The thirteen United States were far from united when independence was achieved in 1783. Each state wrote its own constitution to supplement the wartime Articles of Confederation. Trade was unregulated. Different currencies were used. No treaties with native tribes had been established, and western state borders remained in dispute. Slavery was intact in all thirteen states, despite the tremendous sacrifices African Americans had made in the fight for liberty. The French government prepared to send thirteen separate ambassadors to America.
Three years of uncertainty passed before the tremendous debts of war prompted a revolt in western Massachusetts. The brief debtors’ rebellion led by Continental Army veteran Daniel Shays underscored the need for a centralized government. Led by federalists such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and supported by national hero George Washington, delegates from all thirteen states met in 1787 in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution.
Many contentious issues challenged the Constitutional Convention as it deliberated in the oppressive summer heat. The issue of representation was eventually resolved with a bicameral Congress. Each state would send two senators to six year terms, and representatives would be elected for two year terms to a separate House according to population.
Congress would be the legislative leg of a tripod government, with a President elected to lead the executive branch and a national Supreme Court to arbitrate judicial disputes. Titles of nobility were abolished and Congress was empowered to regulate trade and naturalization. The President would be empowered to appoint a cabinet and veto odious laws. Interstate trade was established on the principle of equality and international trade and credit were placed in the hands of Congress, as was the power of the purse. The ability to declare war also rested with the Congress, and the right to confirm or deny judicial and diplomatic appointments.
State and federal powers were separated, with the states reserving the right to ratify or reject constitutional amendments. The moral and economic dilemmas of slavery were left unresolved, with trans-Atlantic slave trading allowed until 1808 and slaveowners retaining the right to reclaim fugitives. While slaves remained private property and thus disenfranchised under the law, three-fifths of them would be counted in state populations for representative purposes. The abolitionist movement grew in strength and sectional tensions deepened.
Fierce debates erupted in the new state legislatures when the draft of the Constitution was submitted for ratification in 1788. Eventually nine of the thirteen states adopted it, with the other four following suit when a Bill of Rights was added in 1791. These first ten amendments delineated individual rights to freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, property, and due process which would be protected from federal encroachment.
George Washington reluctantly agreed to serve as the first President, with John Adams as his vice president, Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton to lead the treasury department. Hamilton pushed for a strong national bank to regulate trade and currency, but Jefferson and others held out for stronger local government and finance. By the time Washington left office in 1797 with a farewell address warning against political parties and foreign entanglements, both had become hallmarks of American political life.
- Thomas Jefferson once said the Constitution should be rewritten for each successive generation. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- Which political and economic issues do we have today that have not been easily resolved by the Constitution?
- Can you think of any new Amendments that should be added to the Constitution? If so, what are they?
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