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Confederation and Constitution

The Formation and the Advantages of the New Constitution

The federal convention of the United States formed the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. The Declaration of Independence allowed all the colonies to proclaim themselves as sovereign areas, or states, each with its own constitution, under the rule of the president of the United States. When the previous governing principle, the Articles of Confederation, failed to perform its function accordingly with growing social demands, the leaders of the fledgling government came together to create a new governing document, which became the Constitution we all know now. The fact that “the Constitution was framed because of defects in the Articles of Confederation is universally accepted” (Farrand, 1908, p. 532), although the convention was originally called to discuss and correct the flaws in the Articles rather than to establish a new set of principles. The main argument for a new governing document was based on a comparison of the American government with European governments. Thomas Jefferson used to portray Europe as hell, America as heaven, and England as somewhere in the middle. This was an eccentric move to encourage America to break away from British centralization and make the whole idea of an independent set of states look more attractive and prominent.

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In 1786, it was officially announced that the Articles of Confederation had too many issues, defects, and inconsistencies that had to be corrected. The British style of government centralization was at risk. The longer that the debates continued, the more it became evident that the concept of the former colonies separating into states was the most enthusiastically received one. Indeed, it became inevitable for the heavily centralized federal government to disappear. Not everyone rooted for these ideas of separation—in fact, a huge part of the nation still believed in the central government and did not want to change the usual way of things. Some of them thought that the federal government should be given more power to even out the flaws in the Articles and set things right in the country. Their arguments stemmed from a desperate desire to maintain unity in the new country: they “were concerned for the welfare of the United States and dreamed of a great future for the nation, were anxious to better the existing condition of affairs and so remove the danger of dissolution” (Farrand, 1908, p. 532). Some members of the federal convention made a list of all the flaws in the Articles and ways to correct them, including problems with the organized federal judiciary (solution: organize a federal judiciary that would also have jurisdiction over foreigners or people from other states) and the unfair composition of Congress (solution: establish two houses and a revision council with the best people directly representing them).

In the end, the flaws with the Articles of Confederation were too obvious and deep-seated to brush off and pretend that they were working. James Madison argued that a two-step plan was needed to form a better system; step one would be to protect the Union, and step two would be to realize a different model of government that would be suitable for all states. As time went on, the delegation started to call out more and more flaws in the Articles until they were rewritten completely. Once the fundamental principles of a new document were worked out, “a constitution was finally drafted which was perfectly satisfactory to no one, yet which was adopted by an overwhelming majority” (Farrand, 1908, pp. 536-537). The result of all these changes was the Constitution. Among other things, this new document assigned certain limitations to Congress to avoid the abuse of power, questioned the centralization of government, set the states on the path to acquiring autonomy, and pronounced the importance of establishing a national bank.

Compromising

Madison was not really pleased with how the new Constitution came together. Many political compromises were made, and many people still did not agree with the principles promoted in the new plan. The biggest opponent at that time was the state of Connecticut, which held the key goals of keeping the slave trade legal and being able to propose their own candidates for presidential elections. During the Virginia Convention on May 29, 1787, the delegation from Connecticut spoke. The lead delegate was Roger Sherman, a lawyer and statesman from New Haven who became Madison’s main opponent in this debate. Of course, many would say that Judge William Paterson of New Jersey played a much greater role in opposing the Virginia plan, but it was Sherman and his delegation who most actively argued on the topics of slave trafficking, commercial treaties, governmental power, amendments, and control over territories.

As the debate continued, “mutual wariness increased as substantive economic issues, such as the Western lands, trade, and slavery, became indivisibly intertwined with representation” (Robertson, 2005, p. 236). Sherman had a completely opposing view and tried to force Madison into a compromise. He managed to convince many other participants of the correctness of his arguments, even to the point that Madison’s views seemed completely outrageous. Madison became desperate and tried to claim that slave states should be protected to gain more of their support. The Connecticut delegation did not let up on its convictions, stating that every state should fight for its political rights. On July 5, the bicameral compromise, later known as the Connecticut Compromise, was offered. Connecticut was supported by states including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia, some of which had previously sided with Madison. In this way, Sherman left Madison only with almost no votes, apart from those of South Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists

The Federalists and Anti-Federalists disagreed over the question of whether state governments or the federal government should have more power. The Anti-Federalists tended to accept the idea of a more efficient federal government, but they did not find the concept of a governmentally controlled Union to be very functional, fearing that this “would result in debasement of the people and insecurity of rights” (Storing, 1981, p. 24). Many felt that a split was the logical option because states had their own local advantages (e.g., their exports), so independence would not really cause harm as long as the states kept communicating with each other. The differences could be resolved by the Congress.

One major addition that the Anti-Federalists wanted was a bill of rights “to protect individuals and minorities…[and] to protect the States and to protect certain kinds of intermediate associations” (Amar, 1993, p. 115). The main element in the original Bill of Rights was the jury, which was later changed. The First Amendment granted Congress the power to create laws, but it prohibited Congress from putting any restraint on personal freedoms. Madison’s belief was simple: the citizens of America should be protected from their own government just as much as from any kind of external threat. He believed that such written limitations were necessary to keep “the government’s rage for paper money and other forms of oppression” at bay (Amar, 1993, p. 115).

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Both Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed on the necessity of a federal government to maintain peace between the states and facilitate passage and trade across state borders. Madison, however, was sure that state governments would do more harm to minorities because of their populistic nature and that the federal government was a better choice in the situation. The government had a tough objective: to prevent the states from fighting with each other and to make the lives of citizens in these states comfortable. Security was a top priority on which both Anti-Federalists and Federalists deeply agreed.

In short, the conflict between Anti-Federalists and Federalists was based on the fact that the former still strived for the separation of states while the latter believed in a stronger and more centralized federal government.

References

Amar, A. R. (1993). Anti-Federalists, The Federalist Papers, and the Big Argument for Union. Faculty Scholarship Series, 16(1), 111-118.

Farrand, M. (1908). The Federal Constitution and the Defects of The Confederation. The American Political Science Review, 2(4), 532-544.

Robertson, D. (2005). Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design. Am. Pol. Sci. Rev., 99(02), 225-243.

Storing, H., & Dry, M. (1981). What the Anti-Federalists were for. Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press.

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