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US Political History

Asked by nicko427 | Aug 27, 2008 | A Level > Politics > Homework
nicko427 asks:

Hey, I need to know where I can find information or information about US political systems and history before the fomration of the consitituion in 1787 thanks

etutor answers:

I am not sure how far back you need to go, and in what detail. I am assuming you are a Politics student who is just beginning US government? As a result, I have started with the earlier Articles of Confederation, which were a failure, but which led to the Philadelphia Convention and the drafting of the US Constitution itself. If you need a longer time span, references to books or greater detail do come back to me.

Shortly after Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the delegates at the Second Continental Congress agreed that a new government was necessary to govern the now-independent colonies. After much debate, they drafted and adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777. Although the Articles were not officially ratified until 1781 (Maryland refused to ratify because of a territorial dispute), they served as the de facto constitution until that time. Under the authority of the Articles, the states created a national Congress comprised of annually elected delegates from all thirteen states. Each state had one vote in Congress, and, in most cases, decisions were made based on majority rule.

The national Congress’s powers over the states were specific and definite: it had the sole power to negotiate treaties, declare war, and make peace. It also reserved the right to maintain an army and navy and regulated interaction with Native Americans in the West. The delegates also granted Congress the power to resolve interstate disputes, grant loans, print money, and operate a national postal system. Eventually, Congress was also authorized to govern western territories until they achieved statehood. All powers not granted to Congress were reserved for state governments. Congress had no power to levy taxes, for example. It could only request that the individual states raise revenue to cover their share of national expenses. Furthermore, any amendments made to the Articles required unanimous agreement from the states.

The Articles made the national Congress weak on purpose. Having just won independence from Britain, many Americans feared that creating a strong federal government with too much authority over the states would only replace King George III with another tyrant. Instead, they envisioned Congress to be a supervisory body that would tie the states loosely for the common good. The early United States was thus a confederation of nearly independent states, not the solid federation with a strong government that it is today. The states were in many ways like individual countries bound together to keep Britain at bay. Americans were especially afraid of federal taxes. Remembering the “No taxation without representation!” cry from the Colonial era, they stipulated that only the individual states could levy taxes. This system proved to be a completely ineffective way of bankrolling a federal government, and in fact, many of the states refused to pay their fair share. Most years, in fact, the Congress received less than a third of what it asked for from the states. Moreover, Congress had been granted no rights to control interstate commerce. States were thus given a free hand to draft conflicting and confusing laws that made cross-border trade difficult. The new Congress immediately began printing paper currency to pay for the Revolutionary War. The money became the standard U.S. currency during the war, but when hard times hit and inflation skyrocketed, these Continental dollars became worthless. Many Americans, especially soldiers, small business owners, and farmers, were hit hard. Congress requested that the states increase taxes to help pay for a new national currency, but most states refused and instead printed their own paper money. This, too, succumbed to inflation, and by the end of the war, Americans had fistfuls of worthless money.

Congress had much more success dealing with U.S. territories west of the Appalachians. Prior to the Revolutionary War, many of the original thirteen colonial legislatures made territorial claims to these lands. Interstate disputes over these western areas were common and heated: Maryland (which had no western claims) even refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation until the other states had ceded their claims. The conflict was resolved in 1781 when Virginia ceded all western lands to Congress’s control so that all Americans could benefit from the land. Other states followed suit, and within a few years the national government was responsible for governing these territories. Congress then passed the Land Ordinance of 1785 to establish order in the West. The ordinance stipulated that new western towns were to be thirty-six miles square, with one square mile set aside for schools. All public lands were to be auctioned off to the highest bidders, providing all Americans the chance to migrate and settle in the West. Later, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to establish a process for admitting these territories to the Union as states. Each territory was to be governed by Congress until it contained 5,000 free, white males. Then settlers could vote whether to become a permanent state on equal footing as all the other states in the Union. The Northwest Ordinance also abolished slavery in the territories and granted freedom of religion and the right to trial by jury. Although the ordinance promised decent treatment to Native Americans, it did not, in reality, extend these rights to them. In fact, the United States obtained much of this land by extortion and violence against Native Americans.

These land ordinances were the only major successes that Congress had under the Articles. The Northwest Ordinance proved incredibly successful and influential because it allowed the small country to grow without devolving into an undemocratic empire. Unlike European powers that exploited their territories as colonies to be mined, Congress declared that all American territories could become fully equal states with the same status and privileges as the original founding states. In later years many Americans would interpret this to mean that it was their duty to expand democracy as far west as they could. The Northwest Ordinance also sparked debate about the future of slavery in the West. A growing number of Americans during these years began to question the moral implications of slavery in a land where “all men were created equal.” The ban on slavery in the Northwest Territories would prove to be the first of many restraints on the slaveholding South in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Despite these successes in the West, many Americans were dissatisfied with life under the Articles of Confederation. Economic depression hit soon after the American Revolution ended, as many people, especially farmers, could not pay off their debts with the worthless state and Continental dollars. Most state legislatures refused to assist these impoverished farmers. Increasingly angry, some of these farmers grabbed their muskets and marched their state capitals to redress grievances. The most notorious of these miniature revolts was Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, named after its Revolutionary War hero leader, Daniel Shays. Although officials in Boston quickly mustered a militia and quashed the rebellion, legislators nationwide agreed that change to the government was necessary if the United States were to survive.
Despite its failures, the Articles of Confederation and the national Congress it created were landmarks in world history. The Articles were one of the first written constitutions in the world in which rights, duties, and powers of government and the people were expressly delineated for everyone to read. Even though Congress, too, proved to be a failure, it was the first attempt in history to create a republican, representative government in a large country. Of course, the United States was not a true democracy at this time—every state still had voting restrictions that included women, blacks, Native Americans, and men without property—but the Articles were a bold first step.

To address the problems with the Articles of Confederation, delegates from five states met at the Annapolis Convention in Maryland in 1786. However, they could not agree on how these issues should be resolved. Finally, a new convention was proposed for the following year with the express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. In 1787, delegates from twelve of the thirteen states (minus Rhode Island) met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Most of the attendees were not die-hard revolutionaries (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry were all absent). Nevertheless, most did have experience writing their own state constitutions. Though all fifty-five delegates involved in the proceedings were wealthy property owners, most were aware that they were serving a republic that comprised all social classes. George Washington was unanimously chosen as the chairman of the convention.

It quickly became clear to the Philadelphia delegates that the Articles should be scrapped and replaced with an entirely new constitution to create a stronger national government. Though this about-face was a violation of Congress’s mandate to revise the Articles only, most delegates believed there was no other way to restore order in the Union. The delegates began drafting a new Constitution to create a republican government. They decided on a government consisting of three branches: legislative (Congress), executive (the President), and judicial (headed by the Supreme Court). Delegates believed this separation of powers into three different branches would ensure that the United States would not become another monarchy.

The structure of the new legislative branch was the subject of a heated debate, as delegates from Virginia and New Jersey both submitted proposals. The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which the number of representatives each state had would depend on the state’s population. The larger, more populous states supported this proposal because it would give them more power. Hence, the Virginia plan came to be known as the “large state plan.” The New Jersey Plan proposed a unicameral (one-house) legislature in which all states had the same number of representatives regardless of population. This “small state plan” was, not surprisingly, the favorite of smaller states, which stood to gain power from it. Eventually, the delegates settled on what came to be called the Great Compromise: a new Congress with two houses—an upper Senate, in which each state would be represented by two senators, and a lower House of Representatives, in which the number of delegates would be apportioned based on state population. Senators would be appointed by state legislatures every six years; representatives in the House would be elected directly by the people every two years. Also, in the three-fifths clause, delegates agreed that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining the population (and thus the number of representatives in the House) of each state.

The delegates had an easier time outlining presidential powers. Although some delegates had extreme opinions—Alexander Hamilton proposed a constitutional monarchy headed by an American king—most agreed that a new executive or president was needed to give the country the strong leadership that it had lacked under the Articles. Article II of the Constitution thus outlined the powers of a new executive outside the control of Congress. The president would be elected via the Electoral College for a term of four years, would be commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, could appoint judges, and could veto legislation passed by Congress. The judiciary branch of the new government would be headed by a Supreme Court, which would be headed by a chief justice. The structure of the rest of the federal court system, however, was not formalized until the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Many delegates felt that separation of powers was not enough to prevent one branch of government from dominating, so they also created a system of checks and balances to balance power even further. Under this system, each branch of government had the ability to check the powers of the others. The president, for example, was given the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and foreign ambassadors—but only with the approval of the Senate. On the other hand, the president was granted the right to veto all Congressional legislation. Congress was given its own veto power over the president—a two-thirds majority vote could override any presidential veto. Congress also was charged with the responsibility to confirm presidential appointees—but also the power to block them. And finally, Congress had the ability to impeach and remove the president for treason, bribery, and other “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Supreme Court awarded itself (in 1807) the sweeping power of judicial review—the authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional and thereby strike it down.

The delegates also feared pure democracy and considered it to be the placement of the government directly in the hands of the “rabble.” Many elements of the Constitution were thus engineered to ensure that only the “best men” would run the country. Under the original Constitution, senators were to be appointed by state legislatures or governors, not elected by the people—in fact, this rule did not change until the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) established direct elections for senators. Although representatives in the House were elected directly by the people, their terms were set at only two years, compared to senators’ six years. In addition, even though new legislation could be introduced only in the House, the Senate had to approve and ratify any bills before they could become law. These checks on pure democracy were not confined to the legislative branch. The Electoral College was implemented to ensure that the uneducated masses didn’t elect someone “unfit” for the presidency. Life terms for Supreme Court justices were also instituted as a safeguard against mob rule.

Another point of contention arose over whether or how to count slaves in the U.S. population. Delegates from southern and mid-Atlantic slaveholding states wanted each slave to count as one full person in the census in order to increase their number of representatives in the House. Northern states, in which slaves made up a much lower percentage of the population, argued that slaves should not be counted at all. After a long debate, both sides agreed on a “three-fifths clause,” which stated that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. Delegates also agreed to permit international slave trading only for the next twenty years, until 1808. Nowhere in the original Constitution did the drafters use the word slave; instead, they used vague terms such as “other persons.” Some historians have argued that this evasion indicates that slavery was polarizing Americans even in the late 1700s, well before the Civil War in the 1860s.

I hope this is helpful.

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