In 1987, Americans celebrated the bicentennial, or 200th anniversary, of the signing of the Constitution of the United States. This document, which has served as "the Supreme Law of the Land" for more than two centuries, is the world's oldest written constitution still in use.
The United States Constitution is a system of basic laws and principles that defines the rights of American citizens and sets limits on what the government can and cannot do. It provides the framework for the federal (national) government and establishes a system of federalism, by which responsibilities are divided between the national government and the states' governments.
One of the important principles on which the Constitution is based is the separation of powers, which divides power between the three separate branches of the federal government. The legislative branch (represented by Congress) has the power to create laws; the executive branch (represented by the president and his advisers) has the power to enforce laws; and the judicial branch (represented by the Supreme Court and other federal courts) has the power to dismiss or reverse laws that it determines are "unconstitutional."
Why the Constitution Was Written
When the United States won its independence from England in 1781, a majority of Americans felt a stronger allegiance to their individual states than to their new country. Most people did not wish to create a strong national government, far away from their homes, over which they felt they would have little or no control -- they had just fought a long and bitter war to free themselves from such a government. In response to these suspicions, leaders organized the new American government according to a document known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles gave each state a great deal of independence and represented little more than a league of friendship between them.
The main purpose of the Articles was to establish a system by which the states could co-operate if they needed to defend themselves against a foreign enemy. The Articles established a Congress that could raise an army and a navy, but only when the states gave permission. Congress also had the authority to issue and borrow money and to handle foreign and Indian affairs. Congress could also pass laws, yet it did not have the power to make the states obey them. Nor was it able to control citizen uprisings, such as Shays' Rebellion, which occurred from 1786 to 1787. Farmers in western Massachusetts staged violent protests against their state government. As a result of this and other similar revolts, many people began to feel that a stronger national government might be necessary after all.
In 1786 leaders in Virginia passed a resolution calling for delegates from the 13 states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the nation's problems. Their goal was to amend (change) the Articles to make the national government more effective. But only twelve representatives from five states attended this Annapolis Convention, so they resolved to call another meeting the following year.
The Constitutional Convention
On May 14, 1787, delegates from twelve of the states (all except Rhode Island) began to gather in Philadelphia, and the Constitutional Convention opened in Independence Hall on May 25th. In attendance were many remarkably talented scholars, philosophers, war leaders, and politicians. Alexander Hamilton, representing New York, was largely responsible for arranging the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin, representing Pennsylvania, freely offered the incomparable wisdom of his 81 years. Gouverneur Morris, also from Pennsylvania, headed up the committee that actually wrote the Constitution. George Washington, from Virginia, took the chair as president of the convention. And James Madison, also from Virginia, earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution" because time and again his brilliant ideas and tireless energy kept the convention moving toward its goal.
Almost immediately after the convention opened, a struggle developed between the delegates of the large and small states as to what form the new government should take. The more populous states supported the Virginia Plan, which proposed that representation within the government should be based on the size of a state's population. The plan was designed to give states with large populations a proportionately large share of decision-making power. Less populous states, however, supported the New Jersey Plan, by which every state, regardless of size, would have the same representation within the government.
The convention came to a standstill until the delegates from Connecticut devised an ingenious way to settle the dispute. The Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise) called for the creation of a bicameral (two-house) legislature, or Congress. One of the two houses of the new Congress (the House of Representatives) would be elected according to the states' relative populations. The other house (the Senate) would give equal voice to each state no matter what its size. Once this breakthrough had occurred, the delegates agreed more readily on most of the remaining issues.
On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed by 39 of the original 55 delegates. Several had left the convention altogether. Three others — Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia — refused to sign because they lacked confidence in the document's ability to rule the nation. But although no one realized it at the time, the document the delegates signed that day not only gave rise to the government of a new nation, but became a symbol of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world.
Ratifying the Constitution
The Constitution was signed by most of the delegates who created it. Yet the task still remained for the states' governments to approve it. The Constitution itself specified that 9 of the 13 states would have to ratify the document before it could become effective.
Delaware had the honor of being the first state to approve the Constitution on December 7, 1787. But the remaining drive for ratification was far from easy. In three of the largest states — Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia — the contest was close. And the founders knew that the new government would have no chance of succeeding without the support of these large states. So they mounted a campaign in defense of the Constitution by publishing a series of essays in New York newspapers. These essays, which came to be known as The Federalist, were written under the name Publius, a pen name adopted by the authors James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
People who opposed the Constitution, known as anti-federalists, launched a campaign to defeat ratification, believing the Constitution would make the national government too powerful. But mostly they objected that the document did not contain a bill of rights, which would guarantee citizens certain privileges that the government could never take away from them. Anti-federalists published their own series of essays, under such pen names as Brutus, to discourage ratification.
In response to the opposition, John Hancock at the Massachusetts ratifying convention proposed that a bill of rights be added as the first group of amendments to the Constitution. Ratification in Massachusetts and almost all the rest of the uncommitted states depended on the understanding that adopting a bill of rights would be the new government's first order of business.
On June 21, 1788, the Constitution went into effect when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. New York and Virginia followed suit soon thereafter, thus ensuring the new government would have the support it needed to succeed.
Amending the Constitution
The first Congress to conduct business under the authority of the new Constitution met in New York City on March 4, 1789. The issue of a bill of rights was proposed at once, and the new government began following constitutional procedures to change, or amend, the document. According to the Constitution itself, amendments must be approved by at least two thirds of the members of each house of Congress and by three quarters of the states. (There is also an alternate amendment process that has never been used.)
In 1791, the first ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution. These ten amendments define and protect the rights of the American people. Each of the 16 amendments that followed over the course of the next two centuries reflects, in its own way, the needs and desires of the ever-changing American society. The power to amend the Constitution is the primary reason the document has been able to survive the turbulent changes throughout the past two hundred years.
L. Sandy Maisel
Professor of Government
Copyright © 2003 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.
“Every word of a constitution is the difference between power and freedom.”- James Madison
Since we’re studying the Constitution in the next week or two, I wanted to look at places where you might find this document, written over 225 years ago, still relevant in your lives.
As you know, the Constitution is broken up into several articles which describe the powers of each of the branches of our federal government – legislative (Article 1), executive (Article 2), and judicial (Article 3). The document is further broken down to amend some of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, like the economic, social and political relationships between the states (Article 4), the amendment process (Article 5), supremacy of the Constitution over state and local laws (Article 6), and the process by which this framework document would be ratified after the conclusion of the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 (Article 7).
One of the main criticisms of the Constitution, when it was originally written, was that it did not contain a list of accumulated civil rights that each American has, and so quickly the Bill of Rights was added as a further bulwark to prevent abuses. The first ten Amendments to the Constitution contain many of our essential rights, like the freedom of speech, religion and press; the right to bear arms; right to privacy and to be free of unreasonable search and seizure; a speedy trial by jury of our peers; due process; prevention of excessive fines and punishments; and then rights reserved to the states and individual.
Since 1790, there have been 17 additional Amendments passed to further clarify our rights, provide additional guarantees to our liberties, or to make amends for those left out by the original document and the Bill of Rights. Some of these include the right for women and African-Americans to vote, the failed attempt at Prohibition, lowering the voting age, term restrictions for the President, income taxes, and direct election of U.S. Senators.
But where do we see the Constitution in action? Just about everywhere you see it in action, though you may not realize it. In the separation of state, local and federal powers, you see the concept of federalism. For instance, different levels of government may have paid for road repairs – a big source of frustration in Michigan. The presidential election coming up in November is mandated by the Constitution, yet there’s nothing in there about political parties or the billions being collected and spent by both groups and their supporters. A Supreme Court case in 2010, Citizens United v. FEC, allowed for the unlimited, record-breaking spending that we’re seeing in this year’s election cycle. In addition, the right to vote is guaranteed by the 15th and 19th Amendments, but some states are trying to make it more difficult for people to vote in the name of voter fraud. State supreme courts have been deciding the legality of these ID voting laws as we speak.
The current health care act, Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is being challenged in the Supreme Court on Constitutional issues – how much power should be allowed by the federal government. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/supreme-court-considers-main-constitutional-question-in-health-care-law/2012/03/26/gIQAkyKWdS_story.html
Another issue was whether or not children born in the United States are actually citizens if they are born of parents who are here illegally. http://constitutionalprogressives.org/the-constitutional-a-todays-issues/79-born-under-the-constitution-why-recent-attacks-on-birthright-citizenship-are-unfounded These so-called “anchor babies” have come under attack by conservative critics who question the legality of the 14th Amendment (1868) which was originally passed to ensure citizenship and equal protection under the law for freed slaves after the Civil War.
What does “general welfare” mean in the preamble and in Article 1, Section 8? Does it mean that the government helps individuals who are down on their luck? Is the government going beyond its Constitutional powers by doing so? Does Social Security violate the Constitution? Former House of Representative and presidential candidate Ron Paul thinks so even though the Supreme Court has approved of Social Security in 1937 (Helvering v. Davis). http://www.nolanchart.com/article8669-ron-paul-schools-chris-wallace-on-the-constitution.html If Social Security is to be considered unconstitutional, then what other kinds of spending programs also go beyond the limits of our government’s powers? The American military? Welfare? Medicaid? Even some parts of the government itself?
What these arguments really boil down to are whether you interpret the Constitution as is or you try to infer what it could mean today (or what the Founders had originally intended)? The first concept, as is, is called strict interpretation. The latter concept, inferring, is called loose interpretation. For instance, the 2nd Amendment states that our right to bear arms is protected. But by today’s standards, are any and all gun laws unconstitutional? What about the types of guns today? It’s hard to imagine Alexander Hamilton or James Madison envisioning a .50 caliber machine gun that could cut cars in half and them saying that it’s o.k. to own one.
This current law professor at Rutgers University believes that some of our current governmental problems can be solved by some amendments: http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2011/08/constitutional_amendments_need.html
Take a moment or two to review some of the links included here to discuss where you think the Constitution is still relevant today. If you come up with another idea, please include some links to sources that you find / use. Also, discuss this topic with your parents and see what they come up.
Due Friday, October 12 by class time. 300 words minimum.
Info about the VFW contest:
https://www.vfw.org/uploadedFiles/VFW.org/News_and_Events/2012%20VOD%20Winning%20Speech.pdf = example of last year’s winning essay. The theme was, “Is there pride in serving in the military?”
Posted October 10, 2012 by geoffwickersham in category Blogs