The writing and ratification of the United States constitution did not, as popularly perceived, run in a clear cut or a smooth process. Historians have always the U.S. constitution is such a wonderful document that it is , because its writers, the founding fathers in the convention, were visionary leaders who understood everything that was requisite then and put them down in a document that transcended generations and time. This is far from the truth. There were numerous attempts attempt to work a compromise – between the concerns of those supporting states rights and those in favor of centralized power. Every delegate, writes Berkin, knew that any power granted to one must diminish the autonomy of the other. Subsequently there were those who championed the elite against the mob.
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In 1776 the delegates from the states at the continental congress in Philadelphia voted to draw up what one of them called a firm league of friendship (Berkin, p. 145). The result was a document called the article of confederation. This created an organization similar to the League of Nations. Its underlying principle was that each state would remain sovereign. The article allowed for establishment of admiralty courts to deal with land disputes. There was no real executive. The president of the congress merely chaired meetings and had no powers his own.
This article provided a solution to the disputes of equal representation. It provided legislature of a single house, in which each house had a single vote in spite of its population. Furthermore the article could only be amended by a unanimous consent of states which in essence made amendments impossible. Thus the article was never amended and from it sprung up the various modes and versions of the constitution that underwent ratification.
In this essay the process and compromises that were evident in the creation of the American polity are examined. It also analyses what the two authors say about the constitutional convention.
The books “Brilliant solution: inventing the American constitution” and “the convention in Philadelphia” details a fascinating introduction to the background of the United States Constitution; the framing as well as its ratification and implementation. However they share the same interest in the Philadelphia Convention that drafted it.
The convention in Philadelphia authored by the Collier brothers narrates the events at the convention and dismisses sectional, economic or class interests as the dominant issues tackled. Rather it concentrates on the “deeply rooted attitudes” and “emotions” of the individuals, for instance James Madison and Alexander Hamilton who attended the convention in 1787. It also lists the inputs of some others like Charles Pinckney, Roger Sherman, Luther Martin, James Wilson, and George Mason, who were in this convention and held sway.
The book shows that a lot of compromises were made and a number of the contentious arguments presented. According to Collier, the first national government, embodied in the Articles of Confederation, had failed miserably. It failed because many States were dissatisfied with that first document and battled against it. Such issues as proportional representation verses equal representation for the states in the new Congress pitted the smaller states against an alliance of the bigger states. Also discussed was slavery, the government functions – the role of the president, the method of choosing the president, the presence of a bill of rights, the separation of powers, the role of the House and the Senate.
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On her part carol Berkin writes in her book that soon after the American Revolutionary war ended in 1784, there was economic depression. She avers that the Continental Congress was faced by angry creditors- foreign and domestic, clamoring for repayment of the loans incurred during the war. The Continental Congress could not pay back the money since its source of revenue was the generosity of the individual states donation and the little it had collected was now all spent. In addition the relationship between the states was poor, and many of them questioned and doubted whether they would remain united.
With the signing of the declaration of independence, the legal basis of these governments was undermined and the various states set about to write their constitutions and creating new governments. Each was now, in effect an independent nation. A profound feeling of local identity still trumped the young identity of America. It was however clear that they could not fight a common war against the British without some common government.
In 1786, writes Berkin, there was an agreement that a serious crisis had visited the nation and an attempt was made at the Constitutional Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. This set-off the process of the creation of the U.S. Constitution. According to her there were over fifty delegates to the convention most of them were lawyers or men born in wealth and none could be said to be a man of ordinary means. Despite heated atmosphere, reported at the convention floor there were very few, if any, who questioned the class, gender or racial bases of their privileged status. They did not discuss any need to end slavery or advocate for equality for women. Therefore, their understanding of “equality” and “unalienable” rights, was seemingly on a universal level in spite of the slavery and female subordination common in the society. This notwithstanding Berkin portrays the delegates as men who produced what she call the “brilliant solution”
In summary her theses are primarily that the process by which the constitution was written was one involving sharply differing views, particularly as to the sharing of power between the individual states and the national government, substantial uncertainty and pessimism regarding the document’s capacity to forestall tyranny and a great deal of compromise from strongly held principles. Currently, she reasons, the character of the current US federal government would astonish the Framers in certain areas, most notably in the greatly expanded powers of the presidency.
The two authors Berkin and the Collier brothers talk about the same thing but in a diametrically different manner and perspectives. In both accounts there was an attempt to work a compromise – between support for state’s rights and those more in favor of centralized power. However the issues that brought about these differences vary according to the authors. The collier brothers dismiss sectional, economic or class interests as the dominant issues tackled. They concentrated on the deep- rooted feelings off some delegates which led to a heated debate as each person wanted their agenda approved. For instance the deep disagreements between Madison’s Federalists and the states’ rights advocates, such as George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, both of whom refused to sign the Constitution and swore to fight against its ratification in their state.
According to Collier, 1987, the delegates went into the convention concerned about the creation of a new congress and with many seeing the presidency as other than a critical branch of government. The presidency encompassed in the executive branch of government was unpopular with some delegates. This was because there were fears that the two departments the Senate and the house of representatives would be too powerful. Most of the delegates had a loathing to anything absolute. This is because the absolute signified immense strength. As such congress was given the authority to counter these powers by being able to override the President’s veto by a two-thirds vote. They also discussed the criteria for choosing the president either by the people or by congressmen. They chose neither. Instead they chose the “electoral college.” The electors in the college were individuals beyond reprieve. They were not to be members of the house or senate. They were also required to meet separately in their own states.
The Colliers differ with Berkin when they also say that Slave trade was a major issue when it is not treated so in Berkin’s book. They did not discuss any end to slavery or vouched for equality for women. In fact no questions arose about the class, gender or racial bases. Their understanding of equality and individual rights obscured in spite of the slavery and female subordination in the society.
She says that the convention in Philadelphia was meant to restrain the state governments, but, for the Collier this Convention was to recommend amendments to the Articles of Confederation, not that it would work to create a new national government. This distortion explains why the delegate Madison’s Virginia delegation, took the front line in demanding to be imposed a rule of strict secrecy on the Convention’s deliberations from the very beginning (Collier, p. 87).
The two author’s description of the process, goals, and results differs significantly from Middlekauff’s views. Robert Middlekauff description of the process of independence was based on the American revolutionary war. It was after the ouster of the British soldiers, that the delegates from the states formed a continental congress and declared their independence in order to consolidate their command base to avert future invasion. Middlekauff argues that the war necessitated the declaration of independence.
Conversely he does not venture into the details of what actually transpired before that declaration as the two authors reveal in their work. He only talks about the causes of the American war for independence, how the war was fought and dedicates a few pages for the historical convention in Philadelphia. His was an intimate perspective of the revolutionary War, the battle between the colonies and bigger state and the establishment of the American republic. He traces these events from the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and until the election of George Washington as the first president. His is a glorious narrative of an event that had massive transformation of the world, capturing the intense struggle to found a free nation.
Up until 1776 there was no American government as such and each colony had its own legislature, a council and a governor. The king and parliament did set some general laws having to do mostly with shipping and commerce which were applied to all colonies. When the declaration of independence was signed, the legal basis of these colonial governments was undermined and the various states set about to write constitutions and creating new governments for themselves. Each became, in effect an independent nation. The struggle to create these constitutions started the American polity.
Between 1776 and 1787, they faced economic crisis, military weakness and interstate conflict that undermined the hopes of a unified country. Still young and free the states found that they did not have a strong central government that would bind them together. Because they believed in the primacy of the legislature, the framers created the Constitution as a working document; one that would require revision as the country grew
Despite passing and making these body of laws doubts still existed and persisted about the future. When they realized they lacked a document that would work indefinitely into the future, they included in the constitution a capacity for change. Later experiences and actions were to be included in the constitution as amendments/ ratifications. It could perhaps be said that the convention not only devised and developed the constitution but it prepared the delegates to fight for its ratification as well and prepared those arguments they will need to.
As such, the American polity was born out of a covenant in federal liberty. It has existed for over 300 years ranging from the first British, Swedish and Dutch settlements prior to the mid twentieth century. The people formed themselves through and around covenants and compacts. It emphasizes relationships more than structures. it has also opened up democratic conversations in which balance is continuously sought and negotiated. It urges people towards a common good and help people to orient their projects towards a mutual and public good.
Many of the fundamental issues the original framers debated and even fought over, such as States rights vs. a national, central government, remain critical issues today. They are debated just as intensely today as when the original framework was set up. The politicians have sought and found ways to provide practical security for each arm of government against the invasion of others by giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means to resist encroachments of others. This constitutional means comprise various modes of mixing and interblending the different powers of governments that we have come to known as checks and balances. This aspect of continuity informs the uniqueness of American polity.
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- Berkin, C. A (2002) Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. Florida: Harcourt Inc
- Collier, J. L. & Collier C. (1987) Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. USA: Bellantine books
- Mueller, C. D. (1996) Constitutional Democracy. US: Oxford University Press.
- Middlekauff, R. (1986). Glorious Cause: American Revolution, 1763-1789.Oxford: Oxford University Press,