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Inventing the United States Constitution

In wake of Shays Rebellion, a Federal Constitutional Convention assembled to revise the Articles of Confederation. Delegates were looking forward to ending the economic depression and social uncertainty. Some wanted a stronger central government that could assure social tranquility.

There was talk of the revolution having loosened the bonds of government, of a rise of disobedience among children and apprentices and in schools and colleges. There were complaints that Indians slighted their guardians and that slaves were growing more insolent toward their masters.

George Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, and he was unanimously elected the convention's presiding officer, which lent prestige to the proceedings. For four months the delegates debated, and debate spread across the states. Out of the arguing and compromising, on September 17, 1787, came the final draft of a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation.

The new Constitution gave the federal government the power to regulate domestic and foreign trade, the right to levy taxes and the means of enforcing federal laws. It gave the states power to make their own laws. It created a president as the nation's chief executive. The United States was to be a republic (no king) similar to the Netherlands and Switzerland – what had been thought suitable only for small nations.

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention drew from John Locke's Two Treatises of Government by dividing government into legislative, judicial, and executive branches, each with distinct powers to balance those of the other two branches. The intent was to keep any one person from acquiring too much power –  an idea as old as the republic of ancient Rome. And in addition to John Locke's idea, it was an idea that had been proposed by Baron Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755) of the French Enlightenment.

With the fear of rebellion much on the minds of the framers of the Constitution, the Constitution proposed that state militias would be placed under the control of the federal government, that the federal government could use military force against recalcitrant states or insurgencies and that the federal government would have the power to suspend habeas corpus (in other words to lock people up without giving reason).

The new Constitution allowed the federal government to take a variety of actions without waiting for approval from the states. It took from the states the power to make wars or treaties. Only the federal government could dispose of territories on the frontier, and the federal judiciary was to be superior to state judiciary.

The proposed Constitution took from the states and gave to the federal government powers regarding the economy, distribution of wealth and fiscal and monetary measures. States could no longer make laws that benefited debtors at the expense of creditors. The states could no longer coin money, make bills of credit or impair contract obligations. The proposed Constitution gave the federal government the power to protect property essential to a commercial economy (contracts, bonds, and credit) and to promote the expansion and development of market relations.

Most framers of the Constitution wanted to give the vote only to those who owned property – as was tradition in Britain. They feared that poorer folk getting involved in politics would disturb public tranquility. People with property were thought sufficiently cautious and conservative and people without property to have nothing to lose and inclined toward rash actions and foolish experiments. It was, however, left to the states to decide how much property would qualify one for participation in politics.

Election of the president was to be by an electoral college. Each state was to appoint electors equal in number to the number of representatives that it had in U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Senators were to be selected by state legislatures. Members of the House of Representatives were to be elected as deemed by each state's property qualifications, but the House of Representatives was to have less power than the Senate and the Presidency. This was modeled after Britain's system, where the king and the House of Lords (aristocrats or large property owners) could suppress projects of the House of Commons.

White males without property, women and slaves would not be voting. The equality spoken of in the Declaration of Independence and still in the minds of the framers of the U.S. Constitution was not a belief that all men were equal politically. And some of them believed that men were superior in the eyes of God to women and whites superior in the eyes of God to blacks.

Ratification of the Constitution

The debate whether to ratify the Constitution appeared in newspapers, pamphlets and at public meetings across the United States. Supporters of ratification were called federalists. Anti-federalists argued that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had exceeded the authority that had been placed in them by the Articles of Confederation. They complained that these delegates were from the more wealthy families and had created a document that served the special interests of the wealthy. Some anti-federalists argued that the proposed Constitution gave too much power to the federal government at the expense of the states. Some claimed that a central government could not manage a republic as large as the United States. And anti-federalists complained that the Constitution contained no Bill of Rights.

Federalists fought back. They were convinced that rejection of the Constitution would result in anarchy. They complained that leaders at the state level were too narrow in their focus and too influenced by common folk. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote 85 essays for New York newspapers and later collected them into two volumes titled The Federalist.

The Federalists were winning. Only nine states were needed to ratify the Constitution, and in Virginia, Massachusetts and New York opinion was divided almost equally. The ninth state to ratify was New Hampshire on June 21, 1788. The tenth state to ratify was Virginia on June 25, with 89 state legislators voting in favor and 79 against and the state recommending an inclusion of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. On June 26, New York became the eleventh state to ratify, with 30 voting in favor and 27 against. The holdouts were North Carolina and Rhode Island.

State delegates met in the nation's capital, New York City. A quorum in both houses of Congress was accomplished, and on April 6, 1789 their votes for the presidency were counted – a unanimous 69 votes for George Washington. In his inaugural address in New York City in April, Washington hinted that Congress should add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Some describe his motive as wanting to appease the anti-federalists.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.