HISTORY 101

ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION

 

“The Articles of Confederation was the first written constitution of the United States and was ratified on March 1, 1781. Under these articles, the states remained sovereign and independent.  Due to opposition from the southern states, the central government still lacked the ability to levy taxes and regulate commerce, issues that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

 

Congress was given considerable powers: it was given jurisdiction over foreign relations with the authority to make treaties and alliances; it could make war and peace, maintain an army and navy, coin money, establish a postal service, and manage Indian affairs; it could establish admiralty courts; and it would serve as the last resort on appeal of disputes between the states. Decisions on certain specified matters–making war, entering treaties, regulating coinage, for example–required the assent of nine states in Congress, and all others required a majority.

 

A draft of the Articles of Confederation required the states to pay taxes to Congress in proportion to the number of their inhabitants, black and white. With large numbers of slaves, the southern states successfully opposed this requirement and in the midst of the American Revolution, Congress abandoned the issue of levying taxes.

 

The articles described the states as “a firm league of friendship” “for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.” This league would have a unicameral congress as the central institution of government; as in the past, each state had one vote, and delegates were elected by state legislatures. No state was to impose restrictions on the trade or the movement of citizens of another state. Each state was required to extend “full faith and credit” to the judicial proceedings of the others. And the free inhabitants of each state were to enjoy the “privileges and immunities of free citizens” of the others. Movement across state lines was not to be restricted.”

 

To amend the Articles the legislatures of all thirteen states would have to agree. [1]

 

THE 1787 CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION

 

“Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government was weak and states operated like independent countries. At the 1787 convention, delegates devised a plan for a stronger federal government.

 

The Constitution of the United States established America’s national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens.

 

The Bill of Rights are 10 amendments guaranteeing basic individual protections, such as freedom of speech and religion, that became part of the Constitution in 1791. To date, there are 27 constitutional amendments.”

 

The Call for a Constitutional Convention

 

“In 1786, Alexander Hamilton, a lawyer and politician from New York, called for a constitutional convention to discuss the need for a stronger central government in order to remain stable. Congress endorsed the idea in February 1787 and invited all 13 states to send delegates to a meeting in Philadelphia.”

 

The Constitutional Convention

 

“On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia. There were 55 delegates in attendance, representing all 13 states except Rhode Island, which refused to send representatives because it did not want a powerful central government interfering in its economic business. George Washington was selected as president of the convention by unanimous vote.”

 

The Delegates

 

“The delegates (who also became known as the “framers” of the Constitution) were a well-educated group that included merchants, farmers, bankers and lawyers. In terms of religious affiliation, most were Protestants.

 

Convention sessions were held in secret to avoid outside pressures. However, James Madison kept a detailed account of what transpired.”

 

Instead of amending the Articles of Confederation, it was replaced with an entirely new Constitution. It was difficult to control the convention.

 

“The delegates had been tasked by Congress with amending the Articles of Confederation; however, they soon began deliberating proposals for an entirely new form of government. After intensive debate, which continued throughout the summer of 1787 and at times threatened to derail the proceedings, they developed a plan that established three branches of national government–executive, legislative and judicial. A system of checks and balances was put into place so that no single branch would have too much authority. The specific powers and responsibilities of each branch were also laid out.

 

Among the more contentious issues was the question of state representation in the national legislature. Delegates from larger states wanted population to determine how many representatives a state could send to Congress, while small states called for equal representation. The issue was resolved by the Connecticut Compromise, which proposed a bicameral legislature with proportional representation of the states in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation in the upper house (Senate).

 

Another controversial topic was slavery. Although some northern states had already started to outlaw the practice, they went along with the southern states’ insistence that slavery was an issue for individual states to decide and should be kept out of the Constitution. Many northern delegates believed that without agreeing to this, the South wouldn’t join the Union. For the purposes of taxation and determining how many representatives a state could send to Congress, it was decided that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person. Additionally, it was agreed that Congress wouldn’t be allowed to prohibit the slave trade before 1808, and states were required to return fugitive slaves to their owners.”

 

Ratifying the Constitution

 

Three states refused to ratify the new Constitution and the number of states required was consequently reduced from 13 to 9.

 

“By September 1787, the convention’s five-member Committee of Style (Hamilton, Madison, William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, Gouverneur Morris of New York, Rufus King of Massachusetts) had drafted the final text of the Constitution. On September 17, George Washington was the first to sign the document. Of the 55 delegates, a total of 39 signed; some had already left Philadelphia, and three refused to approve the document. In order for the Constitution to become law, it then had to be ratified by nine of the 13 states.

 

James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, with assistance from John Jay, wrote a series of essays to persuade people to ratify the Constitution. The 85 essays, known collectively as “The Federalist” (or “The Federalist Papers”), detailed how the new government would work, and were published under the pseudonym Publius (Latin for “public”) in newspapers across the states starting in the fall of 1787. (People who supported the Constitution became known as Federalists, while those opposed it because they thought it gave too much power to the national government were called Anti-Federalists.)

 

Beginning on December 7, 1787, five states quickly ratified the new Constitution. However, other states opposed the document, as it failed to reserve undelegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion and the press. In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which states in opposition  would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified. It was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789. George Washington was inaugurated as America’s first president on April 30, 1789. On February 2, 1790, the U.S. Supreme Court held its first session, marking the date when the government was fully operative.

 

Rhode Island, the last holdout of the original 13 states, finally ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790.”

 

THE BILL OF RIGHTS

 

In 1789, Madison, then a member of the newly established U.S. House of Representatives, introduced 19 amendments to the Constitution. On September 25, 1789, Congress adopted 12 of the amendments and sent them to the states for ratification. Ten of these amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were ratified and became part of the Constitution on December 10, 1791. The Bill of Rights guarantees individuals certain basic protections as citizens, including freedom of speech, religion and the press; the right to bear and keep arms; the right to peaceably assemble; protection from unreasonable search and seizure; and the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. For his contributions to the drafting of the Constitution, as well as its ratification, Madison became known as “Father of the Constitution.”

 

To date, there have been thousands of proposed amendments to the Constitution. However, only 17 amendments have been ratified in addition to the Bill of Rights because the process isn’t easy–after a proposed amendment makes it through Congress, it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. The most recent amendment to the Constitution, Article XXVII, which deals with congressional pay raises, was proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1992.

 

THE CONSTITUTION TODAY

 

In the more than 200 years since the Constitution was created, America has stretched across an entire continent and its population and economy have expanded more than the document’s framers likely ever could have envisioned. Through all the changes, the Constitution has endured and adapted.

 

The framers knew it wasn’t a perfect document. However, as Benjamin Franklin said on the closing day of the convention in 1787: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such, because I think a central government is necessary for us… I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution.”Today, the original Constitution is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.” [2]

 

Article V

 

There are two methods of amending the Constitution

 

  1. Congressional method:

 

Congress approves an amendment that is passed with a vote of 2/3 in both the House and the Senate and it is sent either to state legislatures or less commonly to a special state convention for ratification. Either way ¾ of the states must vote to ratify the amendment.

  2.  States method:

 

2/3 of states apply to Congress to call a convention having passed their amendments with a vote of 2/3 in both the lower and upper chambers. Once Congress has received applications for a Constitutional Convention, they are obligated by law to call one. Proposed amendments are sent either to state legislatures or less commonly to a special states convention for ratification. Either way ¾ of the states must vote to ratify the amendment.

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