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United States Constitution | Study Guide

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United States Constitution | Context


America before the Constitution

After the Revolutionary War, there was an immediate need for a government to unify the nation under a national identity and binding laws. In 1781 a document to serve this purpose called the Articles of Confederation was ratified by each state. This document had 13 articles: Article 6 prohibited officeholders from accepting gifts or titles from foreign powers, for example.

The presidency was a weaker office during this time. The president was simply the leader of the presiding council, and he served a short term. Under the Articles there was only one legislative body, the Congress, which was made up of representatives (from two to seven people) from each state. Although their number of representatives differed, each state only had one vote. The Articles of Confederation set up the idea of a weak national government and independence for the states. The Congress could request money from the states, but it could not force the states to pay. It became clear there was a need for a new, more expansive document to bind the country.

Creation of the Constitution

Alexander Hamilton called for a gathering of the Congress to discuss the Articles of Confederation. States agreed, and on May 25, 1787, a Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia. Each state sent delegates, except for Rhode Island, which didn't believe in strengthening the federal government. There were 55 delegates in attendance. They locked themselves in the Pennsylvania State House, shuttered the windows, and began the secret proceedings. The delegates, who are now known as the framers, would go on to become presidents, representatives, and other government leaders.

They decided to do away with the Articles of Confederation and create a government with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The system of checks and balances would become one of the defining features of the Constitution. Many issues were argued over, including how to allocate representatives to states with different populations (resulting in the system of basing the number of representatives in the House of Representatives on state populations) and whether to ban slavery. Northern states largely advocated for banning slavery but worried the southern delegates would exit the conversation. As a result, they fulfilled the wants of the South by not banning slavery; however, a slave would count as only three-fifths of a person for the allocation of the number of representatives. They also decided fugitive slaves should be returned to owners.

The Committee of Style and Arrangement was formed to complete the physical drafting of the document. It was chaired by William Samuel Johnson (1727–1819), who was assisted by Rufus King (1755–1827). Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) completed most of the revisions. By fall of 1787 the document was finished, and George Washington was the first to sign. Of the original 55 delegates, 39 signed the document, and then it was on to the states to ratify the new Constitution. The framers worked hard to promote the proposed Constitution, and by the summer of 1788 the needed nine states ratified the Constitution.

Influences on the Constitution

Earlier documents, from both England and the young American nation, heavily influenced the development of the Constitution. They include the following.

  • Magna Carta (1215): This charter, signed by King John of England (1166–1216), established that all people, including rulers, are subject to the law.
  • English Bill of Rights (1698): An act of Britain's Parliament, the Bill of Rights instituted separation of powers and limited some of the authority of the English monarchy.
  • Declaration of Independence (1776): The Declaration of Independence is a statement of fundamental principles of justice. It declared American autonomy from Britain and established that all people have rights. The Constitution would lay out the rules enforcing those principles.
  • Articles of Confederation (1781): The Articles created a weak central government with just one legislative branch. They were replaced by the Constitution, with a bicameral (two-branch) system of government, dividing Congress into the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Constitution in Action

In 1789 George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States of America, and in 1790 the Supreme Court met for the first time. The government was thus operational, but it quickly became apparent the Constitution would need to change as the people and the government changed. Congress passed the first amendments to the Constitution in 1789 and ratified them in 1791. These amendments together became known as the Bill of Rights.

Since the Bill of Rights was passed, only 17 additional constitutional amendments have been added. Because they can only be added with ratification from three-fourths of the states, and the number of states has grown to 50, it is a complicated process. The Constitution was written with much left up to interpretation. It wasn't known how George Washington would interpret the powers of the president, but he set the standard for powerful political and military leadership.

Lasting Impact

There remains both faith in, and discontent with, the Constitution. Many still see it as a guiding document, while others think it needs to be radically changed for the country to continue to progress. Recent controversies about the Constitution include the use of the Electoral College in presidential elections. In 2000 and 2016 a president was elected without securing the popular vote. Some also blame government gridlock on the Constitution, arguing elections should be able to be called when necessary. Critics also point out the weakening of states' rights, and executive power continues to grow because of the vague description of the office in the Constitution.

Despite these issues, the Constitution continues to be interpreted and reinterpreted by the Supreme Court and other government offices. When the Constitution was first adopted, it became the model for countries around the world as they sought more democratic representation. Many countries like Japan and India took language from the U.S. Constitution and expanded upon it to fit their needs. The Constitution was never presented as a perfect document, but rather one that expands and changes to suit the needs of the country. For this reason it is likely to be reinterpreted and changed for generations to come.

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