The United States of America officially gained its independence in 1776. The new country needed to create own governing system. It was a difficult decision, because former colonies wanted to have the central government, but did not want to loose their sovereignty. These contradictions became a basis for the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the American Constitution of 1787. It restored main weaknesses of the Articles, but there were many arguments before all states accepted the new document. Constitution’s content stimulated the creation of political parties.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation were created with the great support of Whigs. Representatives of this group thought the monarchy was a tyranny and did not want to recreate signs of this system in the USA. “The Articles of Confederation embraced an understanding of government in which virtuous individuals would obey the decisions of state officials and virtuous state officials would work to preserve the Confederation” (Callahan, 2003, p. 49, 51). The document helped states to save their independence, but created totally powerless central government. Congress could not regulate interstate trade, levy taxes or make other such important decisions. Callahan mentioned, Articles gave the central government less authority than it got from the Parliament during the British rule.
The document had strengths too. It helped to pull states together and create a union that could develop the new Constitution. Congress played a serious role in negotiations with the Great Britain and ending the Revolutionary War. It had powers to control post offices, to declare war, coin money and make other decisions of federal importance. The Articles also encouraged cooperation between states.
One of the main goals of the Article of Confederation was the defense of states’ sovereignty. However, this decision limited powers of the Congress – the only federal institution of the USA. It made it difficult for the central government to finance itself and fulfill its tasks. It was obvious the country needed more powerful central government. Western land claims was one of the examples that supported this opinion. “Landed” and “landless” states argued about the belonging of Western territories. “The “landed” states refused to cede their territorial claims to Congress and successfully incorporated this view into the final draft of the Articles” (Callahan, 2003, p 48). The situation was brought about the compromise after all, but showed that states can have more influence than the central government. Western inhabitants wanted to turn their territories into independent states. Representatives of foreign countries, like Spain or Great Britain, supported discord between states with their actions. For example, “Spain closed the Mississippi river to American commerce in 1784 [and] Britain tried to persuade Vermont to become a Canadian province” (Callahan, 2003, p 77-78).
People’s attitude also demonstrated malfunctioning of states officials. The country had great state debt after the 1780 and officials tried to pay it with the help of taxes that became a burden mostly for farmers and poor people. The situation provoked social unrest and events like Shays’s Rebellion of 1787, when group of people under the command of Daniel Shays tried to capture the federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts. These protests were put down by militia, but, according to rumors, they became a basis for the arguments about the new stronger central government. Famous Federalists like Washington or Alexander Hamilton discussed the Shays’s Rebellion as a sign country needs changes. Movement said about the necessity of the Articles’ revision, but “Shays’s Rebellion fueled the fires for constitutional change” (Callahan, 2003, p. 84).
Drafting of the Constitution
The Constitution was created in 1787, but the ratification was finished in several years. Officials needed to reach compromises in many questions. “The first great struggle arose on the question of representation in the National Congress” (Cope, 1891, p. 4). The articles gave each state one vote, but officials thought their representation in the Congress should reflect their size. Big states supported the idea that each country’s subject should base on their population when choosing the number of representatives (Virginia Plan). Small states argued that each state should have equal number of representatives (New Jersey plan). Their debates were finished by Roger Sherman – the delegate from Connecticut. He proposed “the alternative of a "bicameral," or two-chambered Congress, made up of a Senate and a House of Representatives” (Longley, 2015). According to this system, Congress should have two institutions: Senate and the House of representatives. Each state should send equal of members to the first one and one representative for each 30,000 residents of the state to the second. Most states already knew this “bicameral” system and agreed to use it. Sherman’s plan was called “he Connecticut Compromise of 1787, or the Great Compromise” (Longley, 2015).
Sherman’s proposal finished one debate, but started another. American states still used slavery and there was a controversial question how officials should treat the system and slaves as population. In southern states, especially in South Carolina, they were the large portion of population. “If slaves were property, then they should not form any part of the basis of representation”. In other words, slavery states would not have advantages in the House of Representatives. Northern states already started the emancipation of slavery and did not want to count slaves as a part of population. “to the majority of the members from the northern states, the idea of property in human beings was especially abhorrent, and also at variance with the plan already adopted by convention, that population not property should be represented” (Cope, 1891, p. 10). While Constitution did not support the slavery, it could not fully prohibit it, because this decision could destroy the fragile union between North and South. Furthermore, some historians mentioned Finding Fathers were not against the slavery as a system. That is why officials reached another great compromise about the slave-trade. “The southern states, having succeeded in gaining the representation of a majority of their slaves, next demanded that the privilege of importing slaves should not be restricted” (Cope, 1891, p. 11). Slavery states did not want to enter the union until officials would agree with their ability to import slaves from Africa or other countries. The compromise appeared in the decision that slave-trade would be prohibited after the year 1808. States that would join the Union after that date should fully abandon it. Southern states could partially count slaves when they determine the amount of members for the House of Representatives. They also got delay for almost 20 years. Northern states “gained great advantages in the fact that laws concerning navigation and trade were made as easy of passage as is legislation of the most trivial character” (Cope, 1891, p. 13).
Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists
Constitution’s drafting promoted the development of two parties: Federalists and Anti-Federalists. First group supported the idea of stronger national government and ratification of the Constitution. Anti-Federalists had the opposite point of view. Opinion of each party was represented in the corresponding documents, like Federalists Papers. Federalists’ party was formed by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams was the only representative of it who became the American President. Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, James Monroe and Patrick Henry were the most famous persons of Anti-Federalists.
Federalists thought states’ desire for independence had negative effect on the country. Alexander Hamilton said in Papers: “We have neither troops, not treasury, nor government Our ambassadors abroad are the mere pageants of the mimic sovereignty This is the melancholy situation to which we have been brought by those very maxims of councils which would now deter us from adopting the proposed constitution” (Lewis, 1961, p. 276-277). It shows Federalists believed country is in the desperate situation and needs stronger central government to improve it.
Anti-Federalists argued for states’ independence. For example, they thought “several States [should] have power to regulate the elections to senators and representatives, without being controlled either directly or indirectly by any interference on the part of the Congress” (Lewis, 1961, p. 130). Anti-Federalists wanted to keep judicial, executive and legislative powers separated. Their desire to save the states’ independence reflected in the Bill of Rights – the set of first ten amendments of the Constitution. In the Federalists Papers Hamilton mentioned that the Bill could be not only unnecessary, but dangerous. He believed that “the federal government had no power whatsoever in the area of civil liberties and that to enumerate certain rights would imply that the newly created government had powers that it was not intended it should possess” (Applegate, 1972, p. 47).Anti-Federalists believed thought the Bill of Rights would save states sovereignty. Massachusetts and other their states did not want to ratify the Constitution until it was not included. Amendments were proposed by John Hancock – the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The Bill of Rights helped to create an effective balance between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The document gave more powers to the central government and reserved some rights for states. For example, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (“The Bill of Rights”, 1791).
Applegate, R. (1972). Bill of Rights. Montana Constitutional Convention. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/billofrights00applrich#page/n3/mode/1up
Callahan, K. P. (2003). The Articles of Confederation: a Primary Source Investigation into the Document that Preceded the U. S. Constitution. New-York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/articlesofconfed00call#page/n7/mode/2up
Cope, W. P. (1891). The Three Great Compromises of the Constitution. University of Wooster. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/threegreatcompr00copegoog#page/n7/mode/1up
Lewis, J. D. (Ed.). (1961). Anti-Federalists versus Federalists: Selected Documents. San Francisco, California: Chandler Publishing Company. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/antifederalistsv00lewirich#page/n4/mode/1up
Longley, R. (2015). The Great Compromise of 1787. Retrieved from http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/uscongress/a/greatcomp.htm
“The Bill of Rights”. (1791). Retrieved from http://billofrights.org/