The Revolutionary War led to a vacuum of power in the former British colonies. The people and prominent revolutionary leaders were tasked with creating a new government and country that would become known as the United States of America. However, there were many prevalent opinions on the governance process, which created extensive public debate. While Democracy seemed to be the best alternative after the oppressive rule of monarchy, various political parties emerged with approaches to running the country. After the failure of the Articles of Confederation, a compromise was formed, and an established governance mechanism was documented in the United States Constitution, which serves as the primary government document to this day.
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Comparing the Articles with the Constitution
After the fighting finished during the Revolutionary War, the former colonies quickly adopted a document known as the Articles of Confederation in 1781. It helped to form a new government and legislative basis for the United States a country. Many people were appalled by the injustices of the monarchy under British rule, which led to abuse of power and violation of citizen freedoms for years. Therefore, when forming a new country, this attitude nationally translated into a weak federal government that lacked any legal or practical methods to abuse its power. The focus was placed on the independence of the states. The federal legislative body Confederation Congress lacked any decision-making authority, while the executive branch could not perform traditional functions of a federal government branch such as national security or collection of taxes.
However, the Articles of Confederation proved to be ineffective and even dysfunctional. National borders could not be protected at the time that the Spanish Empire was expanding in Florida, the British were regaining footing in Canada, and Western territories were ravaged by war with Native American tribes. Eventually, the state representatives convened and scrapped the Articles and choosing to adopt a new document known as the Constitution in 1787. The Constitution helped to establish a central authority for the federal government which would address national issues. While states could not cooperate on aspects such as taxation, trade, and national security, the Constitution helped to resolve these problems. Foreign threats were addressed, the Western territory problems could be managed holistically, and states began to cooperate. In order to limit federal authority, a system of checks and balances was introduced as well, which would offer some protection for state sovereignty (Ablavsky, 2014).
The Constitution and Articles of Confederation differed significantly. One of the primary aspects was the structure of government. The Articles effectively had one branch, a unicameral legislative body with one representative per state. A President was selected by a specific committee. The federal government as a whole could not enforce the law or instill public or economic policies. There was no effective method to fund the government or implement meaningful change. However, the Constitution led to the creation of executive and judicial branches. The executive branch, with a collection of agencies, could manage and regulate national policy in specific areas, such as social issues or economics. The judicial branch led to the establishment of a system of courts that enforced the law, including rights outlined by the Constitution. Meanwhile, the legislative branch was a bicameral body that distributed appropriate representation amongst the states (The Library of Congress, 2017).
After the failure of the Articles, a Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia in 1787. The public and state officials were concerned about the aspects of governance that the new document would offer. There was a widespread opinion that not all social classes and regions of the country (Western territories) were adequately represented at the convention as well. Representation, a key topic that led to the American Revolution, was a concern in the formation of a new government. One of the proposed plans, known as the New Jersey Plan, argued that all states should maintain an equal number of votes in a federal legislative body. This was applauded by the smaller states of the commonwealth.
However, James Madison of Virginia, with the backing of larger states, proposed the Virginia Plan, which called for votes to be distributed based on state population. He argued that these states have more economic and social impact on the country, thus, should have adequate representation to defend their interests. A debate ensued, which eventually ended with a widely accepted plan by Robert Sherman, the representative from Connecticut. The Connecticut “Great” Compromise established a bicameral system in Congress, with one chamber maintaining equal voting rights, while the other is based on the population (US Senate, 2017).
Slavery was also a divisive point for the states. Southern states relied on slave labor for economic purposes wanted to keep the institution and count slaves as part of the population (in order to increase representation). Meanwhile, Northern states lacked the need for or such high populations of slaves. Therefore, they were against counting them for representation purposes. Eventually, the 3/5ths Compromise was reached that allowed states to count each slave as a fraction of a citizen.
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After the signing of the Constitution in 1787, it had to be ratified by state representatives and legislative bodies. At this point in time, disagreements arose and led to the rise of two prominent political parties known as the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton led the Federalists with the purpose of establishing a strong central federal government. However, the Anti-Federalists, led by the likes of Patrick Henry and George Mason, believed that the federal government should remain weak. They feared central authority and pushed for more state power and influence over national policy. The Anti-Federalists were against the newly signed Constitution, fearing it allowed extensive authority over civil rights and state affairs without any guarantees of protection or adequate representation (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d.). Madison and Hamilton sought to calm these worries by publishing a collection of essays, The Federalist Papers, which explained their position and the benefits a new Constitution would provide. For example, in Essay 51, Madison argues that a system of checks and balances can be created within a federal government to ensure the separation of powers and prevent abuse.
At the Massachusetts Ratification Convention, Hancock served as the leader of the Anti-Federalist faction. However, he was eventually convinced to accept a compromise in the form of the Bill of Rights, a set of amendments that addressed many of the political party’s concerns. James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, which sought to ensure personal freedoms for citizens as well as limitations of federal powers with the condition that these factors cannot be removed once the document is signed (Digital History, 2016). This compromise allowed for the Constitution to be ratified by the states.
The Constitution remains a critical political and historical document. It serves as the legal basis for court decisions and public policies. Compromises reached by the parties in 1787 have become an example of cooperation for ideological tenants in modern politics. The Constitution is a fundamental and supporting document that holds its value in structuring the governance process of the country.
Ablavsky, G. (2014). The savage Constitution. Duke Law Journal, 63(5). Web.
Digital History. (2016). The Bill of Rights. Web.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (n.d.). Differences between Federalists and Antifederalists. Web.
The Library of Congress. (2017). The Articles of Confederation. Web.
US Senate. (2017). A great compromise. Web.