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A New System of Government
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Jefferson vs. Hamilton Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

Page 1234

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A New Constitution

Gradually the constitutions separated and balanced the branches of government. And constitutions themselves began to look different. The earliest, Virginia's and Pennsylvania's, for example, just listed their many provisions, one after another, in a continuous numbered sequence.

But the Massachusetts constitution, which John Adams drafted, was divided into articles. The first was on the legislature, the second on the executive, the third on the judiciary. Sound familiar? You might say it's just like the federal Constitution, except that the Massachusetts constitution came first.

The states also found a way of making constitutions different, and more fundamental, than ordinary laws. Elected legislatures adopted the earliest constitutions, and then felt free to change or ignore them whenever they liked. How could the Americans create constitutions that even legislatures had to obey?

Massachusetts again came up with the answer, and, interestingly enough, it didn't come from men like Adams so much as ordinary people in rural towns like Concord or Pittsfield. There the constitution was written not by the legislature but by something new, a specially elected constitutional convention. Then the convention sent its draft back to the people for ratification. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780 was therefore a direct act of legislation by the sovereign people.

Its text made that clear. "We... the people of Massachusetts," it said, "... do agree upon, ordain and establish, the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the CONSTITUTION of the COMMONWEALTH of MASSACHUSETTS." Again, does that sound familiar? The federal constitution of course also begins, "We the people...."

The Constitution of 1787 did not, however, emerge automatically from state precedents. A nation that had just spilled its blood breaking away from one central government was not ready to go out and establish another strong central government five minutes later. First it adopted Articles of Confederation, which were a clear step forward when Congress first sent them to the states for adoption. They formally bound the states together in a "perpetual union," and made a good stab at dividing responsibilities between the states and Congress.


A Constitutional Convention

The Articles of Confederation, however, put all power in one elected assembly. The Articles did not allow Congress to raise taxes or lay duties on trade. That meant it couldn't retaliate when other countries closed their markets to American shippers. It couldn't stop states from violating the rights of creditors, nor could it help Massachusetts in 1786, when that state's hard-money policies caused the debtor uprising known as Shays' Rebellion.

And meanwhile Britain, which had never left its posts in the northwest, was trying to make Vermont part of Canada. There was, in short, good reason to think the country was falling apart. This was very upsetting to men like Washington, who'd spent eight hard years fighting for the United States; his old military adjutant, New York's Alexander Hamilton; or James Madison, a short, physically unimpressive Virginian who was becoming perhaps the nation's greatest expert on constitutional design.

The delegates who assembled at Philadelphia in May 1787 saw their job as nothing less than saving the republic, and so saving the American Revolution from imminent failure. So Congress took up a plan submitted by the Virginia delegation and began creating a new federal government from scratch. The delegates agreed on many things. On some other issues they disagreed violently.

The convention almost broke up over representation. Finally a compromise solved the impasse. The convention made so many compromises, in fact, that few delegates were entirely happy with the finished Constitution. Even Madison, who had helped design the original Virginia plan, confessed that he thought the Constitution had several fatal flaws. But, like most other delegates, he took the closing advice of Benjamin Franklin that they "doubt a little" of their infallibility, and work "heartily and unanimously" for the Constitution's ratification.

The outcome was no sure thing: as soon as the people got a look at the proposed Constitution, the critics came out loud and strong. Powerful men like Patrick Henry in Virginia insisted that that the Constitution would create a "consolidated government," destroying the states, and that it included no real checks on its own power. Some, like Richard Henry Lee, said the Constitution recreated everything the colonists had rejected in 1776--a strong central government with the power to tax. Worse yet, the Constitution had no bill of rights.

[Picture of Constitutional debate]

Nine of the thirteen states had to ratify before the Constitution went into effect. But when the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified on June 21, 1788, Virginia and New York were still undecided. The debates in Virginia were long and passionate, with Patrick Henry taking the floor time and again, driving some of the younger delegates like Madison to distraction with his long, rambling, emotional speeches. In late June, Virginia ratified the Constitution by a close vote, as did New York a month later.

Both states, and some others, proposed lists of amendments that should be adopted to "fix" the flawed new Constitution. How long could a constitution that provoked such strong opposition hope to last? Virginia's example wasn't encouraging. It declared that the powers granted to the new government by the people of Virginia "may be resumed by them whenever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression." That amounted to a threat of disunion.

On the other hand, George Washington agreed to serve as first President. He had presided over the Philadelphia convention, and threw his support behind the Constitution. No American commanded the trust and respect of his countrymen like Washington. They knew he could have been America's Caesar.

[Picture of George Washington]

There were some among the nation's military officers who, confronted with a fumbling government under the Articles of Confederation at the end of the war, would have made Washington king. He rejected any suggestion of that sort, resigned his command, and went home to his plantation, Mount Vernon. His willingness to serve the country once again gave the new government a good chance of succeeding.



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