The United States Constitution is one of the most well-known government documents in history and modern politics. It stands as a symbol for Democracy and the strength of the country that the United States has become over the last two centuries. However, the process of drafting the Constitution was extensive and highly complex. After the Revolutionary War, there was political turmoil in the colonies as political parties emerged with independent opinions on governance. After much trial and compromise, the Constitution was established as the primary legal document which determines the government structure, process, and policies of the United States.
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The Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781 after the end of the Revolutionary War. It created a new government for the United States that lacked any central figure of authority. This occurred due to many fearing the abuse of power and a violation of basic rights that occurred under the rule of the British monarchy. The widespread belief was that power corrupts and it should remain distributed amongst the people and numerous states. While it was a fundamental principle of Democracy, it lacked the effectiveness to accomplish any growth as a country or resolve national issues since the federal government could not fund its activities or enforce its policies or laws.
When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, it differed significantly from the Articles of Confederation. The government structure was different. The Articles effectively only had one branch of government, a unicameral legislative body that was responsible for all aspects, including selecting a President. The Articles supported a decentralized form of government that transferred power and sovereignty to states and local governments. Therefore, each state conducted its own affairs and economic policies independently. However, the Constitution created three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. An executive branch consisted of the President and the cabinet, as well as agencies that could enforce policies and govern the nation. A judicial branch created a system of courts that ruled upon the law and could serve as a balance to other branches of government. Meanwhile, the legislative branch consisted of a bicameral Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives (The Library of Congress, 2017).
The Constitution and the Articles differed in addressing aspects of national governments such as national security and economics. Under the Articles, national borders were weakly protected as foreign powers threatened the sovereignty of the United States. Western territories were particularly vulnerable, as states could not agree upon the protection of the border and maintaining peace with Native American tribes. Furthermore, national trade suffered, as each state adopted commerce with independent tariffs and currency. International trade could not be conducted as well since there was no federal agency responsible for its oversight. Under the Constitution, the federal government had the funding and resources to create necessary solutions. A military force and diplomatic staff could find solutions to the issues in the Western territories (Ablavsky, 2014). Meanwhile, a unified economy led to increased national development.
Drafting of the Constitution
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia became a vital moment for the ratification and adoption of the national governing document. There was significant public political concern and division on issues varying from abuse of central power to representation and other important issues of the time. Some social classes and parts of the country felt misrepresented as the convention was dominated by white, rich men from the original thirteen colonies. Western territories which served as a great concern for the country were significantly underrepresented.
Representation, which the colonies lacked under British rule, was the central topic of debate. Each state wanted to ensure its interests and positions would be appropriately represented in the new legislative body. Two major plans were offered by the attendees. The New Jersey Plan, developed by William Patterson, sought to maintain the status quo under the Articles of a legislative body with an equal number of representatives per state. Smaller states overwhelmingly upheld this plan. Meanwhile, James Madison introduced the Virginia Plan, which based representation on the population census, effectively gaining the support of larger states. Eventually, a compromise was reached with the oversight of Robert Sherman. The Great (Connecticut) Compromise proposed for the creation of a bicameral Congress, with the Senate maintaining equal representation (2 per state) and the House of Representatives based on population (US Senate, 2017). Furthermore, a deal was reached on the census count of slaves for representation. As part of the Three-Fifths Compromise, each slave was counted as a fraction of a citizen. This was done in order to limit the artificial inflation of the population count in Southern states.
Formation of Political Parties
Ratification of the Constitution by the states was a complex process on its own. The many differing ideological tenants in the country made it difficult to reach a consensus. However, two primary political beliefs were prominent, which led to the formation of the major political parties. The party known as the Anti-Federalists, which was led by Patrick Henry and George Mason, was against the Constitution and a strong federal government. These were avid supporters of the Articles of Confederation and sought to protect states and individual citizens from federal government oversight. They feared that the Constitution was a step closer to monarchy and wanted to ensure that privacy, basic rights, and representation would be assured in the new government. On the other side of the political spectrum were the Federalists led by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. They saw the weakness of the Articles and wanted to create a strong and united federal government that would resolve national issues (Duncan, 2014).
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In order to support their political ideas, Madison and Hamilton published The Federalist Papers, which was a set of essays detailing solutions to how the new government could be run and addressing concerns for all parties. Madison argued that the Constitution would allow for structure and regulation, while Hamilton attempted to develop a system of judicial review with checks and balances. In 1788, the Massachusetts Ratification Convention was convened, sought to figure out the differences. Eventually, a compromise was reached amongst the parties. The Constitution would be ratified with an attached Bill of Rights that provided amendments and a set of legal principles for the country and the federal government. It protected state and individual freedoms while creating a system of legal checks on various branches of the government (“Constitution,” n.d.).
The Constitution is known as a unique document due to its fluidity. It can be modified with amendments to establish fundamental legal principles based on the socio-political realities of any era in time. The challenges in adopting this document and compromises that had to be made by both parties have withstood a test of time and have served as an example of Democratic governance for the world. The Constitution remains a historically important and politically fundamental government documents as it continues to evolve.
Ablavsky, G. (2014). The savage Constitution. Duke Law Journal, 63(5). Web.
Duncan, C. M. (2014). Anti-Federalists. Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
The Library of Congress. (2017). The Articles of Confederation. Web.
US Senate. (2017). A great compromise. Web.