Choose one of the following topics below.
- Why did the United States change its government from the Articles of Confederation in 1783 to the Constitutional government in 1789? Include a thesis and historical details to back up your thesis.
- Compare/Contrast the relationship between the American colonies and Native Americans on the frontier during the Revolution War to the relationship between the United States and the Native Americans from 1789-1799. Include a thesis and historical details to back up your thesis.
The Confederation Government
John Quincy Adams, a future president, called the years between 1783 and 1787 the “Critical Period” when American leaders developed sharp differences about economic policies, international relations, and the proper relationship of the states to the national government. Debates over those issues unexpect-edly gave birth to the nation’s first political parties and, to this day, continue to influence the American experiment in federalism (the sharing of power among national, state, and local governments).After the war, many Patriots who had feared government power and criti-cized British officials for abusing it now directed their attacks at the new state and national governments. At the same time, state legislatures desperate for funds to pay off their war debts sparked unrest and riots by raising taxes.The clashes between the working poor and state governments were a great disappointment to Washington, John Adams, and other Revolutionary lead-ers. For them and others disillusioned by the surge of “democratic” rebel-liousness, the Critical Period was a time of hopes frustrated, a story shaded by regret at the absence of national loyalty and international respect. The weak-nesses of the Articles of Confederation in dealing with the postwar turmoil led political leaders to design an entirely new national constitution and federal government.
A Loose Alliance of States The Articles of Confederation, formally approved in 1781, had created a loose alliance (confederation) of thirteen independent and often squabbling states that were united only in the-ory. In practice, each state government acted on its own. The first major pro-vision of the Articles insisted that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.”The weak national government under the Articles had only one component, a one- house legislature. There was no president, no executive branch, no national judiciary (court system). State legislatures, not voters, appointed the members of the Congress, in which each state, regardless of size or population, had one vote. This meant that Rhode Island, with 68,000 people, had the same power in the Confederation Congress as Virginia, with more than 747,000 inhabitants.
George Washington called the Confederation “a half- starved, limping gov-ernment.” It could neither regulate trade, nor create taxes to pay off the coun-try’s war debts. It could approve treaties but had no power to enforce their terms. It could call for raising an army but could not force men to serve.The Congress, in short, could not enforce its own laws, and its budget relied on “voluntary” contributions from the states. In 1782, for example, the Confederation asked the states to provide $8million for the national govern-ment; they sent $420,000. The lack of state support forced the Congress to print paper money, called Continentals, whose value plummeted to two cents on the dollar as more and more were printed, leading to the joking phrase, “Not worth a Continental.” Virtually no gold and silver coins remained in cir-culation; they had all gone abroad to purchase items for the war.It was hard to find people to serve in such a weak Congress, and people openly doubted the stability of the new republic. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The Union is still to me an Object of as much Anxiety as ever independence was.”
Robert Morris The closest thing to an executive leader of the Confeder-ation was Robert Morris, who as superintendent of finance in the final years of the war became the most influential figure in the government. Morris wanted to make both himself and the Confederation government more powerful. He envisioned a coherent program of taxation and debt management to make the national gov-ernment financially stable; “A public debt supported by public revenue will prove the strongest cement to keep our confederacy together,” he confided to a friend. The powerful financiers who had lent the new government funds to buy supplies and pay its bills, Morris believed, would give stronger support to a government committed to paying its debts. He therefore welcomed the chance to enlarge the national debt by issuing new government bonds that would help pay off wartime debts. With a sounder federal Treasury— one with the power to raise taxes— the bonds could be expected to rise in value, creating new cap-ital with which to finance banks and economic development.To anchor his plan, Morris in 1781 secured a congressional charter for the Bank of North America, which would hold government cash, lend money to the government, and issue currency. Though a national bank, it was in part privately owned and was expected to turn a profit for Morris and other share-holders, in addition to performing a crucial public service. Morris’s program, however, depended ultimately upon the government having a secure income, and it foundered on the requirement of unanimous state approval for amend-ments to the Articles of Confederation.
The Newburgh Conspiracy To carry their point, Morris and his nationalist friends in 1783 took a dangerous gamble. George Washington’s army, encamped at Newburgh, NewYork, on the Hudson River, had grown restless after the Battle of Yorktown. The soldiers’ pay was late as usual, and the officers feared that the land grants promised them by the government might never be honored once their service was no longer needed. A delegation of concerned officers traveled to Philadelphia, where they soon found themselves drawn into a scheme to align army officers and pub-lic creditors with nationalists in Congress and confront the states with the threat of a coup d’état unless they yielded more power. NewYork congress-man Alexander Hamilton sought to bring Washington, his old commander, into the plan.Washington sympathized with the basic purpose of Hamilton’s scheme, but he was also convinced that a military coup would be both dishonorable and dangerous. In March1783, when he learned that some of the plotting officers had planned an unauthorized meeting, he confronted them and insisted that any military mutiny violated the very purposes for which the war was being fought and directly challenged his own integrity. While agreeing that the officers had been poorly treated by the govern-ment, Washington expressed his “horror and detestation” of any effort to assume dictatorial powers. A military revolt would open “the flood- gates of civil discord” and “deluge our rising empire in blood.” When he finished, his officers adopted resolutions denouncing the “infamous propositions,” and the so- called Newburgh Conspiracy came to a sudden end
A struggling Confederation The Confederation, however, never did put its finances in order. The currency issued by the Continental Congress had become worthless. The national debt, domestic and foreign, grew from $11million to $28million as Congress paid off citizens’ and sol-diers’ claims. Yet in spite of its limitations, the Confederation Congress laid important foundations for the new national government. The Articles of Confederation were crucially important in supporting the political concept of republicanism (representative democracy and majority rule), which meant that America would be governed not by monarchs or aristocrats but “by the authority of the people,” whose elected representatives would make decisions on their behalf. The Congress also created the national government’s first executive depart-ments and formulated the basic principles of land distribution and territorial government that would guide America’s westward expansion.
Land Policy In ending the Revolutionary War, the Treaty of Paris dou-bled the size of the United States, extending the nation’s western boundary to the Mississippi River. Under the Articles of Confederation, land outside the boundaries of the thirteen original states became public domain, owned and administered by the national government.Between 1784 and 1787, the Confederation Congress created three major ordinances (policies) detailing how the lands in the West would be surveyed, sold, and developed. These ordinances rank among the Confederation’s great-est achievements, for they provided the framework for western settlement that would shape much of the nation’s development during the nineteenth century.Thomas Jefferson drafted the Land Ordinance Act of 1784, which urged states to drop their competing claims to Indian- held territory west of the Appalachian Mountains so that the vast, unmapped area could be divided into as many as fourteen self- governing territories of equal size. In the new terri-tories, all adult white males would be eligible to vote, hold office, and write constitutions for their territorial governments. When a territory’s population equaled that of the smallest existing state (Rhode Island), it would be eligible for statehood. In other words, the western territories would not be treated as American colonies but as future states governed by republican principles.
Jefferson assumed that individual pioneers should be allowed to settle the western territories. George Washington and others, however, predicted chaos if migration were unregulated. Clashes with Indians would generate constant warfare, and disputes over land claims and boundaries would foster incessant bickering. So before Jefferson’s plan could take effect, the Confederation Congress created the Land Ordinance of 1785. It called for organizing the Northwest Territory on America’s immediate western border (what would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) into townships of thirty- six square miles that would be surveyed, sold for less than a dollar an acre, and settled. Then the surveyors would keep moving westward, laying out more townships for settlement.Wherever Indian lands were purchased— or taken— they were surveyed and divided into six- mile- square townships laid out along a grid running east– west and north– south. Each township was in turn divided into thirty- six sections one mile square (640acres), with each section divided into four farms. The 640-acre sections of “public lands” were to be sold at auctions, the proceeds of which would go to the national Treasury.
The Northwest Ordinance Two years after passage of the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It set forth two key principles to better manage western expansion: the new western territories would not be treated as subordinate colonies as was the European tradition; they would eventually become coequal states, as Jefferson had originally proposed; and slavery would be banned from the region north of the Ohio River. (Slaves already living there would remain slaves.) The Northwest Ordinance also included a promise, which would be repeatedly broken, that Indian lands “shall never be taken from them without their consent.”
For a new territory to become a state, the Northwest Ordinance specified a three- stage process. First, Congress would appoint a territorial governor and other officials to create a legal code and administer justice. Second, when the population of adult males reached 5,000, they could elect a territorial legisla-ture. Third, when a territory’s population reached 60,000 “free inhabitants,” the adult white males could draft a constitution and apply to Congress for statehood.
Diplomacy After the Revolutionary War, relations with Great Britain and Spain remained tense because both nations retained trading posts, forts, and soldiers on American soil, and both encouraged Indians to resist Amer-ican efforts to settle on tribal lands. The British refused to remove troops sta-tioned south of the Canadian border in protest of the failure of Americans to pay their prewar debts. Another major irritant was the American seizure of Loyalist property during and after the war.With Spain, the chief issues pertained to disputes about the location of the southern boundary of the United States and the right for Americans to send boats or barges down the Mississippi River, which Spain then controlled. After the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Spain had acquired the Louisiana Terri-tory, which included the port of New Orleans, the Mississippi River, and all the area west to the Rocky Mountains. After the Revolution, Spain closed the Mississippi to American use, infuriating settlers in Kentucky and Tennessee. Spain had also regained ownership of Florida, which then included southern Alabama. Thereafter, the Spanish governor in Florida provided firearms to Creek Indians, who resisted American encroachment on their lands in south Georgia.
Trade and the Economy More troublesome than the behavior of the British and the Spanish was the fragile state of the American economy. Seven years of warfare had nearly bankrupted the new nation. At the same time, many who had served in the army had never been paid. Nor had civilians who had loaned money, supplies, crops, and livestock to the war effort been reimbursed.After the war, the British treated the United States as an enemy nation, insisting that all Americans who had been born in England were still bound by allegiance to King GeorgeIII.British warships began stopping and board-ing American ships in the Atlantic, kidnapping English- born American sailors and “impressing” them into service in the Royal Navy.The British also closed their profitable Caribbean island colonies to American commerce. New England shipowners and southern planters were especially hard- hit, as exports of tobacco, rice, rum, and other commodities remained far below what they had been before the war. After 1783, merchant ships were allowed to deliver American products to England and return to the United States with English goods. ButU.S.vessels could not carry British goods, a restriction the British navy did its best to enforce.To punish Britain for banning U.S. trade with the British West Indies, many state governments imposed special taxes (called tonnage fees) on British vessels arriving in American ports and levied tariffs (taxes) on British goods brought to the United States. The British responded by sending their ships to ports in states whose tariff rates were lower.By charging different tariffs on the same products, the states waged com-mercial war with each other. The result was economic chaos. By 1787, it was evident that the national government needed to regulate interstate trade and foreign relations.
Scarce Money Complex financial issues also hampered economic development during the Critical Period. There was no stable national cur-rency, and the nation had only three banks— in Philadelphia, NewYork City, and Boston. Farmers who had profited during the war now found themselves squeezed by lower crop prices and mounting debts and taxes. The widespread shortage of “hard money” (gold and silver coins) caused people to postpone paying their bills.By 1785, indebted citizens urged states to print new paper currency. Debtors believed that doing so would ease their plight by increasing the money supply (inflation). In 1785–1786, seven states began issuing their own paper money to help indebted farmers and to pay the cash bonuses promised to military veterans.
The Gathering Crisis
The economic difficulties weakening the Confederation were compounded by growing fears among wealthy “gentlemen” leaders (“natural aristocrats”) that the democratic energies unleashed by the Revolution were undermining the authority of the social and economic elite. Class distinctions were disappear-ing as many among the working poor and “middling classes” stopped defer-ring to their “betters.”The so- called better sort of people were appalled at the “leveling” behavior of the “antifederal peasants,” “little folks,” and “demagogues.” A Virginia aris-tocrat grumbled that the “spirit of independency” that inspired the Revolution was being “converted into equality.”The political culture was also changing. More men could vote and hold office as property- owning qualifications were reduced or eliminated in several states. The nation, said wealthy NewYorker John Jay, was headed toward “Evils and Calamities” because the masses were gaining power and often taking the laws into their own hands. At the same time, he declared the federal govern-ment “incompetent.” Achieving nationhood had become more challenging than gaining independence. The Confederation was less a government than an association of independent states.
No sooner was the war over than Americans with large debts again began to protest taxes. To pay their war debts, most state legislatures had sharply increased taxes. In fact, during the 1780s, most Americans paid three times as much in taxes as they had under British “tyranny.” Earlier, they had objected to taxation without representation; now, they objected to taxation with representation.In New Hampshire, in what was called the Exeter Riot, hard- pressed farmers surrounded the legislative building, demanding that the representa-tives print paper money to ease their plight. Similar appeals occurred in other states. The economic and political elites were horrified that the “new men” were endangering the real value of property by encouraging the printing of more money, for doing so would inflate the money supply and thereby reduce the purchasing power of currency.
Shay’s Rebellion Fears of a taxpayer “revolt from below” became all too real in western Massachusetts, when struggling farmers, many of them former Revolutionary soldiers, demanded that the state issue more paper money and give them additional time to pay “unjust” taxes owed on their land. They had seen too many of their neighbors’ grain, livestock, and farms seized by the state to cover taxes owed. Farmers also resented the new state constitu-tion because it raised the property qualifications for voting and holding elected office, thus stripping poorer men of political power.When the merchant- dominated Massachusetts legislature refused to pro-vide tax relief, three rural counties in the western part of the state erupted in a disorganized revolt in 1786. One rebel farmer, Plough Jogger, expressed the fears of many when he charged that the “great men are going to getall we have, and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor [tax] collectors, nor lawyers.”Armed groups of angry farmers, called Regulators, banded together to force judges and sheriffs to stop seiz-ing the cattle and farms of those who could not pay their taxes. “Close down the courts,” they shouted. A prominent Bostonian reported that Massachusetts was “in a state of Anarchy and Confu-sion bordering on Civil War.
The situation worsened when a ragtag “army” of unruly farmers that included thirty- nine- year- old Daniel Shays, a war veteran, marched on the federal arse-nal at Springfield in the winter of 1787. The state government responded by sending 4,400 militiamen who scattered the debtor army with a single cannon blast that left four farmers dead and many wounded. Shays fled to Vermont. Several rebels were arrested, and two were hanged. The rebels nevertheless earned a victory of sorts, as the state legislature eliminated some taxes and fees.News of Shays’s Rebellion sent shock waves across the nation. In Massa-chusetts, Abigail Adams, the wife of future president John Adams, dismissed Shays and his followers as “ignorant, restless desperadoes, without conscience or principles.” George Washington was equally concerned. America, he said, needed a “government by which our lives, liberty, and properties will be secured.” Unless an alternative could be found to the weak Confederation gov-ernment, “anarchy and confusion will inevitably ensue.”
Creating the Constitution
In the wake of Shays’s Rebellion, a collective shiver passed through what John Jay called “the better kind of people.” Many among the “rich and well- born” agreed with George Washington that the nation was “tottering.” The time had come to empower the national government to bring social order and eco-nomic stability. “ ” During the 1780s, newspapers warned that the nation’s situation had grown “critical and dangerous.” The states were behaving like thirteen ungovernable nations, pursuing their own trade reg-ulations and foreign policies. “Our present federal government,” said Henry Knox, a Boston bookseller and much- celebrated Revolutionary War general, “is a name, a shadow, without power, or effect.”Such concerns led political leaders to revise their assessment of the repub-lic. It was time, said James Madison, to create a new federal constitution that would repair the “vices of the political system” and “decide forever the fate of republican government.” Alexander Hamilton urged that a national gathering of delegates be given “full powers” to revise the Articles of Confederation. In 1787, the Confedera-tion Congress responded by calling for a special “federal” convention to gather in the East Room of Philadelphia’s State House (now known as Independence Hall) for the “purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Only Rhode Island refused to participate. That the delegates would be meeting in the same room where the Declaration of Independence had been debated and signed in 1776 gave the convention added significance.The delegates began work on May25, 1787, meeting five hours a day, six days a week. Although the states appointed fifty- five delegates, there were never that many in attendance. Some quit in disgust; others were distracted by other prior-ities. Yet after fifteen weeks of deliberations, thirty- nine delegates signed the new federal constitution on September17. Only three refused to sign.The durability of the Constitution reflects the thoughtful and talented men who created it. They were all white; their average age was forty- two, with the youngest being twenty- six. Most were members of the political and eco-nomic elite. Twenty- six were college graduates; two were college presidents, and thirty- four were lawyers. Others were planters, merchants, bankers, and clergymen. Twenty- five delegates owned slaves, including George Washington and James Madison. In fact, Washington arrived in Philadelphia with three of his slaves, one of whom, Billy Lee, stood behind his chair at every session, tending to his owner’s personal needs.Yet the “Founding Fathers” were also practical men of experience. Of the twenty- two who had fought in the Revolutionary War, five had been captured and imprisoned. Seven had been state governors, and eight had helped write their state constitutions. Most had been members of the Continental or Confederation Congresses, and eight had signed the Decla-ration of Independence.
Drafting the Constitution George Washington was unan-imously elected as the presiding officer at the Federal Convention (later renamed the Constitutional Convention). He participated little in the debates, however, for fear that people would take his opinions too seriously. The gov-ernor of Pennsylvania, eighty- one- year- old Benjamin Franklin, the oldest del-egate, was in such poor health that he had to be carried to the meetings in a special chair, borne aloft by four husky inmates from the Walnut Street jail. Like Washington, calm, dispassionate Franklin said little from the floor but provided a wealth of experience, patience, wit, and wisdom behind the scenes.Most active at the Convention was James Madison of Virginia, the ablest political theorist in the group. A thirty- six- year- old attorney who owned a huge tobacco plantation called Montpelier, not far from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Madison had arrived in Philadelphia with trunks of books about government and a head full of ideas about how best to strengthen the loose confederation of “independent and sov-ereign states.”
Barely five feet tall and weighing only 130pounds (a colleague said he was “no bigger than half a piece of soap”), Madison was too frail and sickly to serve in the Revolutionary army. Madison “speaks low, his person [body] is little and ordinary,” and he was “too timid in his politics,” remarked Fisher Ames of Massachusetts.Although shy and soft- spoken, Madison had an agile mind, a huge appetite for learn-ing, and a commitment to public service. He had served in the Continental Congress where he had become a full- blooded nationalist. Now he resolved to ensure the “supremacy of national authority.” The logic of his arguments— and his willingness to compromise— proved decisive in shaping the new constitution. “Every person seems to acknowledge his greatness,” said a Georgia delegate.Most delegates agreed with Madison that the republic needed a stronger national government, weaker state legislatures, and the power to restrain the “excessive” democratic impulses unleashed by the Revolution. “The evils we experience,” said Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, “flow from the excess of democracy.”Two interrelated assumptions guided the Constitutional Convention: that the national government must have direct authority over the citizenry rather than governing through the state governments, and that the national government must derive its legitimacy from the “genius of the people” rather than from the state legislatures. Thus, the final draft of the Constitution begins: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,...do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”The insistence that the voters were “the legitimate source of all authority,” as Scottish- born James Wilson of Pennsylvania stressed, was the most import-ant political innovation since the Declaration of Independence. No other nation endowed the people with such authority. By declaring the Constitution to be the voice of the people, the founders authorized the federal government to limit the powers of the states.
The delegates realized, too, that an effective national government needed authority to collect taxes, borrow and issue money, regulate commerce, fund an army and navy, and make laws. This meant that the states must be stripped of the power to print paper money, make treaties, wage war, and levy taxes and tariffs on imported goods. This concept of dividing authority between the national government and the states came to be called federalism.
The Virginia and new Jersey Plans James Madison drafted the framework for the initial discussions at what would later be called the Constitutional Convention. His proposals, called the Virginia Plan, started with a radical suggestion: that the delegates scrap their original instructions to revise the Articles of Confederation and instead create a new constitution.Madison’s Virginia Plan called for a “national government [with] a supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary.” It proposed a Congress divided into two houses (bicameral): a lower House of Representatives chosen by the “people of the several states” and an upper house of senators elected by the state legisla-tures. The more populous states would have more representatives in Congress than the smaller states. Madison also wanted to give Congress the power to veto state laws.
The Three Branches of Government
The intense debate over congressional representation was resolved in mid- July by the so- called Great Compromise, which used elements of both plans. Roger Sherman of Connecticut suggested that one chamber of the proposed Con-gress have its seats allotted according to population, with the other preserv-ing the principle of one vote for each state. And that is what happened. The more populous states won apportionment (the allocation of delegates to each state) by population in the proposed
House of Representatives, while the dele-gates who sought to protect state power won equality of representation in the Senate, where each state would have two members, elected by the legislatures.
The Legislature The Great Compromise embedded the innovative concept of separation of powers in the new Congress. While Madison believed that in “a republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predomi-nates,” he and others also sought to keep the new Congress from becoming too powerful. After all, it had the power to write laws, fund the other branches of government, approve judges and members of the executive branch, and impeach and remove the president. To do so, they divided it into two separate houses, with the House of Representatives representing the voters at large and the Senate representing the state legislatures.The House of Representatives would be, in George Mason’s words, “the grand repository of the democratic principle of the Government.” Its mem-bers would be elected by voters every two years. (Under the Articles of Confederation, members of Congress had been chosen by state legislatures.) Madison argued that allowing individual citizens to elect the people’s House was “essential to every plan of free government.” Indeed, such representative democracy centered on majority rule was the essence of a republican form of government.
Several delegates did not share such faith in representative democracy. The problems arising since the end of the war, according to Elbridge Gerry, “flow from an excess of democracy.” Yet, as Benjamin Franklin countered, if the “common people” and “lower classes” were noble enough to fight for indepen-dence, then surely they were capable of exercising good citizenship. Madison agreed. The citizens of the new American republic should be the “People of the United States”—“not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure fortune.”The Framers viewed the upper house, or Senate, as a check on the excesses of democracy. It would be a more elite group of substantial property hold-ers, its members elected by state legislatures for six- year terms. The Senate could use its power to overrule the House or the president. Madison explained that the Senate would help “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”
The Presidency The Constitutional Convention struggled over issues related to the executive branch. Some delegates wanted a powerful pres-ident who could veto acts of Congress. Alexander Hamilton went so far as to declare the best model for the presidency was the English monarchy. Others felt that the president should simply “execute” the laws as passed by Congress. Still others, like Benjamin Franklin, wanted a “plural executive” rather than a single man governing the nation.The eventual decision to have a single chief executive, a “natural born Citizen” at least thirty- five years old of any or no religion, caused many dele-gates “considerable pause,” according to Madison. George Mason of Virginia feared that a single president might start behaving like a king.In the end, several compromises ensured that the president would be powerful enough to counterbalance the Congress. In some cases, the chief executive’s powers actually exceeded those of the British king. The president, to be elected for four- year terms, could veto acts of Congress, which would then be subject to being overridden by a two- thirds vote in each house. The president became the nation’s chief diplomat and commander in chief of the armed forces, and was responsible for implementing the laws made by Congress.Yet the president’s powers were also limited in key areas. The chief executive could neither declare war nor make peace; only Congress could. Moreover, the president could be removed from office. The House of Representatives could impeach (bring to trial) the chief executive— and other civil officers— on charges of treason, bribery, or “other high crimes and misdemeanors.” An impeached president must leave office if two- thirds of the Senate voted for conviction.To preserve the separation of the three branches of government, the presi-dent would be elected every four years by a group of highly qualified “electors” chosen by “the people” in local elections. Each state’s number of electors would depend upon the combined number of its congressional representatives and senators. This “electoral college” was a compromise between those wanting the president elected by Congress and those preferring a direct vote of qualified citizens.
The Judiciary The third proposed branch of government, the judi-ciary, sparked little debate. The Constitution called for a supreme national court headed by a chief justice. The court’s role was not to make laws (a power reserved to Congress) or to execute and enforce the laws (reserved to the presi-dency), but to interpret the laws and to ensure that every citizen received equal justice under the law.TheU.S.Supreme Court had final authority in interpreting the Consti-tution and in settling constitutional disputes between states. Furthermore, Article VI of the Constitution declared that the federal Constitution, federal laws, and treaties were “the supreme Law of the Land
The Limits of The Constitution
The men who drafted the new constitution claimed to be representing all Americans. In fact, however, as Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois would note seventy years later, the Constitution was “made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity [descendants] forever.”Important groups were left out of the Constitution’s protections. Native Americans, for example, could not be citizens unless they paid taxes, which few did. The Constitution declared that Native American “tribes” were not part of the United States but instead were separate “nations.”
Slavery Of all the issues that emerged during the Constitutional Con-vention of 1787, none was more explosive than slavery. As James Madison stressed, “the great division of interest” among the delegates “did not lie between the large & small states: it lay between the Northern & Southern,” primarily from “their having or not having slaves.” When the Patriots declared independence in 1776, slavery existed in every state. By 1787, however, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island had abolished the dreadful system.
Many of the framers viewed slavery as an embarrassing contradiction to the principles of liberty and equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the new Constitution. A New Jersey delegate declared that owning human beings was “utterly inconsistent with the principles of Christi-anity and humanity.” By contrast, most southern delegates stoutly defended slavery. “Religion and humanity [have] nothing to do with this [slavery] question,” argued John Rutledge of South Carolina. “Interest alone is the governing principle of nations.” His fellow South Carolinian, Charles Pinckney, likewise stressed the practical reality in the southern states: “South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves.”Most southern delegates would have walked out had there been an attempt to abolish slavery. So in drafting the new constitution, the framers decided not to include any plan for limiting or ending slavery, nor did they view the enslaved as human beings with civil rights. If the slaves were not to be freed or their rights to be acknowledged, however, how were they to be counted? Since the size of state delegations in the proposed House of Representatives would be based on population, southern delegates argued that slaves should be counted to help determine how many representatives their state would have. Northerners countered that it made no sense to count slaves for purposes of congressional representation when they were treated as property.The delegates finally agreed to a compromise in which three- fifths of “all other persons” (the enslaved) would be included in population counts as a basis for apportioning a state’s congres-sional representatives. In a constitution intended to “secure the blessings of lib-erty to ourselves and our posterity,” the three- fifths clause was a glaring exam-ple of compromise being divorced from principle.
The corrupt bargain over slavery would bedevil the nation for the next seventy- five years, for the more slaves southern states imported from Africa, the more seats in Congress they would gain. Peg- legged Gouverneur Morris of NewYork, who would draft the final version of the Constitution, asked the delegates to imagine a Georgian or Carolinian going to Africa, where, “in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, [he] tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel bondages.” By doing so, the southern slaveholder “shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.”In another concession to southerners, the original Constitution never mentions the word slavery. As slaveholder James Madison explained, it would be “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” Instead, the document speaks of “free persons” and “all other persons” and of persons “held to service of labor.” The word slavery would not appear in the Constitution until the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished it. Delaware’s John Dickinson protested that their “omitting of the WORD will be regarded [by the world] as an Endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.” As it was. The Constitution openly violated Jefferson’s idealistic assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
The Absence of Women The delegates at the Constitutional Con-vention dismissed any discussion of political rights for women. Yet not all women were willing to maintain their subordinate role. Just as the Revolu-tionary War enabled many African Americans to seize their freedom, it also inspired some brave women to demand political equality.Eliza Yonge Wilkinson, born in 1757 to a wealthy plantation family near Charleston, South Carolina, lost her husband early in the war. In June1780, after Wilkinson was assaulted and robbed by “inhuman” British soldiers, she became a fiery Patriot who “hated Tyranny in every shape.” She assured a friend, “We may be led, but we never will be driven!”Likewise, Wilkinson expected greater freedom for women after the war. “The men say we have no business [with politics],” she wrote to a friend. “I won’t have it thought that because we are the weaker sex as to bodily strength, my dear, we are capable of nothing more than minding the dairy, visiting the poultry- house, and all such domestic concerns.” Wilkinson demanded more. “They won’t even allow us the liberty of thought, and that is all I want.”
Judith Sargent Murray, a Massachu-setts writer, argued that the rights and liberties fought for by Patriots belonged not just to men but to women, too. In her essay “On the Equality of the Sexes,” published in 1790, she challenged the prevailing view that men had greater intellectual capacities than women. She insisted that any differences resulted from prejudice and discrimination that prevented women from having access to formal education and worldly experience.The arguments for gender equality, however, fell mostly on deaf ears. The Constitution does not even include the word women. Writing from Paris, Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that American “ladies” would be “con-tented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning ruffled from political debate.”
Immigration Although America was a nation of immigrants, leaders of the new nation had differing views about whether the United States should remain a nation open to foreigners of all sorts. Thomas Jefferson, for example, worried that many immigrants would not understand or embrace the new republic’s democratic premises. Would not the new nation, he asked, be “more homogeneous, more peaceful, more durable” without the “extraordinary encouragement” of large- scale immigration?The Constitution said little about immigration and naturalization (the pro-cess of gaining citizenship), and most of what it said was negative. In Article II, Section1, it prohibits any future immigrant from becoming president, lim-iting the office to a “born Citizen.” On defining citizenship, the Constitution gives Congress the authority “to establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization” but offers no further guidance. As a result, naturalization policy has changed repeatedly over the years in response to fluctuating social attitudes, economic needs, and political moods.