

Figure 7.7: A depiction of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck, who led protests against taxation in Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. [6]


7.12 - Level 2

All of the following were weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation except _______.

A

Inability to tax

B

Inability to regulate commerce

C

Inability to defend the frontier or American shipping

D

Lack of a judicial branch

E

Lack of successful land ordinances to deal with the northwest territories

F

Lack of an executive branch


By the time delegates arrived in Philadelphia the following summer, many were deeply concerned by the torrent of confusing and sometimes unjust laws created by the separate states and genuinely alarmed by the inability of Congress to deal with pressing national and international problems. Their fears were compounded by Daniel Shays (Figure 7.7), who led a rebellion in Massachusetts that ran sporadically from August of 1786 until June of 1787. The rebellion closed the local courts and threatened a nearby arsenal, and it was rooted in the tight money policies of the state of Massachusetts. Debtors, many of whom were farmers and veterans of the Revolution like Shays, were frustrated by their inability to pay taxes or succeed in the difficult economic times, and they were enraged by judicial hearings for tax and debt collection and the arrest of several prominent citizens for tax evasion.

These concerns were hardly limited to Massachusetts. Heavy state taxation, driven by the refusal of Congress to pay wartime expenses or debts, combined with poll and land taxes to put more than 1,000 people from every state in debtors’ prisons. State governments faced the choice between raising taxes to pay their debts, which provoked resistance, and not paying the debts at all, which fueled economic decline. Massachusetts chose extremely high taxes, in part because the state government was dominated by merchants and business owners from port cities who were unsympathetic to the concerns of poor people in rural areas, many of whom were former soldiers who had never been fully paid for their wartime service.

Resistance to arrests and taxes flared in every state, particularly Massachusetts, where Shays led his men in a series of small skirmishes over several months and forced Governor Benjamin Lincoln to call out the state militia and appeal to Congress for military support. Though state troops eventually defeated Shays, many national leaders were flabbergasted because there were no troops from the central government available. Men like Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson feared that anarchy lay on the horizon, particularly since Massachusetts was presumed to have one of the more stable governments and had faced rebellion anyway. It was in this environment that delegates met to consider the future of the country.

7.13 - Level 1

What controversial issue was at the root of Shays’s Rebellion?

A

Taxation

B

Trade policy

C

Freedom of Speech

D

Freedom of Religion


The Constitutional Convention

Figure 7.8: Ferdinand Richardt’s famous painting of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were both debated and adopted. [7]


The Philadelphia convention began deliberating in Independence Hall (Figure 7.8) on May 25, 1787. Fifty-five delegates from twelve states (all save Rhode Island) were charged with proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation, and agreed to meet in secrecy to prevent outside criticism of their efforts. Most delegates had considerable experience in state and national government, and many had served in the Continental Army. None of them were artisans, tenants, or backcountry settlers, and only one was a yeoman farmer. Instead, the delegates were predominantly well-educated, often wealthy men who hailed disproportionately from urban areas and were far more likely to believe in the need for a strong central government than many of their fellow citizens. They quickly selected Washington, whom Madison had convinced to throw his prestige behind the convention, to serve as the presiding officer. Madison and Hamilton immediately emerged as the driving force behind the nationalists, men who wanted a strong central government and believed that some sort of republic was necessary because the Articles were too flawed to save. They met with delegates in small groups as the convention slowly gathered, attempting to build a consensus among representatives that reflected their deeply held conviction that quick action was required to save the country from governmental collapse.

The very first proposal came from Madison and is known as the Virginia Plan, in recognition of his home state. Composed of 14 resolutions, the plan called for replacing the Articles with a national republic composed of a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judicial branch laid over the existing state governments. Significantly, it allowed the national government the power to veto any state laws, which proved more than most delegates could stand. A majority was willing to grant a national government powers to regulate trade, impose taxes, and enforce federal laws, but most were leery of limiting state powers in such a draconian manner. William Paterson, a member of the New Jersey delegation, countered with an alternative referred to as the New Jersey Plan. His proposal increased the powers of Congress under the Articles significantly, but left sovereignty with each individual state and appealed to those still committed to the notion of a confederacy.

Figure 7.9: The Assembly Room in Independence Hall, where much of the debate over the Constitution took place. [8]​​


During the ensuing debates (Figure 7.9), the delegates reached broad consensus on many issues and established judicial authority in a vaguely defined Supreme Court and two other tiers of federal courts. They argued vigorously, however, over representation. Larger states generally fought for representation based on population or wealth because they had more of both, and northern delegates opposed counting slaves in either category. Smaller states feared being outvoted in such a system, as did the South. The solution came from Roger Sherman, who proposed the Connecticut Compromise, also known as the Great Compromise. Each state would have equal representation in the Senate, while population determined the number of representatives each state held in the House.

Throughout these often heated discussions, Madison (Figure 7.10) consistently argued for a strong national government to prevent the tyranny of the majority at the state level. Opponents (later echoed by Jefferson, who remained in France on a diplomatic mission and did not attend the convention) argued that local and small governments were better able to serve the needs of the governed, convinced that they were more effective because they were closer to the people and less likely to forget about their needs. Madison countered that such closeness was the problem; small governments were more likely to be dominated by narrow special interests, which he called factions, and therefore less likely to represent minority groups well. He and his supporters gradually convinced a majority of delegates to compromise by granting Congress a list of specific, or enumerated powers, including the right to collect taxes, coin money, pay foreign debts, regulate commerce, and raise armies.

Most delegates agreed on the need for a strong executive branch led by a President, with discussion primarily centered on the election process. A majority initially agreed that Congress should elect the President, then changed their mind and called for electors from each state to determine the election. The states were allowed the same number of electors as they had representatives in Congress, and their method of selection remained at the discretion of state legislatures. This unusual system, later known as the Electoral College, was meant to prevent states with large populations from controlling presidential elections and to further diffuse power between the states and Congress.

Delegates also provided the President with wide powers to propose and veto legislation (subject to Congressional override), negotiate with foreign powers, and, significantly, command the armed forces as Commander in Chief. Conceptually, the President would be responsible for presiding over the law but not making it, in a manner similar to the role Washington played at the convention. Lawmaking remained the exclusive responsibility of a bicameral legislature divided into an upper (Senate) and lower (House of Representatives) chamber. Terms of office were staggered – six years for Senators, four for the President, and two for Representatives – with House members chosen by direct election and Senators chosen by state legislators.

Figure 7.10: James Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” He led the delegation from Virginia at the Constitutional Convention, brokered many of the key compromises, and later served as one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and the fourth President of the United States. This John Vanderlyn portrait hangs in the White House. [9]


7.14 - Level 2

What was the most significant difference between the Virginia and New Jersey Plans proposed at the Constitutional Convention?

A

Whether or not to create a federal court system

B

Whether or not the federal government was able to override/veto state laws

C

Whether a President would have veto power over legislation

D

Whether the legislature should be one or two houses


Slavery

As the convention gradually moved toward consensus on most issues, the matter of slavery hung over the proceedings like a dark cloud, and eventually became the most hotly contested issue of all. Many Southerners argued heatedly about whether slavery was considered wealth or population, it had to be protected as an institution and factored into determining representation. Many Northern delegates were appalled, arguing that people who could neither vote nor hold property should not be counted as citizens, that movements to eliminate slavery were ongoing in several states already, and that slavery remained incompatible with the spirit of democracy and equality inherently embedded in the Revolution. Some Southerners were sympathetic, but most argued that slavery was too important in the South (Figure 7.11) to not receive special protection and recognition, particularly since many slave owners feared that Northern delegates would attempt to eliminate slavery altogether. As Pierce Butler of South Carolina wrote, “The security the southern states want is that their Negroes may not be taken from them, which some gentlemen within or without doors have a very good mind to do.” The issue proved so divisive that some delegates stormed out of meetings during the most vehement exchanges, and for a time it the convention risked fracturing and failing. 

Figure 7.11: “The Old Plantation,” a watercolor attributed to John Rose in 1790, which depicts slaves dancing and playing music in South Carolina. [10]

Finally, compromise came when James Wilson of Pennsylvania and Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed a compromise stipulating that for purposes of representation and taxation, the entire free population of each state (except for Native Americans) and 3/5 of all slaves would be counted. The agreement, known to history as the Three Fifths Compromise, split the difference between the southern notion that all slaves should be counted and the northern preference that none would be counted at all. It ended the rancorous debate over representation, but also emerged as the most onerous provision of the Constitution for many Americans because it guaranteed the South disproportionate political influence at the national level for decades. Indeed, historians estimate that the South gained 1/3 more seats in the House and 1/3 more electoral votes than it would have had if slavery had been ignored, and Southerners were disproportionately elected as presidents and dominated leadership positons in Congress until 1861. Yet it was hardly the only concession made to slavery. 

Delegates also agreed, over Madison’s strenuous dissent, that Congress could not ban the slave trade until 1808 and included a fugitive slave clause that required all states to return runaway slaves in the same way they would return stolen property. Modern critics often assail these concessions, arguing that they were made too quickly and that they violated the principles of individual liberty and freedom the Constitution allegedly stood for. Yet the nationalists, led by Madison (who is rightly considered the Father of the Constitution), had come to Philadelphia committed to doing whatever was necessary to create a republic with a strong central government, and they left having done just that. Whether they had to do so in the manner that they did is open for debate, though it is hard to envision how a constitution that did not explicitly protect slavery could have been accepted in the South. The issue proved so emotionally charged on both sides that delegates agreed not to use the word “slaves” in the Constitution at all, and given animosity and discord over the issue, most historians argue that the delegates did the best they could under the circumstances.

In contrast with slavery, one issue that received relatively little attention from the Founders was the matter of religion. The original Constitution made no direct reference to any particular faith or divine figure and made no provision for religion to play a role in the new government. In fact, the only portion of the Constitution that deals with religion directly is Article 6, which expressly prohibited the establishment of a religious test as a qualification for holding public office in the United States. This may seem surprising, as delegates in Philadelphia were all either Christians (Protestants of various denominations along with two Roman Catholics) or Deists (those who believed in a Supreme Being who created the universe then set it in motion and remained distant from human affairs), with no other faiths represented, and churches were powerful social and political institutions in the United States. However, the men who created the Constitution were, by and large, products of the Enlightenment and had strong memories of the divisiveness that religion had sometimes played in English history. Led by Madison, they readily agreed to keep faith and government separate so as to try to avoid religious discord in the growing republic.

With the Constitution largely framed, the Founders turned to the question of legitimacy. This had been an issue from the moment the Revolution began, because under British rule, all power had been legitimized by the king. When that relationship ended, Americans were forced to determine a new source of their governing powers and distinguish clearly between fundamental and statutory law. Fundamental laws laid out the basis for systems of government and explained what could be changed and what could not and how amendments to fundamental law could take place. Statutory laws regulated society on a day-to-day basis and could be changed routinely. The challenge, therefore, was to create a Constitution that laid out permanent fundamental laws and also encompassed statutory laws that would protect the rights of the people. How could the same representative body do both? The Founders found the answer in conventions, which proved the most unique contribution Americans made to the realm of political science. Conventions like the Constitutional Convention, it was said, derived their legitimacy from the people and met for a single purpose—to create fundamental law. Once that was done, then the ensuing government, which also derived power from the people, could operate on a regular basis and pass statutory laws. As long as that government functioned effectively, no change would be needed. If it failed, then the people could call for another convention and begin again or revamp government as needed. To put these ideas into practice, delegates chose to put the Constitution before state constitutional conventions for approval rather than state legislatures, and to launch the new government after nine states had ratified it.

The convention concluded on September 17, 1787 after four grueling months of work in Philadelphia. Delegates worked from 10 AM to 4 PM on most days and did so in secret without compensation or even authority from Congress. They did not agree on many issues. Slavery, representation, and the powers accorded to the president were all debated, as was the need for a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties. George Mason and others argued that such protections were vital in light of the new powers the Constitution accorded the national government, but failed to convince a majority. In turn, some delegates who were most committed to a Bill of Rights left the convention in disgust. In fact, only 39 of the original 55 delegates remained to sign the Constitution. Those that did so had all compromised in order to serve the public good and were held together in part by the presence of George Washington. His unassailable reputation and prominence gave the convention purpose and authority from the beginning, and the assumption that he would serve as the first president did much to allay fears of granting the president too much power in the new government. His importance is memorably described by the Pennsylvania Gazette, which wrote: “In 1775, we beheld him at the head of a chosen band of patriots and heroes, arresting the progress of British tyranny. In the year 1787, we behold him at the head of a chosen band of patriots and heroes, arresting the progress of American anarchy.” Washington’s efforts, and those of the other delegates, were perhaps best summarized by Benjamin Franklin. As he emerged from the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall), Elizabeth Powell is alleged to have asked what sort of government had been created inside. Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.” 

7.15 - Level 1

Match the author with the appropriate constitutional plan or compromise.

Premise
Response
1

Virginia Plan

A

William Paterson

2

New Jersey Plan

B

James Madison

3

Connecticut Compromise

C

Roger Sherman


7.16 - Level 2

Which of the following religious faiths was not represented by any delegates at the Constitutional Convention?

A

Protestantism

B

Roman Catholicism

C

Deism

D

Judaism


7.17 - Level 3

Approximately ______\_\_\_\_\_\_% of delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not sign the document that was produced.


7.18 - Level 3

Match the plan or compromise at the Constitutional Convention with the issue that it most centrally addressed or proposed.

Premise
Response
1

Three-Fifths Compromise

A

Slavery

2

Connecticut Compromise

B

State representation in the legislative branch

3

Virginia Plan

C

State sovereignty

4

William Paterson

D

Strong federal government


Ratification

When the convention concluded, couriers carried the new Constitution to Congress, which approved and forwarded it to the states for ratification ten days later. Those ten days proved just enough time for delegates to return home to begin the arduous process of organizing state constitutional conventions that would debate ratification. They also began a vigorous national debate on the merits of the proposed new government in town meetings, taverns, letters, essays, and speeches. The debate occurred all across the United States, focusing on questions regarding the wisdom of various portions of the Constitution that endure to this day. Both sides left behind a wealth of written documents, and their principled arguments foreshadowed the eventual formation of political parties, which few if any of the Founders anticipated.

The most vocal and persuasive supporters included Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, who collaborated to produce a collection of 85 essays explaining and defending the Constitution. Known as The Federalist Papers, the essays were published in four New York newspapers to confront strong opposition to the Constitution. Hamilton (Figure 7.12) wrote 51, with Madison writing 29 and John Jay composing the final five. They are crucial to understanding how the Founders thought the Constitution would work in practice and to providing insight into the weaknesses and fears their opponents expressed regarding ratification. They are part propaganda, in that they were meant to persuade people to support the Constitution, and part a vigorous defense of ideas that had evolved during the long battles over state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation. They are also poignant on a personal level, as Hamilton and Madison eventually became significant critics of each other and rose to lead opposition political parties in the 1790s. 

That they were in largely in agreement when they wrote The Federalist Papers is surprising, in that Hamilton believed that the idea of equality among people was absurd and favored a much stronger central government than the Constitution created, while Madison had and never lost a deep and abiding faith in limited government and the idea that ordinary people could rule themselves. In that light, the fact that they both strongly supported the Constitution may say more about the differences in how they thought it would actually function than it does about their agreement on principles even in 1787. Neither foresaw the emergence of political parties, which they both detested, and each compromised over the Constitution because they believed it would reflect their values in practice. For Hamilton, who believed ardently in cities, trade, banking, and a strong executive, that meant faith in a very short Constitution that could be interpreted by the people, the legislatures, and the courts in a “loose” manner that allowed the government, especially the executive, significant latitude in passing and enforcing laws. For Madison, it meant limiting the national government to only those powers specifically listed in the Constitution—a strict interpretation—as a means of preventing the expansion of national power at the expense of the people. Over time, those two positions have endured as starting points for debates regarding where federal and state power starts and stops, and are likely to remain so as long as the Constitution endures. 


Figure 7.12: One of the most important and influential of the Founder Fathers, Alexander Hamilton fought in the American Revolution and served as the first Secretary of the Treasury. He wrote 51 of the 85 installments of the Federalist Papers and played a major role in persuading Americans to ratify the Constitution. John Trumbull painted this well-known portrait of Hamilton in 1806.​ [11]

Spotlight on Primary Source



Click here to read Federalist No. 10.

Highlights:

  • One of 85 essays written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison under the pseudonym Publius to support ratification of the United States Constitution. Most were published in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet in 1787 and 1788.
  • Federalist No. 10 was written by James Madison, and is often considered the most important.
  • The essay deals with the concept of factions and includes Madison’s analysis of the reasons why large republics are actually safer for minority groups than small ones. His fundamental premise is that in large societies competing interests will prevent the tyranny of the majority over smaller groups. Federalist No. 10 was one of many essays that responded to particular criticisms of the Constitution by the Anti Federalists.


7.19 - Level 1

The most distinctive American contribution to politics was the notion of creating fundamental law only at specially organized _________.

A

Town Hall Meetings

B

Legislative Assemblies

C

Constitutional Conventions

D

Judicial Proceedings


Opponents of the Constitution responded to the Federalist Papers by publishing essays criticizing the new government almost immediately. Like Hamilton, Madison and Jay, who wrote under the pen name Publius, they usually wrote using pseudonyms (fictitious names meant to conceal their identity), but failed to organize their efforts effectively. As a result, no single collection of their works emerged at the time, though historians later referred to their writings as the Anti-Federalist Papers. Many of the Anti-Federalists had been famous leaders during the Revolution, including George Clinton, Robert Yates, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry (Figure 7.13), Mercy Otis Warren (Figure 7.14), and Melancton Smith. The Anti-Federalists generally argued that the proposed Constitution took too much power from the states and gave too much to the national government, and they were appalled by the idea that the president would serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. For some, that implied an almost monarchial power, which led some to argue that the Revolution had gone full circle back toward tyranny. Most Anti-Federalists also criticized the lack of specific guarantees of individual rights in the Constitution, a criticism that eventually grew so strong it had to be answered.

Figure 7.13: The First and Sixth post-colonial governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry is most famous for his “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech and his ardent support of the American Revolution and Republicanism. He vigorously opposed the Constitution, fearing that it concentrated too much power with the federal government. [12]

Some modern scholars have studied the arguments on both sides and found the Federalists un-democratic. They argue that the Constitution was intended to take the people out of government. Federalists, they say, took the name of their opponents—those who believed in a federal system of strong state governments—only because it was more popular and always believed in a natural aristocracy that the Constitution was meant to keep in power. That goal lay behind the creation of the Electoral College and a powerful federal judiciary, the fact that U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures, and the layered nature of federal terms of office, which prevented the people from ever overturning the entire government in a single election cycle. Moreover, these critics have argued that the Founders used the Constitutional Convention to re-invent the national government with no mandate to do so from the states or the people. They ratified it with conventions that bypassed existing state legislatures (which would have been unlikely to undermine themselves by supporting a stronger central government) and in effect executed an illegal coup d’état. 

The Anti-Federalists raised some of these same concerns, and were horrified by the veto power of the president. Some criticized the 3/5 clause, which effectively accepted and rewarded slavery, noted that the Constitution allowed the slave trade to continue until 1808, and pointed out that it specifically declared the right of the government to suppress rebellion, which they considered ironic in light of the Revolution. Anti-Federalists brought the people into the Constitution with the Bill of Rights, which the Federalists did not want, but they ultimately lost the debate over ratification because Federalists used the rhetoric of democracy—equality, popular sovereignty, and the rest—to sell their ideas. The latter notion, which suggests that the Federalists in a sense won the battle but lost the war, deserves some explanation. It assumes that by using the language of democracy and identifying the people as the source of all sovereignty, the Federalists accidentally made the Constitution more democratic than they ever intended. They tried to trick the people with a document that appeared more democratic than it actually was, only to have the people actually make the document more democratic than they could have ever envisioned by the early 1800s. 

Figure 7.14: A prodigious writer on a wide array of topics, Mercy Otis Warren usually wrote under a pseudonym due to the prevailing social assumption that women were not qualified to discuss serious subjects in public forums. She ardently supported the Revolution, opposed ratification of the Constitution, and strongly advocated a Bill of Rights. She later became the first woman to publish a history of the American Revolution. Warren sat for this John Singleton Copley portrait in 1763. [13]


In any case, the Federalists gradually won the day. They had more money, were better organized, and counted more leading and well-known public figures (Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, among others) in their ranks. They were generally younger than the Anti-Federalists, perhaps because the older generation had been prominent before the Revolution and saw the states as independent. Federalists, on the other hand, typically rose to positions of leadership and became well known during the war itself, and the experience of battling to unite the many states created in them a driving need for the sort of strong national government that had been lacking under the Articles of Confederation. 

The Federalists pushed hard for ratification, earning early victories in Delaware, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut in late 1787 and early 1788. Strong-arm tactics had been necessary to win approval in Pennsylvania, where Anti-Federalists were forced into voting sessions to produce a quorum, and afterwards the Federalists reluctantly grew more open to adding guarantees that protected individual liberties to the Constitution. The lack of specific protections for individuals had emerged as a strong, consistent concern for Anti-Federalists, who forced Federalists in some states to promise to address the issue as a condition of supporting ratification. The eventual adoption of the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—in 1789 and their ratification in 1791 is usually seen as their most important contribution to American government. All ten provided strict limitations on federal power. The first eight protected individual freedoms, while the last two stipulated that powers not expressly delegated to the national government belong to the states and the people.

Spotlight on Primary Source

This link to the National Archives includes the original twelve amendments proposed for the Bill of Rights and the ten that were ultimately adopted. 

Question 7.20

7.20 - Level 5

Why do you think two of the first twelve were omitted? What fears of the Founders are reflected in the Bill of Rights? Do some of them connect back to the Revolution? Given what you know about the time, which rights not listed in the Bill of Rights would you have pushed for inclusion?

Click here to see the answer to Question 7.20


Federalists stalled debates in states where approval was in doubt, hoping that ratification in Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina would tip the scales, and they eventually did. Virginia narrowly ratified by an 89-79 vote after a hotly contested series of debates led by James Madison and Patrick Henry, and Federalists in New York quickly followed suit with a razor thin 30-29 victory engineered by Hamilton. North Carolina and Rhode Island eventually ratified as well, and the Congress under the Articles of Confederation agreed to abide by the new Constitution, which was set to go into effect in 1789 (Figure 7.15). 

Figure 7.15: A map showing the outcome of U.S. Constitution ratification votes at the district level by state, along with the date of eventual ratification by state convention. ​​

Question 7.21

7.21 - Level 5

If you had been asked, would you have voted for or against ratification of the Constitution? Why?

Click here to see the answer to Question 7.21.

7.22 - Level 2

Click on the only state the refused to participate in the Constitutional Convention.


Conclusion

The Constitution has been labelled by some scholars as a labyrinth in which the common good and common interests were served by creating an environment in which people are funneled into doing the right thing while holding on to the illusion of democracy and free will. Lest this seem too cynical, remember that the Founders had a cautious view of human nature rooted in the Enlightenment. They generally strove for true republicanism and a kind of perfection in government despite knowing that they worked with imperfect people. The question of how to do this had been one of the central issues of the Philadelphia Convention, and has remained so ever since.

7.23 - Level 2

Sort the following states by the order in which they ratified the United States Constitution, from earliest to latest.

A

North Carolina

B

Massachusetts

C

Rhode Island

D

Maryland

E

Delaware


Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 7.01

Class Discussion 7.01 - Level 4

What were the successes and failings of government under the Articles of Confederation? Which success and which failure were most critical? Why?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 7.01.

Class Discussion 7.02

Class Discussion 7.02 - Level 5

What were the primary arguments of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists for and against ratification of the Constitution? Whose arguments do you find most compelling? Why?

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Class Discussion 7.03

Class Discussion 7.03 - Level 5

Does the Constitution represent a sort of counter-revolution in which the Founders created a powerful, centralized government that in some ways resembled the government they had rebelled against in 1775? Why or why not?

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Class Discussion 7.04

Class Discussion 7.04 - Level 5

Does the fact that the Constitution protected slavery and largely ignored women and Native Americans mean the document was a failure, or was it still a remarkable achievement for 1787?

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Class Discussion 7.05

Class Discussion 7.05 - Level 5

Consider the irony of 55 men secretly deciding to write a new Constitution and then convincing the rest of the nation to adopt it. Could such a thing happen again? Why or why not?

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Suggested Additional Material

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Ellis, Joseph J. The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. New York: Knopf, 2015.

Holt, Woody. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the American Constitution. New York: Hill & Wang, 2007.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1993



Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 7.07

The states had common cultural beliefs rooted in their origins as English colonies. They believed broadly in representative government, in democracy, in the concept of fundamental individual rights, in the notion that governments were intended to protect liberties, and in the idea that local and small governments were generally best. Their political unity, however, was constantly threatened by their provincialism, their selfishness, and their sense that centralized national governments were often too distant or too powerful to rule either effectively or with any respect towards individual rights. Beyond that, they faced issues like trade, tariffs, and slavery that were held in different lights based on whether states were on the coast, in the north or south, or had large cities or depended on trade. The gap between New England and much of the South, for example, was already apparent, and it colored all attempts at political unity. 

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Answer to Question 7.08

The creators of the Articles were more concerned with protecting the sovereignty of the individual states then they were with building a strong national government. Small states, in particular, were fearful of being told what to do by the larger states, and the large states were worried about being forced to subsidize their less wealthy, small-state neighbors. The solution for both was to weaken the national government and demand super majorities or unanimity on most issues for collective action. That, of course, was a ludicrously high bar. The consequence of the system they built is that it could do virtually nothing at the national level, whether negotiate with foreign powers, wage successful wars, or tax and collect revenue for infrastructure. Those weaknesses, in turn, created the social and political instability that led eventually to the Constitutional Convention.

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Answer to Question 7.09

The Articles of Confederation seem to reflect the work of thirteen separate countries. There is no executive branch, no judicial branch, and no legislative action without approval from at least nine states. The document uses the phrase “league of friendship,” which supports the idea that the government was a confederation of equals rather than a national government with the states in subordinate positions of power.

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Answer to Question 7.20

The omitted amendments dealt with pay for Congress and the number of representatives from each state. The Founders likely felt that regular legislation could deal with these issues more effectively than more permanent amendments. As for the amendments that did pass, they all reflect fears born prior to and during the Revolution. Those fears include fear of standing armies, fear of the national government limiting individual rights, fears that basic and fundamental civil liberties might be curtailed by the national government, and fears that the national government might grow in power over time at the expense of the states. The documents absolutely reflect the world of the late 1780s, and must be understood in context. (Students might be asked what amendments they would like today. That would be a good way to show how modern concerns would shape their views, just like the views of the Founders were shaped by what they saw going on in the late 1700s).

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Answer to Question 7.21

This question is wide open. The best answers will reflect an understanding of the issues on both sides and the fact that how people voted had a great deal to do with what they did for a living and where they lived. The basic issues were the power of the national government, the power of the Commander in Chief, the need for a Bill of Rights, and the challenge of balancing the powers needed by a strong national government with the need to protect individuals and states. Ideally, students will note that men like Washington fought for most of their lives for unity against the narrow provincialism of states rights people, and that the same debate occurs today in some parts of the United States where groups advocate for secession or attempt to flout federal laws. 

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 7.01

Students should be able to list several successes, including naming the United States and the Northwest Ordinances, and several failures including an inability to stop Native American raids on the frontier, an inability to prevent pirate attacks on U.S. shipping, difficulty paying down the federal debt or promoting trade, a difficulty in passing legislation, and the absence of an executive or the power to tax. The success or failure they consider most important is up to them

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Answer to Class Discussion 7.02

Students should be able to list several arguments for and against the Constitution. Pro Federalist arguments should include the need for a strong executive, the notion of checks and balances, the need for a Commander in Chief, and the need to tax, coin money, and regulate trade. Anti-Federalist arguments should include the notion of state rights, a fear of centralized power, and the lack of a Bill of Rights protecting individual liberty.

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Answer to Class Discussion 7.03

Students should be able to list several significant powers of government under the Constitution – collecting taxes, coining money, declaring war, raising armies, the Commander in Chief, etc., and contrast them with the system of checks and balances the Founders hoped would keep the government in balance. They should also be able to list some of the complaints the Anti-Federalists had about the Constitution

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Answer to Class Discussion 7.04

Students should be able to put the document in historical context, and to discuss the freedoms it protected and the compromises the Founders had to make to get it ratified.

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Answer to Class Discussion 7.05

Students should be able to discuss the pros and cons of what the Founders did, and consider the challenge of ever replicating their work in the digital age

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Image Credits

[1] Image by Howard Chandler Christy courtesy of The Indian Reporter in the Public Domain

[2] Image by John Singleton Copley courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the Public Domain

[3] Image by Gilbert Stuart courtesy of National Portrait Gallery in the Public Domain

[4] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain

[5] Image courtesy of Beyond My Ken under CC BY 3.0

[6] Image courtesy of National Portrait Galley in the Public Domain

[7] Image courtesy of The While House Historical Association in the Public Domain

[8] Image courtesy of Antoine Taveneaux under CC BY 3.0

[9] Image by John Vanderlyn courtesy of The White House Historical Association in the Public Domain

[10] Image courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the Public Domain

[11] Image by John Turnbull courtesy of Google Arts & Culture in the Public Domain

[12] Image courtesy of The United States Senate in the Public Domain

[13] Image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in the Public Domain