By 1783, the American War of Independence had ended with the Treaty of Paris. The fledgling nation of America had emerged victorious, overcoming the oppressive might of the British Empire. However, independence was thrust on the new nation as equally as it had been won. For whilst they had the ability to govern themselves, and without interference, it left them the entirely precarious position of having to govern the country for themselves. Quite simply, how were they going to do it? To make matters more complicated, they faced various economic and political problems. America’s place in international politics was very much indebted to French protection and guarantee, and the British were deliberately engaging in trading policies that provided them a monopoly over America. To top it all, Congress was practically useless and each state effectively went its own way. The US was in debt with no clear or discernible way of paying them off.
Despite obtaining its freedom and independence, America was therefore faced with three major obstacles to its progress as a nation. How was America going to solve its financial debt? How was America going to triumph over British merchants? How was America going to get out from under the political shadow of France and Great Britain? These three problems combined together to pose the following question: how was America going to devise a permanent framework for the government of the American nation? Things had gotten to the point that some in Massachusetts even attempted rebellion, although were dispersed by state militia. The time had come to amend the Articles of Confederation. The solution was that the US needed a strong national federal government, but the problem lay in decided how it should be run. Furthermore, they also had the anti-federalists to contend with, who were suspicious and distrustful of a national federal government.
It was decided that the states needed to meet together in convention to discuss America’s future, however, the states were reluctant to give-up their autonomy and quasi-independence, with the smaller states in particular quite nervous about their future. However, headway was made when James Madison arranged a conference between Virginia and Maryland to settle problems regarding the joint navigation of the Potomac River. The issue wasn’t settled, but it began to cement the idea of conference between the states. Virginia then tried arranging a conference in Maryland to discuss the trade of the United States, but only five delegates turned up. Yet this turned out for the better, as they concluded that the trade problems could only be solved once the Articles of Confederation were re-drafted, and a conference, this time in Philadelphia, was arranged. When the delegates met, one thing was clear, and that was an emphasis on the American experience. What was produced must be fit for Americans, justified solely by American hopes and aspirations.
They were unanimously nationalists and republicans. The central driving principle behind the convention was a need for American unity and solidarity in the face of economic and political troubles. The problem with the Articles of Confederacy was that they represented states, rather than the whole nation. They agreed on a national government, comprised of two chambers: the Senate and House of Representatives. However, disagreements soon arose. The large states wanted direct elections for both houses with representation for both being based upon population, whereas the smaller states wanted equal representation. Eventually, a compromise solution was reached with representatives being chosen by population, and two senators per state were chosen by state government, thus benefitting both large and small states. Another quarrel broke out over trade and slavery, but this too was resolved with compromise. On the 15th of September 1787, the delegates signed the constitution, leaving the arduous task of ratification ahead of them.
In the drive for ratification, two separate parties arose, one in support of the new constitution, the federalists, and one party against it, the anti-federalists. John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison wrote a series of essay published under the pseudonym ‘Publius’ that became known as the Federalist Papers, and circulated these to encourage people to ratify the constitution. However, the anti-federalists published their own set of anti-federalist papers. The chief issue of concern was that the anti-federalists feared that the new government would become a tyrannical one. They argued that a lack of bill of rights could lead to all sorts of abuses, and demolish the basis for individual liberty and freedom. Arguing against the bill of rights, however, in the federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton feared that such a bill would leave unmentioned rights unprotected. However, the states began to ratify one by one, and Madison promised that a bill of rights would be passed as a constitutional amendment when the new government met. This was apparently enough, as Virginia voted to ratify, and the new constitution was accepted.
With the new power of direct taxation, combined with a well-organised executive branch of the government, the United States could now raise a standing army, and even a navy. This meant that, soon, America would no longer be subservient to France and Spain, and would even be able to directly challenge Spain for control of the American West. The popular representation allowed for in the constitution meant that authorities would be subjected to elections. The politicians represented the people, and had the power to protect the people. The constitution also allowed for increased prosperity and pursuit of happiness. In short, even the anti-federalists were happy. In the history of the formation and ratification of this constitution then, we see a number of core underlying principles that were fundamental to the entire enterprise. The constitution was first and foremost a nationalistic document, something which was initially alarming to some, especially the anti-federalists. In the face of its economic and political problems, America needed unity, and it needed a strong national government. More than that, it was inherently a democratic and republican document. The Americans recognised all too well the fallen nature of man, and so came up with a system of government with checks and measures, and separation of powers to prevent tyrannical abuses of power.
Lastly, the constitution was founded on the notion of individual freedom and liberty. The chief concern of the anti-federalists was a lack of bill of rights, which they feared could lead to abuses of citizens’ rights. The bill of rights was eventually passed in later, after ratification, as an amendment, and served to outline a core set of human rights protected by law. Although one issue that remained a sticky subject was slavery, and was not fully resolved during the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. This issue would come back later to form the backdrop for the American Civil War, yet for now, this issue was put to one side. It would not be until 1806 that the Atlantic Slave Trade was halted, yet this does not change the fact that liberty and freedom were key values to the men involved in drafting the constitution, and as such became incorporated into it.
Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA, 2nd edition, (1999)
John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers
Patrick Henry, George Clinton, Robert Yates, et al., The Anti-Federalist Papers
The US Constitution