Key Issues and Challenges facing the American Nation in the Formation of a New Constitution
After the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776, the common goal of the Americans became more apparent, where ideas of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘justice’ were widely spread among the Americans, especially after their battles against the English government for independence. They rejected the notions of ‘aristocracy’ or any privilege based on birth (Garraty, 1998: 121) and wanted their own national government. Despite these developing ideas and how seemingly united the people were for their new ambition, in creating a new self-government, many had their own ideals and views for what they believed to be a better government than the previous one. This involved the discussion on the Articles of Confederation and the forming of a new Constitution to ensure that those ideals would be included and practiced by the citizens. However, clashes between the representatives revealed some issues that needed to be examined properly regarding the future of the United States before implementing it.
This essay will look at some important issues that were frequently discussed and debated in setting up of the Constitution. In examining the process of the Constitution, it will at times touch on the relationship between the British government as the former colonial government and the emerging, republican American empire. The conditions of America prior to the Independence and Constitution would also be brought up in relevance to the differing views and arguments in the ratification of the Constitution. Lastly, it will attempt to analyze the significance of those debated topics in understanding how these might have shaped the current Government of the United States as a reflection.
The American Constitution, created in 1787 and ratified in 1788, was not made without confronting many challenges and resolving issues that it had to face during then mid and late 18th century. There were many factors to consider in understanding the issues and problems that rose in the making of it. The American Revolution has affected the population and the government tremendously. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), which sold about 150 000 copies (Jenkins, 2003: 49) had indeed boosted the feelings of nationalism, and Shay’s rebellion that took place from 1786 to 1787 (Jones, 1995: 68) has shown how those feelings increased and reflected the general sense of the people’s wishes, that is, to have a better government. On one hand, the Revolution was seen as a huge stepping stone especially to the revolutionaries, not only to achieve independence but to acquire a better change.
However, the conditions of the states were not all great for the war had landed them economic crises such as debts and there were also some struggles in foreign trade (Garraty, 1998: 132) as well as the rise of nationalists that wanted different measures for setting up a new constitution. The British government, despite that America had declared independence and the signing of the Peace Treaty in 1782, still continued to make the American empire struggle by collecting their prewar debts (Brogan, 1985: 195). The economic problems had prompted the Americans to think about having a strong national government, where it could restore the national credit and challenge British mercantilism. (Brogan, 1985: 195) But these problems were intertwined with political rights as well, where George Washington believed the cure for all of these were political (Garraty, 1998: 122) as the underlying problem would be the lack of an effective government and the Continental Congress had only acted as a de facto government (Jones, 1995: 64). Hence, prominent individuals like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who might differ on what independence and American freedom truly meant, agreed that there was a need to revise the Articles of Confederation (1777-1781), which they felt were not effective enough to handle the situation at that time.
Among some problems found in the Articles of Confederation, having no provision for a national executive or a national judiciary (Jones, 1995: 64), was the unanimity state one rule. It seemed impossible to have the consent of all thirteen states, since it would concede too much to the states (Brogan, 1985: 199), and its inability to regulate commerce was a huge concern for the people. There was no specific authority and thus, the delegates attending the Constitutional Convention (1787) in Philadelphia had to consider the rights of the people and states, the balance of the government and to some, protect and their interests in achieving the ‘national government’ that they had envisioned.
In the Convention, James Madison was one to immediately propose a plan which was called the Virginia Plan. Not everyone agreed with his plan, nonetheless he had addressed the important issues that were to be debated. In the Virginia Plan, he suggested a national legislature of two houses, in each of which representation was to be proportionate to population (Jones, 1995: 71). This was not, however, favoured by the small states that felt that this was unfair to them (Garraty, 1998: 137) because of the different size and population of the states. For instance, Virginia had a population of 747,000 people, twelve times as many representatives as Delaware, which had only 60,000 (Jones, 1995: 171). The issue here is representation, where having equal state representation would have been problematic and ‘undemocratic’ (Garraty, 1998: 137). The New Jersey Plan, proposed by William Patterson, suggested a one-house legislature in which each state would have one vote (Garraty, 1998: 137) and this was much preferred by the small-states. In the end, the lower house would be elected on a population basis, but every state would have at least one representative; while the upper house, or Senate, would be elected by the state assemblies, and each state would have an equal vote (Brogan, 1994: 207). Despite some disagreements with the Virginia Plan including the issue of representation, it became a model framework of the government, where it would consist of three branches: the Legislature, the Executive and the Judicial. Apart from that, more debates and clashes occurred that were not necessarily solved, were settled by compromises.
The second issue is concerned with slavery, where it was a battle between the Northern and Southern interests. Here it depicts how the definition of freedom or equality seems to apply mostly to the white population and how the conflict of interests mattered. The Southerners did not want to include slaves in the population, but they did want to include slaves in determining each district’s representation in the House of Representatives (Garraty, 1998: 137) when it was still undecided whether small states would have to go against the advantaged large states in terms of representation based on population. For the Northerners, slaves should be excluded from representation, since they were neither citizens nor voters, but included for tax purposes since they were a species of property (Jones, 1995: 71). What followed was a short debate regarding slavery and Morris, who was against slavery, voiced out his thoughts: "Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?” (Reynolds, 2009: 77).
Yet the majority, even the Northerners acknowledged slavery was the ‘price of unity’ (Reynolds, 2009: 77) and unfortunately at that time, slaves were exploited not only in terms of labour, but as a means to maintain their political or economic power as the case of the Southern interests.
The government did not confront the issue and instead it was settled in the Constitution, in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, where Article I deals with Congress: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” (Reynolds, 2009: 77). Hence, the issue of slave trade was postponed to 1808, making the final decision in the Constitution.
For the delegates, the bigger issue was the balance within the new federal government (Reynolds, 2009: 77). This was highly concerned as the issue of power is also addressed here. The delegates, though this excludes people like Alexander Hamilton, who favoured the British model of aristocracy, had been worried about how much power would be given to the national executive (Jenkins, 2003: 56). They were afraid there would be an abuse of power as had happened with the British monarchy whom many revolutionaries had described as a ‘tyranny’ but having an absence power of national executive would result a weak government.
Eventually, the executive authority, the President, would consult with the Senate in making important appointments and in concluding treaties (Jones, 1995: 72). He was also made the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the nation and general supervisor of its foreign relations. He would appoint federal judges and other officials, and he might veto any law of Congress, although his veto could be overridden by a two-thirds majority of both houses (Garraty, 1998: 140). He would be elected by electors in separate states, in other words, by popular election (Yale University, 2010). In a way, this ensured some kind of equality though it seemed to put a limit on the power of the executive. Furthermore, it has also been decided that there would be a separation of powers between the federal and state governments, as well as the separation of powers between Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary (Brogan, 1985: 215). This was all done, it seemed, to have that balance of power in the national government and avoid from focusing on too much power in one place, though perhaps difficult but it was the ideal government at that time.
There were more concerns in the Constitution but these issues presented have shown some insight of the meticulous process of the making of the Constitution, therefore reflecting how it was not easy to conclude the ideals of what a government should be. The ratification of the Constitution was done in 1788 (with the exclusion of North Carolina and Rhode Island) and met with some struggle. It is evident now, that different groups or individuals in the Constitutional Convention enabled this process to be revised and shaped the Constitution. To some extent, decisions and compromises done in the Constitution had managed to accomplish the idea of equality that was voiced by so many in the Revolution. However, the historian David M. Potter once said, the Constitution was ‘an exchange of promises’ whereby different interests gained large advantages by making large concessions (Garraty, 1998: 137-138). For instance, people who called themselves as ‘federalists’ were more concerned on having an efficient government than the freedom of individual (Garraty, 1998: 141). As has been mentioned before, the attitude of the Southerners and Northerners on the issue of slavery depicted this as well, in their worries over their economic and political interests.
It could be argued from here that part of the complications in constructing the constitution was due to the reactions of the Americans towards the British government and George III in their ‘tyranny’ rule which were not necessarily because of their genuine belief of the idea of equality and freedom to everybody. Daniel Perkins had argued that ‘the delegates in the convention would be made up of aristocratic people who would not understand the conditions of the average person in Connecticut’ (Yale University, 2010), in other words the delegates were not truly representatives of the people’s rights. Yet, it needs to be understood that these were the people who were involved in Continental Congresses, governments and in the Revolution, hence, their roles were not just significant in terms of their statuses, but experiences as well.
The weaknesses or sacrifices found in the Constitution are a part of the imperfect agreement in the Constitution, but the constant revision of balanced power is also what motivates the government to push themselves in living to its ideals. The present United States, too, still consists of different political groups and the acknowledgment of various groups during the period had helped the nation to grow. The Constitution was not a perfect constitution, and while there were many unresolved issues, the discussions that had occurred allowed for more possible things in the future.
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- Aqmar HM (Author), 2016, Key Issues and Challenges facing the American Nation in the Formation of a New Constitution, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/353623