The Constitution of the United States
The Constitution of the United States is one of the most important government documents in the history of the world. It was written in the summer of 1787 by delegates who gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss, debate and decide on a new way of government. It is a foregone conclusion to most Americans today but at the time there was no clear indication that the United States would become a one sovereign country. Presenting a united front to its enemies, the Constitution’s primary value was in uniting a continent of nations to fight together in the common defense, to reduce internal bickering and to provide for an economic powerhouse by which the parts could work together without the jealousies that often divide nations in close quarters.
A More Perfect Union
Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the nation had labored under the Articles of Confederation, a document that provided for a loose association between the States. The original thirteen colonies that became independent states saw themselves as independent countries much as the way the nations of Europe did it at the time and still do today. The confederacy that formed as the United States of America after the Declaration of Independence was more akin to the European Union of today, or perhaps even looser than that. The Articles of Confederacy provided for certain types of contributions to a corporate purse can be used for defense against foreign powers in raising and building armies and navies but it provided no provisions regarding internal commerce and left to the States the entirety of the power.
This system was quickly exposed as flawed. States did not send in contributions and did not help the federal government. The states began to bicker amongst themselves—Rhode Island wasn’t helping enough! Pennsylvania was encroaching on Virginia’s land (in modern day West Virginia)! Virginia was becoming too powerful! New York was tired of helping everyone else out!
Making matters worse, many citizens saw the federal government, in that time, as a danger to their liberties. Accordingly, a new Constitution with a strong federal government was quietly proposed by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and other leaders at a summit in Annapolis, Maryland. These leaders saw the weakness of the federal government as a direct threat to the long-term stability of the country. Global empires wished to conquer or reclaim the United States. Powerful economies played the states against each other, and these leaders were concerned about the rivalries that had arisen between the States.
States used their economic power against one another and in certain cases even threatened military action against one another. Hamilton and Madison, in their famous Federalist Papers, would later predict that these jealousies, tensions and rivalries would ultimately plunge the United States into war much the way that Europe had been plunged into constant war for the prior several hundred years. So when the delegates gathered in Philadelphia on the call of the National Congress to consider what provisions might be added to the Articles of Confederation, several delegates already knew that it was time to throw out the Articles of Confederation and start over. The ground for a new Constitution had been laid.
The Framers Gather in Philadelphia
The framers gathered in Philadelphia during a hot summer in 1787 for the purpose of forming this new national government. The Framers dealt with a number of sticky issues. Most notably, of course, was slavery, which threatened to divide the young nation. Smaller states feared a union that would allow the larger states to dominate them (Rhode Island boycotted the convention altogether). Larger states felt it unfair to join a union in which they would contribute most of the manpower and financial capital, but have only one vote of thirteen. Why should the State of New York or the Commonwealth of Virginia contribute heavily financially to a federal government that would protect the State of Rhode Island equally? Of course, on the other side, states such as Rhode Island, Delaware and New Hampshire were concerned that they would be swallowed by a federal government that gave preference to the larger states and that such an arrangement would give the large states enormous control over the future of the Union. Such were the challenges that faced the Framers as they gathered in Philadelphia to hammer out a new national government.
The Stature of Washington
George Washington was the most famous and well-beloved man in America at that time, having led the forces of the United States to victory over the most powerful empire in the world, the British Empire. His clout was part of what made the convention such a success. In fact, Washington’s very presence put many critics to silence, concerned that speaking out against him would result in political backlash from their constituencies who loved Washington. As a result, George Washington’s willingness to participate in and chair the convention gave the convention great clout, and calmed the fears of many citizens. Thus, Washington presided over the proceedings which ultimately would make him the first President of the new formed Federal Government.
The Constitution that was formed in Philadelphia from 1787 to 1789 remains one of the most important government documents which provided a brilliant frame of government for a nation that had long struggled with its identity. Coalescing thirteen individual countries around one common cause and forming into one new country was the result of the Constitution, and today its provisions still reign as some of the most copied and most beloved and revered in the world. The Constitution’s delicate balancing of sources of power allowed the new government to grow at an exponential rate to gain its financial footing and to ultimately become the reigning economic and political power of the world. In this series, we will examine some of the provisions of the Constitution, their significance to us and their importance in the fabric of American Law.