After independence, the United States went through multiple constitutional reformations. Polishing the authority system, the United States government developed its first Constitution. Its core was tested by time and still provides the working framework for the United States authorities. That is why it is important to thoroughly study the process of the constitutional development of this country.
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The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution
In 1777, the first constitutional law in the history of the United States of America was adopted (Tindall & Shi, 2016). The Continental Congress developed the peculiar document called the Articles of Confederation that became the foundation of the loose confederation of different states. The process of ratification of the Articles of Confederation was slow and cumbersome; it was fully implemented by all of the thirteen original states only after four years. Those articles constructed the notoriously weak form of the central government and left most of the power of the sovereign states intact. The new central government could only restrict the international affairs of various states, but even in that regard, the implementation of this legal mechanism was ineffective.
The system was in dire need of reformation. This led to the Constitutional Convention that worked on the new constitutional document in 1787 (Tindall & Shi, 2016). Originally, this convention wanted to revise the Articles of Confederation but ended up developing the new constitution. The United States Constitution established a far more powerful institution of central authority with well-defined branches of government. The state apparatus was designed more thoroughly, with various departments implemented after the initial adoption. It possessed a better mechanism to deal with foreign affairs, a more efficient tool for the implementation of domestic policy, and a powerful model to represent delegated sovereignty.
When comparing the Articles of Confederation with The United States Constitution of 1787, the first thing that catches the eye is how underdeveloped the central government was in the Articles of Confederation. For example, the federal court’s system was implemented by the United States Constitution; before that, Congress could only develop laws but had no means to execute those (Novick, 2016). This impotent model of the central government led to various disastrous events, such as Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, when bands of armed men assaulted the federal armory. Another example of the inefficiency of the government under the Articles of Confederation was the Western Land Problem – disputes between various states about the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Even after the extensive work on that matter, the weak central government couldn’t resolve this dispute properly, and this issue lasted for twenty years.
The Drafting of the Constitution and the Great Compromise
The main issue of the Articles of Confederation was the ineffective system of delegated sovereignty (Novick, 2016). The Philadelphia Convention was thrown into debates over the subject of representation. Politicians tried to invent the system of delegated authority that would strengthen the central government, but distribute the power evenly between different states. Those debates were controversial because states were drastically different in terms of owned land and population. One of the core differences between various states became apparent when the subject of slavery was discussed.
George Mason, the representative of the Virginia state, was wholeheartedly against slavery, stating that it was the inhumane practice (Finkelman, 2014). He advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. This proposition was in direct conflict with the interests of rapidly growing states of South Carolina and Georgia, where slavery was an important part of the economy. To reach an agreement, a new system of representation in the legislature was developed for slave states. Albeit hardly an ethical approach, it was pragmatic and helped to keep different states unified (Finkelman, 2014). When counting the population to estimate the number of representatives in the legislature, a slave counted as three-fifths of a free person.
Another controversial issue was also tied to the population and its representation. States varied heavily in numbers of the overall population, but it was important to provide each state with equal power. Roger Sherman, the representative of Connecticut, proposed different approaches for each of the two chambers of the legislature system. In his model, the Senate included two representatives from each state no matter the population, but the number of delegates in the House of Representatives was estimated based on the population of each state. This compromise was called the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise, emphasizing the importance of this mechanism in the state management.
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The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists
The two main political groups of the independent United States of America were the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Debates between those two groups date back to the early 18th century (Tindall & Shi, 2016). The main difference between those two parties was in their approach to the power of the central government. The Anti-Federalists were more independent because most of them hailed from rural areas. Possessing the great economic power, the Anti-Federalists opposed the idea of strong central authority, seeing such concept as the violation of their independence and reminiscence of the British colonial rule.
On the other hand, the Federalists saw the necessity of the strong and able central government. From experience with the Articles of Confederation, the Federalists knew how disastrous it could be when the institution of the federal government becomes inept. They believed that only when all of the states will be rallied under the competent central authority, the lasting union will be achieved. According to Hamilton, Madison, and Jay (2014), “We must extend the laws of the federal government to the individual citizens of America” (p. 197). The Federalists were quite idealistic in this regard, driven by revolutionary ideology.
The ratification of the Constitution empowered the central authority tremendously and extended the sphere of influence of the federal government over various institutions. The Federalists saw this change as the positive thing. According to Hamilton et al. (2014), “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights” (p. 54). The Anti-Federalists saw this Constitution as the direct attack on their rights, especially fearing the extensive power of the central government over fiscal policy. The notorious Anti-Federalist John Hancock tried to find the compromise between those two parties. The compromise itself was about the integration of the Bill of Rights into the new Constitution. Those ten amendments served to protect the individual rights of people; therefore, this initiative was greatly appreciated by Anti-Federalists. The Federalists, on the other hand, were reluctant at first, because the first ten amendments also included the right for the organization of the local armed militia, to protect the interest of separate states. The Federalists saw this as the attack on the competence of the federal government but eventually agreed to pass the Bill.
When people of the United States longed for political change, their government responded quickly with various constitutional projects. Those projects were controversial, not always effective and brought forward a lot of debates. And through this process of constant improvement, the United Sates managed to develop its Constitution – the remarkable phenomenon that influenced the development of political thought throughout the world.
Finkelman, P. (2014). Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. New York, NY: Routledge.
Novick, S. (2016). The original understanding of “This Constitution”. Vermont Law School Research Paper, 5(16), 1-52.
Hamilton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (2014). The Federalist Papers. Connecticut, CT: Yale University Press.
Tindall, G. B., & Shi, D. E. (2016). America: A narrative history. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.