In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the leaders of the newly independent states decided to create a legal framework that prevented the emergence of an extremely powerful central government. However, these apprehensions established a loose federation of states that was ineffective when it came to the need for decisive and efficient governance. It did not take long to realize that just like a typical organization requiring a tough and decisive CEO, the newly formed nation required a centralized government that ensures swift and appropriate actions. When it was time to forge a new path, it quickly became evident that the process will be tumultuous and difficult. Nonetheless, the dwindling economic fortunes of the states and the inefficiencies of the old system compelled them to act. At the end, it became clear to the statesmen, local politicians, intellectuals, and patriots that the American people can no longer afford to delay the ratification of a new Constitution.
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Strengths and Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation vis-à-vis the 1787
The Articles of Confederation was borne out of the necessity to handle the uneasy alliance between different states, and the need to prevent the emergence of another dictatorial form of government. Fresh from the victory and lessons learned from the American Revolution, statesmen and influential leaders understood the importance of preventing the rise of another King George among the leaders of the former British colonies. The strength of the legal documents that preceded the US Constitution is manifested in the legal provisions that prevented the rise of a powerful central government or the ascension to power of a tyrant. However, the fear of a dominant national government created a weakness at the heart of a new nation that needed to manage and control vast territories. In the book that examined the Articles of Confederation, the author highlighted the weakness found in Article XIII. In the 13th article describing the process of making amendments and modifications, the rule required Congress to vote on the proposed amendments, and then, the 13 state legislatures must approve the same (Vile 2015). It was a cumbersome and ineffective process.
The strength of the 1787 Constitution lies in the legal provisions that were added or modified in order to rectify the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. For example, the new legal framework made provisions on how to collect taxes so that all territories are levied with taxes. Thus, the national government has access to funds for sorely needed infrastructure for nation building. Another important development was the laying down of a practical solution to resolving legal disputes in both state and national levels. Consider for instance the problem of a nation-wide crime syndicate or crimes committed in different states. However, one can also argue that the new legal framework inadvertently gave too much power to the incumbent US president. It may not have been clear at the time when the Constitution was ratified, but the Iraq War of 2003, the Vietnam War, and the use of atomic bombs to level two Japanese cities in World War II could never have been possible if the American people rejected the proposal to adopt the 1787 Constitution.
Drafting the Constitution: Compromises and Resolving Conflicts
One of the paralyzing conflicts was on the issue of representation, especially when linked to the relative sizes of the states. The Articles of Confederation limited one representative and one vote per state. This is not favorable to populous states with vast territories like California and Texas. However, the old framework favored smaller states, and there was a clamor to retain the old system.
It required the political savvy and depth of insight of Roger Sherman to resolve the stalemate. In the book entitled U.S. Constitution: Introducing Primary Sources, the author described how Sherman’s proposal, known as the Great Compromise, succeeded in breaking the political deadlock on the issue of representation (Clay, 2016). Sherman’s insightful idea paved the way for the establishment of the present day US Congress wherein the number of representatives for each state was determined not by the size of the territory but the population per state.
Federalists versus Anti-Federalists
The participants in the constitutional convention were still at odds when it came to another critical aspect of the proposed new legal framework, and it was none other than the subject matter covering the Bill of Rights. Founding Fathers like Alexander Hamilton who became a part of a political party named the Federalists, he and like-minded men opposed the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the new Constitution. Hamilton objected on the basis of practicality and the need to preserve the essence of the new government that was not based on the powers of kings and queens but founded by the people, and for the people. In Federalist Papers number 85, he argued that the Constitution is better than antiquated legal agreements between monarchs and their subjects, and he wrote: “according to their primitive signification, they have no application to constitutions professed founded upon the power of the people” (The Founders’ Constitution, 2000). In other words, Hamilton believed that the US Constitution minus the Bill of Rights already ensures the protection of the said rights.
Achieving an Effective Balance Between State and National Interests
Hamilton’s critics, the group known as the Anti-Federalists needed an ironclad assurance that the president cannot possess the power to rule like a tyrant. In the Anti-Federalist Papers number 84, the author by the name of Brutus made the argument that the absence of the Bill of Rights is interpreted as the surrendering of the people’s rights to the government. He wrote the following: that the “government should be established, in which the force of the whole community should be collected … as to protect and defend every one who composed it” (The Federalist Papers Project, 2017). As a result, a compromise was made in the form of amendments that eventually became the U.S. Bill of Rights (Smith, Esparza, & Blau, 2017). The accepted version of the Bill of Rights achieved relative balance between national and state interests, because it conceded the existence of a national government. However, the national government’s power was limited by the Bill of Rights, because the list of rights included a provision that says the national government’s power is only within the scope provided by the Constitution.
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The US Constitution went through a difficult process before it was ratified. Compromises were made and conflicts were resolved in two major areas: state representation and the scope of the central government’s power. One of the key developments that ensured the ratification of the 1787 Constitution was the inclusion of the Bill of Rights. One can argue that the existence of the Bill of Right conceded the need for a powerful central or national government. On the other hand, its inclusion limited the power of the government, because the national government cannot exceed he boundaries established by the Bill of Rights.
Clay, K. (2016). U.S. Constitution: Introducing primary sources. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Press.
The Federalits Papers Project. (2017). Antifederalist paper 84 on the lack of a Bill of Rights. Web.
Hamilton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (1961) The Federalist. J. E. Cooke (Ed) Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University.
Smith, K., Esparza, L., & Blau, J. (2017). Human rights of, by, and for the people: How to critique and change the US Constitution. New York, NY: Routledge.
Vile, J. (2015). Encyclopedia of Constitutional amendments, proposed amendments, and amending issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.