Early American History: Ratifying the Constitution

After the United States gained its independence following the Revolutionary War, the country had to begin forming a government and a Constitution. The form of government and the Democratic process known today was created through a complex procedure of trial and debate. Distinct political parties emerged, each having a unique ideology and perspective on the governance mechanism. The Constitution was accepted and signed in 1787 after the failure of the Articles of Confederation and compromises amongst the Founding Fathers. To comprehend the fundamentals of the United States government and political theory, it is essential to explore the path and principles that the country undertook to arrive at the modern Constitution.

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Compare and Contrast

The first official government constitution of the United States became the Articles of Confederation which came into effect in 1781. After the war with the British monarchy, many in the United States feared any concept of a strong, centralized government after witnessing the injustices and blatant violation of freedom in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. The state of mind in forming a new government was to prevent any abuse of power by creating a weak federal government and promoting the sovereignty and independence of the states. A legislative body known as Confederation Congress was formed with practically no governing powers.

Meanwhile, the executive branch could not perform essential functions of national security or taxation. Only after evident dysfunction of the Articles, did the state representatives drafted and ratified the Constitution in 1787 (Office of the Historian, 2017).

There were inherent differences between the Articles and the Constitution. The Articles had one federal branch in its Congress, with even the President being chosen from a selected committee of states. The legislative body was unicameral with one vote per state. A lack of central authority to manage and enforce law meant severe deregulation and economic disparity. States maintained independent commerce and currency while not paying any taxes to support the federal government.

Meanwhile, the Constitution helped to establish executive and judicial branches. Federal courts could not resolve legal issues and protect rights through national law. The executive branch was able to unite the country and manage aspects such as economics and national security. The legislative branch was divided into the House of Representatives and Senate, with one distributing votes based on population while the other provided each state with two votes (The Library of Congress, 2017).

As the weak federal government under the Articles could not protect national security and borders, it experienced significant issues with its territories. The Spanish Empire was threatening from Florida, while some British outlying forces were still causing chaos in the Northwest. Furthermore, far West territories were under ambush by Native American tribes. Peaceful expansion did not seem possible as all these hostile forces felt the weakness of the government in its inability to deal with foreign threats. Meanwhile, state and federal governments constantly bickered over the management of Western land.

With the arrival of the Constitution, central authority was established to address any issues and threats through a collective system of agencies and cooperation with the states. To limit federal power, a checks and balances concept was introduced to protect state rights (Ablavsky, 2014). However, the Constitution had certain shortcomings such as not addressing the institution of slavery or being vague on numerous issues to allow for later amendments.

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Drafting of the Constitution

One of the first steps to drafting the Constitution was the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Numerous issues about the powers of the new document and the governance structure it would implement were worrying the public and state representatives. Many felt it did not offer proper representation to all classes and regions, as many of the Western territories were absent from the discussion. One of the primary concerns was legislative representation in the new government. William Paterson, with the support of smaller states, proposed the New Jersey Plan, which had all states maintain an equal number of votes as was under the Articles.

Meanwhile, James Madison, backed by larger states, proposed the Virginia Plan, which distributed votes based on state population, arguing that these states have more impact on the country and economy as a whole. After much debate, Robert Sherman from Connecticut proposed a compromise that created the bicameral Congress that is in existence today. The Connecticut “Great” Compromise ensured that states would not lose equal voting rights in the Senate (US Senate, 2017).

Slavery was a sensitive issue even during the ratification of the Constitution. Northern states and liberal politicians actively opposed slavery with many passing laws banning the transfer, sale, or use of slaves. However, the Southern states heavily relied on slavery for their agrarian economies and wanted to include slaves as part of the population count, to gain votes in the House of Representatives. Northerners felt that was unfair since they lacked the population and they considered that slaves did not have the necessary rights to be counted as part of the state population. Eventually, the Three-Fifths Compromise was proposed.

It allowed Southern states to consider individual slaves as 3/5 of a citizen during the population census. Since the North viewed slavery as a dying institution, they accepted this compromise for the greater good of the country (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2017).

Political Parties

Despite being signed in 1787, the Constitution had to be officially ratified by all the states. This led to a disagreement as two distinct political parties emerged, Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Federalists led by the likes of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton supported a strong federal government. Meanwhile, the Anti-Federalists with Patrick Henry and George Mason in their ranks still advocated for more state power and less central authority. They feared the Constitution provided overbearing authority over private citizens and state rights without providing adequate representation (Duncan, 2014).

To support their viewpoint, Madison and Hamilton published what is known as The Federalist Papers, a collection of political theory essays. For example, in Essay #10, Madison argued that the new system would prevent deregulation and factionalism that was common in practically any national issue under the Articles. Furthermore, Hamilton argued that the new branches of government would consider all opinions and establish judicial review as well as checks and balances to manage any abuse of power (Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Rossiter, & Kesler, 1999).

In 1788, John Hancock was selected as the Anti-Federalists leader at the Massachusetts Ratification Convention which was a bitter debate amongst the political parties. Eventually, Hancock agreed to a compromise by accepting the Bill of Rights authored by James Madison which guaranteed certain individual freedoms such as speech, bearing arms, Habeas Corpus, and legal protection. States could not take away any of these rights but could promote further individual freedoms (“Constitution,” n.d.). The Bill of Rights addressed many of the concerns that the federal government was too powerful and eventually allowed the Constitution to be ratified.

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History shows that drafting and ratifying the Constitution was wrought with challenges and required cooperation amongst all the states. The compromises fulfilled the ideological tenants of the political parties and were one of the first examples of Democracy’s success in the country. The Constitution remains one of the most complex and fundamental political documents that has survived centuries of historical turmoil and social evolution.


Ablavsky, G. (2014). The savage Constitution. Duke Law Journal, 63(5). Web.

Constitution of the United States – Federalists versus Anti-federalists – government, Madison, national, and papers. (n.d.). Web.

Constitutional Rights Foundation. (2017). The Constitution and slavery. Web.

Duncan, C. M. (2014). Anti-Federalists. Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Web.

Hamilton, A., Madison, J., Jay, J., Rossiter, C., & Kesler, C. R. (1999). The Federalist papers. New York, N.Y: Mentor.

The Library of Congress. (2017). The Articles of Confederation. Web.

Office of the Historian. (2017). Constitutional convention and ratification, 1787–1789. Web.

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US Senate. (2017). A great compromise. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Early American History: Ratifying the Constitution'. 28 May.

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