Saturday, November 09, 2002 3:15 PM
Britannica Student Encyclopedia Article
United States Constitution
Britannica Student Encyclopedia
Many people think of the United States as a young country. Yet it has the oldest written constitution among the
major nations of the world. Moreover, it was, for the first time in history, a constitution that specifically limited the
powers that the federal government would be able to exercise over its citizens.
Soon after the 3 million people who lived in the United States had won the Revolutionary War, various groups
among them became discontented with the Articles of Confederation (see Articles of Confederation). The
government under the Confederation seemed too weak to control the people at home or to make the new
republic respected abroad.
One difficulty was that Congress lacked sufficient power to raise money: it could only make requests of the
states. It was always poor, while generous states such as New York and Pennsylvania complained that they paid
more than their share. Congress also had no authority to regulate commerce. When some of the states began
laying tariffs and other burdens on the shipping trade of their neighbors, it caused heavy losses.
All states were supposed to abide by the Articles of Confederation; yet some states violated them. They made
treaties with the Indians and agreements with each other. They ignored foreign treaties made by Congress and
regulated the value of money.
Need for a Stronger Government
By 1785 it seemed to many patriotic citizens of the United States that the Confederation was a failure.
Washington, Hamilton, Jay, Madison, and other leaders repeatedly declared that the government ought to be
strengthened. In 1782 the assembly of New York, and in 1785 the legislature of Massachusetts, voted in favor
of a constitutional convention.
Some Americans had special reasons for wanting a stronger government. One group was made up of the
Westerners, who after the American Revolution moved into Kentucky, Tennessee, and the new Northwest
Territory. They wanted a powerful federal government to protect them from the Indians, Spaniards, and British.
Others who speculated in western lands believed that a strong government would make these lands more
valuable. Another group consisted of merchants, traders, and shipowners who suffered from tariff wars among
the states and from injurious British laws. Other men, who had lent money to the government during the war or
just after it, felt a stronger government would be more likely to repay them.
Perhaps the most important group was made up of well-to-do men who owned mortgages and notes. They
feared that state legislatures controlled by poor debtors would issue huge sums of worthless paper money or
would protect debtors who refused to pay their debts. They wanted a strong national government to take