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After their victory in the American Revolution, America’s leaders were leery about establishing a powerful centralized government, fearful that such a government would only replace the tyranny of King George III with a new form of tyranny. As a result, the first U.S. constitution, the Articles of Confederation, created a decentralized new government. The Articles established the United States as a confederation of states—a system in which the states were largely independent but were bound together by a weak national congress.
Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation proved ineffective, giving Congress little real power over the states, no means to enforce its decisions, and, most critically, no power to levy taxes. As a result, the federal government was left at the mercy of the states, which often chose not to pay their taxes.
Sensing the need for change, delegates from nearly all the states met in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation but ended up drafting an entirely new document: the Constitution. The Constitution created a new government divided into three branches: legislative (Congress), executive (the president), and judicial (headed by the Supreme Court). After much debate, the delegates compromised on a two-house Congress, consisting of an upper house (Senate) with equal representation for each state, and a lower house (House of Representatives) with proportional representation based on population. Congress also was given new abilities to levy national taxes and control interstate commerce.
Although most states ratified the Constitution outright, some, especially New York, had reservations. In response, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison argued the case for the Constitution in a series of essays called the Federalist Papers. These eighty-five essays are now regarded as some of the most important writings in American political thought.
However, many skeptics, or Anti-Federalists, remained unconvinced, believing that a stronger government would endanger the freedoms they had just won during the Revolution. As a compromise, the framers of the Constitution promised to add a series of amendments to guarantee important liberties. Sponsored by James Madison, the first ten amendments became known as the Bill of Rights. Their liberties secured, Anti-Federalists in the last remaining states grudgingly voted for the Constitution.
The 1790s were rocky for the United States: the new government functioned well, but disputes arose about how the government should act in situations in which the Constitution was vague. The foremost of these disagreements involved the question of whether or not the federal government had the right to found a national bank. “Strict constructionists” such as Thomas Jefferson interpreted the Constitution literally, believing that the document forbade everything it did not expressly permit. “Loose constructionists” such as Alexander Hamilton believed that the Constitution’s “elastic clause” permitted everything the document did not expressly forbid—such as the founding of a bank.
Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed often during George Washington’s presidency, and eventually their ideas spread through the country and coalesced into the nation’s first two political parties, the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. Although Washington begged Americans not to separate into dangerous political factions—for he believed that factions and political parties would destroy the republican spirit and tear the Union apart—the party system developed. Indeed, Washington’s successor, the Federalist John Adams, tried to ruin the opposition party with his 1798 Sedition Act, which ultimately only made the Democratic-Republicans stronger.
When Adams’s bitter rival Jefferson was elected president in 1800, many European observers thought the American “experiment” in republicanism would end. But when the transfer of power proved to be peaceful, many Europeans, seeing that republicanism could be viable and stable, began to believe the system might work for them too. The U.S. triumph over Britain and success in establishing a stable government had already encouraged the French to overthrow their own monarch in the French Revolution of1789. Later, republicanism and democracy would spread beyond France to Britain and the rest of Europe. Thus, the drafting of the Constitution and the years that followed were enormously important in world history as well as American history.
After declaring independence from Britain in 1776, the delegates at theSecond Continental Congress immediately set to the task of creating a government. In 1777, Congress submitted the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, to the states, who finally ratified it a few years later.Problems Under the Articles
Congress proved unable to manage the country’s economic affairs under the Articles. Because most state currencies had become useless due to wartime inflation, Congress printed its own continental dollars to keep the economy alive, but these faltered as well. Congress also proved unable to raise enough money from the states, because the federal government had no way of forcing the states to pay taxes. Most states also ignored Congress’s attempts to resolve numerous interstate disputes that arose.
In addition, many Americans became fed up with their incompetent state legislatures and demanded debt relief and cheaper money. A few even revolted, as in Shays’s Rebellion in 1786–1787, which culminated in Daniel Shays leading 1,200 western Massachusetts farmers in an attack on the federal arsenal at Springfield. Although the rebellion was quickly dismissed, it convinced many American leaders that change was needed if the U.S. were to survive.Drafting the Constitution
To resolve these problems, delegates from most of the states met at theAnnapolis Convention in 1786. When nothing was resolved, they agreed to reconvene in 1787 at a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. At this second convention, it was quickly decided that an entirely new constitution was needed rather than just a revision to the Articles.
A major point of contention was the structure of the new legislativebranch. Small states supported the New Jersey Plan, under which all states would have equal representation in the legislature. Large states advocated the Virginia Plan to create a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which representatives would be appointed according to population. TheGreat Compromise among the states created a bicameral Congress in which states would be equally represented in the Senate and proportionally represented in the House of Representatives.
The framers of the Constitution believed strongly in checks and balancesand separation of powers to prevent any one branch of government from ever becoming too powerful. As a result, the new government would also have a strong executive branch and an independent judiciary branch.The Federalist Papers and the Bill of Rights
When the delegates submitted the Constitution to the states for ratification, heated debates erupted between the Federalists, who supported the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who thought it gave the federal government too much power. Federalists Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison coauthored the Federalist Papers in 1787–1788 to convince Anti-Federalist Americans, especially in New York, that the Constitution was necessary. Eventually, the Anti-Federalists conceded on the condition that a Bill of Rights be written to preserve liberties, such as freedoms of speech and religion and the right to trial by jury.Strict vs. Loose Constructionism
The Electoral College unanimously chose George Washington to be the first president, with John Adams as vice president. Soon after, the new secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, wanted to repair the national credit and revive the economy by having the federal government assume all the debts of the individual states. He also wanted to establish a national Bank of the United States. The Constitution said nothing about a national bank, but Hamilton believed that the Constitution allowed many unwritten actions that it did not expressly forbid. Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state and a strict constructionist, believed that the Constitution forbade everything it did not allow. These ideological differences within Washington’s cabinet formed the basis of what later became full-fledged political parties—the Hamiltonian Federalists and the JeffersonianDemocratic-Republicans.Domestic Unrest in the 1790s
Despite the passage of the Indian Intercourse Acts, beginning in 1790, Native Americans frequently raided American settlements west of the Appalachians until federal troops crushed several tribes in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Later, when farmers in western Pennsylvania threatened to march on Philadelphia to protest the excise tax on liquor in 1794, Washington dispatched 13,000 federal troops to crush the insurgents. The Whiskey Rebellion, however, ended without bloodshed.Washington and Neutrality
Events in Europe also affected the United States. The French Revolutionof 1789 and France’s subsequent war with Britain split American public opinion: some wanted to support republican France, while others wanted to help England. However, under the Franco-American alliance of 1778, the United States was obligated to assist France.
Unprepared for another war, Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 . Citizen Genêt, the French ambassador to the United States, ignored the proclamation and, immediately upon his arrival in the United States, began commissioning privateers and planning to use U.S. ports in the French campaign against Britain. Outraged over the Citizen Genêt affair, Washington requested Genet’s recall.
Meanwhile, Spain threatened to block Americans’ access to the vital Mississippi River, while Britain still refused to withdraw from American territory in the Ohio Valley. These issues were not resolved until Jay’s Treatywith Britain in 1794 and Pinckney’s Treaty in 1795.
Finally, in his famous Farewell Address in 1796, Washington warned against entangling alliances with European powers and potential political factions in the United States.Adams’s Term
In 1797, Washington was succeeded by his Federalist vice president, John Adams, who faced continued challenges from Europe. When Adams sent an ambassador to Paris to restore Franco-American relations, three French officials demanded a bribe before they would speak with him. This incident, the XYZ Affair, shocked Americans and initiated two years of undeclared naval warfare.
To prevent unwanted French immigrants from entering the country, Adams and a sympathetic Congress passed the Alien Acts in 1798. They also passed the Sedition Act, which banned public criticism of the government in an attempt to stifle political opposition and wipe out the Democratic-Republicans. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison responded with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which nullified the Sedition Act in those states. They argued that because the states had created the Union, they also had the right to nullify any unconstitutional legislation.The Election of 1800
The Democratic-Republicans defeated the Federalists in the election of1800. Despite years of mutual hatred, the Federalists relinquished the government to their political enemies in a peaceful transfer of power. Thomas Jefferson, champion of western and southern farmers, became president and immediately advocated a reduction in the size and power of the federal government.Increases in Federal Power
In reality, federal power increased in many ways during Jefferson’s eight years in office. The Supreme Court reasserted its power of judicial review in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchasemore than doubled the size of the country despite the fact that the Constitution said nothing about new land purchases.The Embargo Act
Jefferson continued to face challenges from Europe, as neither Britain nor France respected American shipping rights as a neutral country. Both countries seized hundreds of American merchant ships bound for Europe, and British warships impressed (captured for forced labor) thousands of American sailors. To end these practices, Jefferson and Congress passed the Embargo Act in 1807, closing all U.S. ports to export shipping and placing restrictions on imports from Britain. Unfortunately, the boycott backfired, and the U.S. economy slumped as Britain and France found other sources of natural resources.The Non-Intercourse Act and Macon’s Bill No. 2
Congress repealed the Embargo Act in 1809 but replaced it with the Non-Intercourse Act, which banned trade only with Britain and France. A year later, with James Madison in office as president, the American economy still had not improved, so Congress passed Macon’s Bill No. 2, which restored trade relations with all nations but promised to revive the Non-Intercourse Act if either Britain or France violated U.S. shipping rights.The War of 1812
Meanwhile, War Hawks in Congress from the West and South pressed Madison for war against the British and Tecumseh’s Native AmericanNorthwest Confederacy. Tecumseh’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Since the British were still seizing American ships and impressing American sailors, Congress declared war on Britain in1812.
The War of 1812 was primarily a sectional conflict supported by Americans in the West and South and condemned by those in the Northeast. In1814, delegates from the New England states met at the Hartford Convention to petition Congress and redress grievances. By the time Congress received their complaint, however, the war had ended and the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.
A prominent Boston lawyer who first became famous for defending the British soldiers accused of murdering five civilians in the Boston Massacre. At the Continental Congresses, Adams acted as a delegate from Massachusetts and rejected proposals for self-governance within the British Empire. He served as vice president to George Washington and then as president from 1797–1801.Samuel Adams
A second cousin of John Adams and a failed Bostonian businessman who became an ardent political activist in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Samuel Adams organized the first Committee of Correspondence and was a delegate to both Continental Congresses in 1774 and1775.Alexander Hamilton
A brilliant New York lawyer and statesman who, in his early thirties, was one of the youngest delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. An ardent Federalist, Hamilton supported the Constitution during the ratification debates even though he actually believed that the new document was still too weak. He helped write the Federalist Papers, which are now regarded as some of the finest essays on American government and republicanism. He served as the first secretary of the treasury under George Washington and established the first Bank of the United States.William Henry Harrison
A former governor of Indiana Territory and brigadier general in the U.S. Army who rose to national stardom when he defeated the Northwest Confederacy at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Harrison went on to be elected president in 1840.Patrick Henry
A fiery radical who advocated rebellion against the Crown in the years prior to the American Revolution, as in his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Later, Henry was a die-hard Anti-Federalist who initially opposed ratification of the Constitution.Andrew Jackson
A hero of the War of 1812 and the Creek War who later entered the national political arena and became president in 1829. Jackson, nicknamed “Old Hickory,” was the first U.S. president to come from a region west of the Appalachians.John Jay
A coauthor of the Federalist Papers, which attempted to convince Anti-Federalist New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. Jay served as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and became one of the most hated men in America after he negotiated Jay’s Treaty with Britain in 1794.Thomas Jefferson
A Virginia planter and lawyer who in 1776 drafted the Declaration of Independence, which justified American independence from Britain. Jefferson went on to serve as the first secretary of state under George Washington and as vice president under John Adams. He then was elected president himself in 1800 and 1804.James Madison
A Virginia Federalist who advocated for the ratification of the Constitution, coauthored the Federalist Papers, and sponsored the Bill of Rightsin Congress. After ratification, he supported southern and western agrarian interests as a Democratic-Republican. After a brief retirement, he reentered politics and was elected president in 1808 and 1812. As president, Madison fought for U.S. shipping rights against British and French aggression and led the country during the War of 1812 .James Monroe
A Virginia officer, lawyer, and Democratic-Republican who was elected president in 1816 and inaugurated the Era of Good Feelings. An excellent administrator, Monroe bolstered the federal government and supported internal improvements, and was so popular in his first term that he ran uncontested in 1820. The “good feelings” ended, however, during the Missouri Crisis that split the United States along north-south lines. Monroe is most famous for his 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which warned European powers against interfering in the Western Hemisphere.Tecumseh
A member of the Shawnee tribe who, along with his brother Tenskwatawa (often called the Prophet), organized many of the tribes in the Mississippi Valley into the Northwest Confederacy to defend Native American ancestral lands from white American settlers. Even though the tribes had legal rights to their lands under the Indian Intercourse Acts of the 1790s, expansionist War Hawks in Congress argued the need for action against Tecumseh, and eventually William Henry Harrison was sent to wipe out the Confederacy. Tecumseh’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.George Washington
A Virginia planter and militia officer who led the attack that initiated theFrench and Indian War in 1754. Washington later became commander in chief of the American forces during the American Revolution and first president of the United States in 1789. Although he lost many of the military battles he fought, his leadership skills were unparalleled and were integral to the creation of the United States. In his noteworthy Farewell Address, Washington warned against factionalism and the formation of political parties, believing they would split the nation irreparably.TermsAlien Acts
A group of acts passed in 179 8, designed to restrict the freedom of foreigners in the United States and curtail the free press in anticipation of a war with France. The Alien Acts lengthened the residency time required for foreigners to become American citizens from five years to fourteen years and gave the president the power to expel aliens considered dangerous to the nation. It was passed simultaneously with the Sedition Act, and together they provoked the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written the same year in protest. These resolutions stated that individual states had the right to nullify unconstitutional laws passed by Congress.Annapolis Convention
A meeting of delegates from five states in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786 to discuss the bleak commercial situation in the United States, growing social unrest, and Congress’s inability to resolve disputes among the states. The conference dissolved when Alexander Hamilton proposed holding theConstitutional Convention in Philadelphia the next year to revise the Articles of Confederation.Anti-Federalists
Primarily farmers and poorer Americans in the West, a group that strongly opposed ratification of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists were suspicious of governments in general and a strong central government in particular. Rather, they believed that state legislatures should maintain sovereignty. Although they eventually lost the ratification battle, their protests did encourage the first Congress to attach the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.Articles of Confederation
The first U.S. constitution, adopted in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The Articles established a national Congress in which each state in the Union was granted one vote. Congress had the right to conduct foreign affairs, maintain a military, govern western territories, and regulate trade between states, but it could not levy taxes. Because most states refused to finance the Congress adequately, the government under the Articles was doomed to fail. After Shays’s Rebellion in 1786–1787, delegates met to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation, which ultimately led to the drafting of the Constitution.Bank of the United States
A plan proposed by Alexander Hamilton for a treasury for federal money funded by private investors. The Bank sparked a debate between “strict constructionists” and “loose constructionists” regarding interpretation of the Constitution.Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution, sponsored in Congress byJames Madison, to guarantee basic freedoms and liberties. The Bill of Rights protects freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition, and the rights to have trial by jury, bear arms, and own property, among others. Moreover, the Ninth Amendment states that the people have additional rights beyond those written explicitly in the Constitution; the Tenth Amendment awards state governments all the powers not granted to the federal government. The promise of a Bill of Rights helped convince manyAnti-Federalists to ratify the new Constitution. Today, these rights are considered fundamental American liberties.Checks and Balances
A term referring to the overlapping of powers granted to the three branches of government under the Constitution. For example, Congress has the power to pass laws and regulate taxes, but the president has the ability to veto, or nullify, those acts. On the other hand, Congress may override a president’s veto if two-thirds of its members support the bill in question. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has the power to review all laws but must rely on the president to enforce its decisions. The framers of the Constitution included this system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch of government from having too much power over the others.Constitution
A 1787 document that established the structure of the U.S. government, drafted at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia by prominent statesmen from twelve states (minus Rhode Island). Unlike its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution established a strong central government divided into three separate but equal branches (legislative, executive, and judiciary). This separation of powers, combined with a system of checks and balances, was designed to prevent the new government from becoming too strong and tyrannical.Constitutional Convention
A 1787 meeting in Philadelphia in which delegates from twelve states convened to revise the Articles of Confederation. The Convention quickly decided that the Articles should be scrapped and replaced with an entirely new document to create a stronger central government binding the states. The result was the Constitution.Declaration of Independence
A document written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 that proclaimed the creation of the United States. The Declaration sets forth a persuasive argument against King George III, claiming that the king ruled the colonies poorly and unjustly. The document thus served not merely as a declaration but also as a rational justification for breaking away from Britain.Democratic-Republicans
Successors of the Anti-Federalists who formed a party under Thomas Jefferson’s leadership during Washington’s and Adams’s presidencies. The Democratic-Republicans generally favored westward expansion, the formation of an agrarian republic, and an alliance with France, and werestrict constructionists and advocates of states’ rights. Political battles between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists were frequent during the first years of the nineteenth century. Though the Federalist Party died out during the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans lived on during the Era of Good Feelilngs and eventually became the Democratic party.Elastic Clause
A nickname for Article I, Section VIII, Paragraph 18 of the Constitution, which states that Congress has the power “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” to carry out its proscribed duties. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists interpreted this clause to mean that the Constitution allows everything it does not expressly forbid, and used it to justify the creation of the Bank of the United States. George Washingtonagreed, and the clause has since given presidents and Congress ample justification for expanding federal power. The clause has been dubbed “elastic” because it gives federal policymakers great flexibility when drafting laws.Electoral College
A body of representatives appointed by states to cast their votes for president. The presidential candidate who receives the most Electoral College votes, regardless of how many popular votes he or she receives, becomes president. The framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College out of fear that the whimsical American masses might one day popularly elect someone “unfit” for the presidency.Excise Tax of 1791
A liquor tax proposed by Alexander Hamilton in 1790 to raise revenue so that Congress could pay off all national and state debts. The excise tax was immensely unpopular with western farmers, whose protests eventually culminated in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.The Federalist Papers
A series of eighty-five articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in 1787–1788 to convince New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. The Federalist Papers are now regarded as some of the finest essays on the Constitution, American government, and republicanism.Federalists
Primarily from the wealthier and propertied classes of Americans along the eastern seaboard, a group that supported ratification of the Constitution and creation of a strong central government. The Federalists eventually became a full-fledged political party under the leadership of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Adams was the first and only Federalist president, as the party died after Federalist delegates from the Hartford Convention protested the War of 1812 and were labeled traitors.Great Compromise
An agreement between the large and small states at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to create a bicameral (two-house) Congress with one chamber of delegates assigned based on population (the House of Representatives) and another chamber in which all states had two representatives regardless of population (the Senate). The agreement ended the deadlock among the states and set a precedent for compromise in American politics.Hartford Convention
An 1814–1815 meeting of delegates from five New England states in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss possible secession from the Union due to discontent with the War of 1812 . The delegates ultimately decided to remain in the Union but sent a petition to Congress, requesting amendments to the Constitution in order to alter the office of the presidency and to change the distribution and powers of Congress. None of their demands were met, however, because the petition arrived at Congress during celebrations over Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Nonetheless, the convention demonstrated the sectional nature of the war and the growing differences between the North and the South.Indian Intercourse Acts
A series of acts passed in the 1790s that attempted to smooth relations between the United States and Native American tribes along the western frontier. The act attempted to regulate trade between these groups and promised that the United States would acquire western lands only via treaties. Most American settlers ignored this bill, which produced bloody clashes between tribes and settlers.Judiciary Act of 1789
The first act that Congress passed, which created the tiered U.S. federal court system. The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Jay, was at the head of the court system, supported by three circuit courts and thirteen district courts. Even though the Judiciary Act strengthened federal judicial power, it also upheld local and state courts by stipulating that most cases heard in federal courts would be appeals cases.Land Ordinance of 1785
An ordinance passed by the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation that established an efficient system to survey and auction lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.Loose Constructionists
People such as Alexander Hamilton, who believed that the Constitutionallowed the government to take any actions that were not expressly forbidden in the document. The loose constructionists’ interpretation was challenged by Thomas Jefferson and other strict constructionists, who believed that the Constitution must be read literally.Macon’s Bill No. 2
An 1810 bill that restored U.S. commerce with Britain and France (after their interruption under the Embargo Act and Non-Intercourse Act) but threatened to revive the terms of the Non-Intercourse Act if either country failed to respect U.S. neutrality and shipping rights.New Jersey Plan
Also known as the small state plan, a proposal at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to create a unicameral (single-house) legislature in which all states would be equally represented. The New Jersey plan appealed to smaller states but not to more populous states, which backed the Virginia Plan to create a bicameral legislature in which representatives were apportioned by population. The Great Compromise solved the dilemma by creating a bicameral Congress featuring one house with proportional representation and another with equal representation.Non-Intercourse Act
An 1809 act that replaced the ineffective Embargo Act in an attempt to revive the faltering American economy by boosting U.S. exports. The Non-Intercourse Act banned trade only with France and Britain (unlike the Embargo Act, which banned exports completely) until both nations agreed to respect American sovereignty. When this bill also failed, Congress passedMacon’s Bill No. 2 .Northwest Confederacy
A confederation of Native American tribes in the Mississippi Valley, led by Tecumseh and his brother, for mutual defense against white settlers. Although the tribes of the Northwest Confederacy had legal rights to their lands under the Indian Intercourse Acts of the 1790s, expansionist War Hawks in Congress nonetheless prevailed, and William Henry Harrisonwas sent to wipe out the Confederacy. Tecumseh’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.Northwest Ordinance of 1787
A framework passed by the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation to decide which western U.S. territories (Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana) could become states. Because the ordinance also abolished slavery and established basic civil liberties (trial by jury, freedom of religion) in the Northwest Territory, it is often seen as an important first step toward the creation of the Bill of Rights.Second Continental Congress
A meeting of colonial delegates that convened in different places from1775 to 1789 to establish a new U.S. government after declaring independence from Britain. In 1777, the Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation as the first U.S. constitution.Sedition Act
A 1798 act (passed simultaneously with the Alien Acts) that banned all forms of public expression critical of the president or Congress. President John Adams approved the act, fearing the influence of French immigrants in the United States and also hoping the free speech ban would harm his political opponents, the Democratic-Republicans. Ironically, the act only made the opposition party stronger. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions the same year in protest, arguing that individual states had the right to nullify unconstitutional laws passed by Congress.Separation of Powers
A term referring to the fact that each of the three branches in the American federal government has separate and distinct powers. The legislativebranch, for example, has the sole ability to propose and pass laws, while the executive branch has the power to enforce those laws, and the judiciary the power to review them. The writers of the Constitution separated these powers to prevent any one part of the new government from becoming too powerful.Shays’s Rebellion
A 1786–1787 revolt by western Massachusetts farmer Daniel Shays, who led 1,200 other men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. Shays and others like him throughout the United States were dissatisfied with the ineptitude of state legislatures during the economic depression after the American Revolution. Shays’s Rebellion and other revolts spurred leading Americans to meet and discuss revising theArticles of Confederation.Strict Constructionists
People such as Thomas Jefferson who believed that the Constitution forbade the government to take any actions that it did not expressly permit. The strict constructionists’ interpretation was challenged by Alexander Hamilton and other loose constructionists, who believed that the Constitution allowed the government many implied powers.Three-Fifths Clause
A nickname for Article I, Section II, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution, which states that representation in the House of Representatives is determined by counting all free persons and “three-fifths of all other persons,” or slaves. The three-fifths clause was created as part of the Great Compromise between states with few slaves and those with many slaves.Treaty of Ghent
The December 1814 treaty that ended the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. The treaty stated that the war had ended in a stalemate and that neither side had gained or lost any territory. Ironically, the Battle of New Orleans—the greatest American victory in the war—was fought about two weeks after the treaty had been signed, as General Andrew Jackson had not gotten word of the war’s end.Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
Two resolutions, passed in 1798–1799 and written by Thomas Jeffersonand James Madison, that declared that the individual states had the right to nullify unconstitutional acts of Congress. The resolutions stated that because the individual states had created the Union, they also reserved the right to nullify any legislation that ran counter to their interests.Virginia Dynasty
A nickname that arose because four of the first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) all hailed from Virginia. Many northern states resented this fact, as demonstrated by the Hartford Convention’s 1814 request that presidents should not come from the same state as their predecessor.Virginia Plan
Also known as the large state plan, a proposal at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to create a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which delegates would be appointed according to the population of the state they represented. Large states with greater populations supported this plan, unlike small states, which backed the New Jersey Plan to create a unicameral legislature in which all states were equally represented. The Great Compromise solved the dilemma by creating a bicameral Congress featuring one house with proportional representation and another with equal representation.War Hawks
A younger generation of statesmen, primarily from the West and South, who replaced the Founding Fathers in the first decade of the 1800s. The War Hawks favored westward expansion and a nationalist agenda and thus encouraged war against both the Northwest Confederacy and against Britain (in the War of 1812 ). Despite their early zeal, many War Hawks, such as Henry Clay, eventually settled down to become some of the most revered statesmen in American history.XYZ Affair
A bribery scandal that caused public uproar during the Adams administration in 1798. After several naval skirmishes and French seizures of American merchant ships, Adams sent ambassadors to Paris to try to normalize relations. When the emissaries arrived, however, French officials demanded $250,000 before they would even speak with the Americans, let alone guarantee a truce. These officials, whom Adams dubbed X, Y, and Z, outraged Congress and the American public. Adams’s popularity skyrocketed, and Congress braced for war. Although no war declaration was ever made, the United States and France waged undeclared naval warfare in the Atlantic for several years.
1786 Delegates from five states meet at Annapolis Convention to discuss revising Articles of Confederation
1787 Delegates from twelve states meet at Constitutional Convention in PhiladelphiaKey People
To address the problems with the Articles of Confederation, delegates from five states met at the Annapolis Convention in Maryland in 1786. However, they could not agree on how these issues should be resolved. Finally, a new convention was proposed for the following year with the express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.The Constitutional Convention
In 1787, delegates from twelve of the thirteen states (minus Rhode Island) met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Most of the attendees were not die-hard revolutionaries (Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry were all absent). Nevertheless, most did have experience writing their own state constitutions. Though all fifty-five delegates involved in the proceedings were wealthy property owners, most were aware that they were serving a republic that comprised all social classes. George Washington was unanimously chosen as the chairman of the convention.Three Branches of Government
It quickly became clear to the Philadelphia delegates that the Articles should be scrapped and replaced with an entirely new constitution to create a stronger national government. Though this about-face was a violation of Congress’s mandate to revise the Articles only, most delegates believed there was no other way to restore order in the Union.
The delegates began drafting a new Constitution to create a republican government. They decided on a government consisting of three branches:legislative (Congress), executive (the President), and judicial (headed by the Supreme Court). Delegates believed this separation of powers into three different branches would ensure that the United States would not become another monarchy.The Virginia and New Jersey Plans
The structure of the new legislative branch was the subject of a heated debate, as delegates from Virginia and New Jersey both submitted proposals. The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which the number of representatives each state had would depend on the state’spopulation. The larger, more populous states supported this proposal because it would give them more power. Hence, the Virginia plan came to be known as the “large state plan.”
The New Jersey Plan proposed a unicameral (one-house) legislature in which all states had the same number of representatives regardless of population. This “small state plan” was, not surprisingly, the favorite of smaller states, which stood to gain power from it.The Great Compromise
Eventually, the delegates settled on what came to be called the Great Compromise: a new Congress with two houses—an upper Senate, in which each state would be represented by two senators, and a lowerHouse of Representatives, in which the number of delegates would be apportioned based on state population. Senators would be appointed by state legislatures every six years; representatives in the House would be elected directly by the people every two years.
Also, in the three-fifths clause, delegates agreed that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining the population (and thus the number of representatives in the House) of each state.The President
The delegates had an easier time outlining presidential powers. Although some delegates had extreme opinions—Alexander Hamilton proposed a constitutional monarchy headed by an American king—most agreed that a new executive or president was needed to give the country the strong leadership that it had lacked under the Articles.
Article II of the Constitution thus outlined the powers of a new executive outside the control of Congress. The president would be elected via theElectoral College for a term of four years, would be commander-in-chiefof the U.S. military, could appoint judges, and could veto legislation passed by Congress.The Judiciary
The judiciary branch of the new government would be headed by aSupreme Court, which would be headed by a chief justice. The structure of the rest of the federal court system, however, was not formalized until the Judiciary Act of 1789 (see p. 31 ).Checks and Balances
Many delegates felt that separation of powers was not enough to prevent one branch of government from dominating, so they also created a system of checks and balances to balance power even further. Under this system, each branch of government had the ability to check the powers of the others.
The president, for example, was given the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and foreign ambassadors—but only with the approval of the Senate. On the other hand, the president was granted the right to veto all Congressional legislation.
Congress was given its own veto power over the president—a two-thirds majority vote could override any presidential veto. Congress also was charged with the responsibility to confirm presidential appointees—but also the power to block them. And finally, Congress had the ability to impeach and remove the president for treason, bribery, and other “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The Supreme Court was given the sweeping power of judicial review—the authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional and thereby strike it down.Fear of Pure Democracy
The delegates also feared pure democracy and considered it to be the placement of the government directly in the hands of the “rabble.” Many elements of the Constitution were thus engineered to ensure that only the “best men” would run the country.
Under the original Constitution, senators were to be appointed by state legislatures or governors, not elected by the people—in fact, this rule did not change until the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) established direct elections for senators. Although representatives in the House were elected directly by the people, their terms were set at only two years, compared to senators’ six years. In addition, even though new legislation could be introduced only in the House, the Senate had to approve and ratify any bills before they could become law.
These checks on pure democracy were not confined to the legislative branch. The Electoral College was implemented to ensure that the uneducated masses didn’t elect someone “unfit” for the presidency. Life termsfor Supreme Court justices were also instituted as a safeguard against mob rule.The Three-Fifths Clause
Another point of contention arose over whether or how to count slaves in the U.S. population. Delegates from southern and mid-Atlantic slaveholding states wanted each slave to count as one full person in the census in order to increase their number of representatives in the House. Northern states, in which slaves made up a much lower percentage of the population, argued that slaves should not be counted at all.
After a long debate, both sides agreed on a “three-fifths clause,” which stated that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. Delegates also agreed to permit international slave trading only for the next twenty years, until 1808. Nowhere in the original Constitution did the drafters use the word slave; instead, they used vague terms such as “other persons.” Some historians have argued that this evasion indicates that slavery was polarizing Americans even in the late 1700s, well before the Civil War in the 1860s.Legacy of the Constitution
Political philosophers around the world hailed the Constitution as one of the most important documents in world history. It established the first stable democratic government and inspired the creation of similar constitutions around the world. Many modern historians, however, see the Constitution as a bundle of compromises rather than a self-conscious, history-altering document.
Indeed, as events over the next two years would prove, the new Constitution was highly controversial. When the Constitution was completed in September 1787, only thirty-nine of the original fifty-five delegates remained in Philadelphia and fully supported the new document. It was time to give the Constitution to the individual states for ratification.
In 1787 leaders of the states gathered to write the Constitution-a set of principles that told how the new nation would be governed.
The leaders of the states wanted a strong and fair national government. But they also wanted to protect individual freedoms and prevent the government from abusing its power. They believed they could do this by having three separate branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. This separation is described in the first three articles, or sections, of the Constitution.Legislative Branch
The legislative branch is made up of the two houses of Congress—the Senate and the House of Representatives. The most important duty of the legislative branch is to make laws. Laws are written, discussed and voted on in Congress.
There are 100 senators in the Senate, two from each state. Senators are elected by their states and serve six-year terms. The Vice President of the U.S. is considered the head of the Senate, but does not vote in the Senate unless there is a tie. The Senate approves nominations made by the President to the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, federal courts and other posts. The Senate must ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote.
There are 435 representatives in the House of Representatives. The number of representatives each state gets is based on its population. For example, California has many more representatives than Rhode Island. When Census figures determine that the population of a state has changed significantly, the number of representatives in that state may shift proportionately. Representatives are elected by their states and serve two-year terms. The Speaker of the House, elected by the representatives, is considered the head of the House.
Both parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives elect leaders. The leader of the party that controls the house is called the majority leader. The other party leader is called the minority leader.
See also: Congress.Executive Branch
The President is the head of the executive branch, which makes laws official. The President is elected by the entire country and serves a four-year term. The President approves and carries out laws passed by the legislative branch. He appoints or removes cabinet members and officials. He negotiates treaties, and acts as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces.
The executive branch also includes the Vice President and other officials, such as members of the cabinet. The cabinet is made up of the heads of the 15 major departments of the government. The cabinet gives advice to the President about important matters.
See also: Presidents.Judicial Branch
The judicial branch oversees the court system of the U.S. Through court cases, the judicial branch explains the meaning of the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch. Unlike a criminal court, the Supreme Court rules whether something is constitutional or unconstitutional—whether or not it is permitted under the Constitution.
On the Supreme Court there are nine justices, or judges: eight associate justices and one chief justice. The judges are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. They have no term limits. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Its decisions are final, and no other court can overrule those decisions. Decisions of the Supreme Court set precedents—new ways of interpreting the law.Significant Supreme Court Cases
See also: Supreme Court.
Fact Monster/Information Please® Database, © 2008 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.More on Three Branches of Government from Fact Monster:
America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was ratified in 1781, a time when the nation was a loose confederation of states, each operating like independent countries. The national government was comprised of a single legislature, the Congress of the Confederation; there was no president or judicial branch. The Articles of Confederation gave Congress the power to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency; however, in reality these powers were sharply limited because Congress had no authority to enforce its requests to the states for money or troops.
Soon after America won its independence from Great Britain with its 1783 victory in the American Revolution, it became increasingly evident that the young republic needed a stronger central government in order to remain stable. In 1786, Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), a lawyer and politician from New York, called for a constitutional convention to discuss the matter. The Confederation Congress, which in February 1787 endorsed the idea, invited all 13 states to send delegates to a meeting in Philadelphia.Forming a More Perfect Union
On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted 11 years earlier. There were 55 delegates in attendance, representing all 13 states except Rhode Island, which refused to send representatives because it did not want a powerful central government interfering in its economic business. George Washington, who'd become a national hero after leading the Continental Army to victory during the American Revolution, was selected as president of the convention by unanimous vote.
The delegates (who also became known as the "framers" of the Constitution) were a well-educated group that included merchants, farmers, bankers and lawyers. Many had served in the Continental Army, colonial legislatures or the Continental Congress (known as the Congress of the Confederation as of 1781). In terms of religious affiliation, most were Protestants. Eight delegates were signers of the Declaration of Independence, while six had signed the Articles of Confederation.
At age 81, Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was the oldest delegate, while the majority of the delegates were in their 30s and 40s. Political leaders not in attendance at the convention included Thomas Jefferson(1743-1826) and John Adams (1735-1826), who were serving as U.S. ambassadors in Europe. John Jay (1745-1829), Samuel Adams (1722-1803) andJohn Hancock (1737-93) were also absent from the convention. Virginia's Patrick Henry (1736-99) was chosen to be a delegate but refused to attend the convention because he didn't want to give the central government more power, fearing it would endanger the rights of states and individuals.
Reporters and other visitors were barred from the convention sessions, which were held in secret to avoid outside pressures. However, Virginia'sJames Madison (1751-1836) kept a detailed account of what transpired behind closed doors. (In 1837, Madison's widow Dolley sold some of his papers, including his notes from the convention debates, to the federal government for $30,000.)Debating the Constitution
The delegates had been tasked by Congress with amending the Articles of Confederation; however, they soon began deliberating proposals for an entirely new form of government. After intensive debate, which continued throughout the summer of 1787 and at times threatened to derail the proceedings, they developed a plan that established three branches of national government--executive, legislative and judicial. A system of checks and balances was put into place so that no single branch would have too much authority. The specific powers and responsibilities of each branch were also laid out.
The US Constitution has been called a "bundle of compromises" due to the fact that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 had to compromise on numerous key points in order to create a new Constitution that was acceptable to each of the states. Following is a list of the key compromises that helped make the US Constitution become a reality.
The Articles of Confederation under which America operated from 1781-1787 provided that each state would be represented by one vote in Congress. When changes were being discussed for how states should be represented during the creation of a new Constitution, two plans were pushed forward. The Virginia Plan provided for representation to be based on the population of each state. On the other hand, the New Jersey Plan wanted equal representation for every state. The Great Compromise, also called the Connecticut Compromise, combined both plans. It was decided that there would be two chambers in Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate would be based on equal representation and the House would be based on population.
Once it was decided that representation in the House of Representatives as to be based on population, delegates from Northern and Southern states had a difference of opinion on how slaves should be counted. Delegates for the Northern states where the economy did not rely heavily on slavery, felt that slaves should not be counted towards representation. This would provide the South with a greater number of representatives. On the other hand, Southern states fought for slaves to be counted in terms of representation. The compromise between the two became known as the three-fifths compromise because every five slaves would be counted as three individuals in terms of representation.
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