There’s no question that most Americans understand and appreciate the vast importance of the Constitution, but for all the rhetoric, debates, and discussions about the document, few Americans truly appreciate how America’s form of government, as laid out on paper by James Madison, came to be.
On July 4th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The document (which wouldn’t be signed by all parties for another month or so) stated plainly that the 13 American colonies would no longer recognize British rule. Unbeknownst to many today, however, was that it also stipulated that each of the 13 original colonies were henceforth to be recognized as independent and sovereign states. Without an existing national constitution, it would be another year before a formal establishment of government would be ratified.
This is where high school history class starts to get foggy. In the minds of many Americans, the Declaration of Independence was the birth of our nation, but it wouldn’t be until September 17th, 1787 that the U.S. would sign our constitution, as we know it, into law. This leaves an 11-year gap that tends to be glossed over on midterms, but is vital to fully understanding the reasoning behind America’s constitution.
Prior to the signing of the Constitution, the United States operated under a form of government laid out in the Articles of Confederation. These articles were adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777 and established formally that each state, formerly a colony, was now sovereign unto itself. Each of these sovereign states would send representatives to Congress for the purpose of resolving disputes. The fierce fight for independence from England’s monarchy had left many of the fledgling nation’s leaders reluctant to accept any significant centralized authority. Congress was given the power to make treaties or alliances, maintain the armed forces, and print money, but it did not possess the authority to levy taxes on citizens or initiate regulations that would affect the commerce between states.
Americans were concerned that a large republic could not be sustainable, as the legislators would lose touch with the very public they represented. As a result, the United States was, in effect, more like NATO than it was like the America we know today. Each state had the right to print their own currency, maintain their own military, and even charge tariffs on imports and exports between individual states within the union. Congress was more of an assembly of diplomats than a governing body; elected officials represented their state’s interests with little concern for the financial or social wellbeing of the other sovereign states within the union.
The Articles of Confederation, though very limited in their use of a centralized government power, did stipulate that each state would pay a tax based on the number of citizens that lived within it. This tax included both white and black inhabitants of each state in their population counts. The ensuing debates between the slave-owning states in the south and the northern states with significantly lower slave populations would serve as a precursor for the Civil War, though ultimately the southern delegates won in this instance. It was finally decided that the taxes each state paid to Congress would be based on the value of its lands rather than the number of people within it.
Although the economies of each state grew under the Articles of Confederation, national issues continued to arise. The nation’s fear of a centralized and tyrannical power left Congress extremely limited in their ability to manage many of these problems, such as the presence of fortified British posts in the “Old Northwest” territory of the American continent and trade limitations initiated by the British after the Revolutionary War. In both 1781 and 1786, Congress attempted to pass legislation allowing them to tax American citizens to fund international efforts, but because changes had to be agreed upon by all parties, both attempts were met with failure.
In 1787, delegates from each state met in Philadelphia for what would become known as the Constitutional Convention. These delegates, presided over by George Washington, discussed and debated about how best to address these impending national concerns for months. Finally, a new form of government began to take shape. In many ways, this convention served as the second American revolution, in which the form of government Americans lived under was thrown out in favor of a new form of republic, complete with an executive, judicial, and legislative branch.
Debate between leaders throughout the nation raged regarding this new constitution and the men that penned it. Nine of the 13 states needed to ratify the change in order for it to occur, so many took to the media to express their beliefs, concerns, and suggestions in newspapers and pamphlets. Eighty-five of these letters to the press would eventually come to be known as the Federalist Papers. Penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, these letters were meant to convince the public that a new form of government was necessary for the success of the nation, and that the Constitution would provide that. These articles would then be combined into a single book called “The Federalist,” which went into print in 1788.
Of course, as with politics today, it was nearly impossible to address all concerns in a single document. As a result, a compromise was born in which another legendary American document would be ratified to curb any possible excesses of power under this new form of democratic rule: the Bill of Rights.
Side by side, the Constitution and Bill of Rights have guided our nation’s legislation, enforcement, and international relationships since 1787. The importance of these simple pieces of parchment, handwritten and signed by human hands, can’t be overstated, but it’s important to note that even in its day, fierce debate raged about each of these documents. Some feared the American way of life would die beneath the quill; others feared the changes were not drastic enough to address the nation’s woes. Many argued about individual elements of each, disputing word choice, tone, and the intentions of the delegates’ proposals. Politics in America were always messy, even for our Founding Fathers.
The story of our constitution is of particular importance today, as many Americans feel our nation is more divided than ever. We look back to our Founding Fathers and imagine a committee of wise statesmen, looking ahead in the centuries and establishing our government through patriotic cooperation.
Neither our nation, nor our government, were born on a sunny July morning in 1776. Our nation was born through bloodshed and the heroism of patriots, which continued until the end of the war on September 3rd, 1783. It’s important to understand and appreciate that, although the Declaration had been agreed upon years earlier, defeat in our “colonist uprising” at any point thereafter would have rendered the document meaningless.
Our government, too, was born of fierce disputes. These arguments were sometimes prophetic, sometimes self-serving, and were often settled through the disappointed compromise of multiple parties. Establishing the government we know today was messy, and its operation has remained so ever since.
As we look at the state of our nation today, it’s easy to think things have gone awry or that it’s worse than it’s ever been. I have no doubt that some within the comments section of this article will cite reasons why that’s true, but I respectfully posit a different interpretation of our current situation. Our nation was built by fallible men, reorganized by fallible men, and continues to be run by men and women capable of the same level of selfishness, arrogance, and treachery as some accused others of in the 1700s. Somehow, though, those fallible men made something greater than they could have imagined. Despite fear and uncertainty, they fought. Despite human nature and selfishness, they gave. If those men were just as capable of failure and selfishness as we are today, it means our generation is just as capable of greatness.
This election was messy, like many before it. Our nation is culturally divided, as it has been many times throughout history. But Americans are still great, are still capable of compromise, and are still willing to fight for a unified future we struggle to imagine. America is bigger than all of us, but she needs each of us. If our Founding Fathers could do it, we sure as hell can too.
Image courtesy of Teaching American History
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