Constitution: Creating a Republic

views updated


In early 1788, in defense of the proposed constitution, James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." Here, Madison described the dilemma of government in a democratic republic: The role of government is to prevent the excesses of personal license and political tyranny while ensuring the broadest range of individual liberty.

preserving the revolution and union

Madison's support of the Constitution sought to preserve the ideals and values of the Revolution by sustaining the unity of the new nation. In the spring of 1787 the United States had been on the verge of breaking into independent states and regional confederations. Its economy was crippled by a variety of currencies, state tariffs, threats of secession in the west, a huge national debt, and the inability to defend American merchants from pirates. Popular uprisings, the most famous being Shays' Rebellion in western Massachusetts, destabilized states. Madison believed that the near-collapse of the nation had resulted from the desire of each state to promote its own interest and from the weakness of the national government.

The national government had been created during the Revolutionary War by the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, sovereign states agreed to join a loose national federation that had a weak central government composed of representatives from each state. Each state had one vote in the federal congress. There was no executive and no system of federal courts. This form of government reflected the views and experiences of the people who led Americans to war against Britain. Americans fought for independence from England partly because they believed that Parliament had too much authority, had weakened the powers of the provincial legislatures, and had "enslaved" citizens by depriving them of their rights. Revolutionary leaders responded by giving most power to the states and making the national government the servant of the states.

the constitutional convention

Disunion, with states becoming independent countries, could result in divisions similar to those in Europe that had been the source of centuries of warfare. Facing this prospect, leaders had to rethink the political principles and government structures that had dominated during the Revolution. The Continental Congress authorized a convention to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation that would strengthen the national government. Meeting in Philadelphia through the summer of 1787, delegates chosen by the states followed a path laid out by Madison. Rather than reform the existing system, they would create a new form of government. Their goal was revolution, not revision.

The fate of the nation was in the hands of a few men. Of the seventy-four delegates only fifty-five attended the Philadelphia convention. Nearly all had served in their state legislatures and the Continental Congress; thirty had served in the army. The selection of George Washington as presiding officer put the convention above politics in the public's mind. For three months delegates met in secret to permit open and candid discussion of ideas and conflicting views. The result was a novel form of government that would preserve the principles of the Revolution and American society for "generations yet unborn."

features of the constitution

James Madison, often referred to as "The Father of the Constitution," presented a proposal that would vastly increase the power of the national government and give most power to the most populous states. His Virginia Plan provided for proportional representation in the House and Senate based on a state's population. Following the lead of many state constitutions, Madison introduced the idea of separation of powers on the national level, proposing a separate judiciary and executive. He also proposed that the national government have the power to tax citizens directly and to declare state laws null and void.

Delegates from states that were poor and had small populations vigorously opposed Madison's plan. The conflict between small states and large states over their powers in the national government nearly broke up the convention. Madison's opponents insisted they had not fought a war for independence against the tyranny of a King and Parliament just to exchange one master for another. The compromise offered by Roger Sherman of Connecticut resolved the controversy. It initiated a succession of compromises that led to near unanimous approval of the draft constitution.

The delegates agreed that the House would be composed of popularly elected delegates in proportion to the population of each state, but that each state would be equally represented in the Senate by two delegates chosen by their state legislatures. The compromise also revealed a paradox of the Constitution. It was to be not an elegantly consistent blueprint based on one theory, but a mixture of principles, pragmatically arranged, that reflected a variety of values engrained in American society. It also reflected the delegates' view of human nature, based on their experiences in war and peace.

The Three-fifths Clause was another compromise. Under the Articles of Confederation each slave counted as three-fifths of a person, a figure that had determined a state's assessment to pay for the war against England. This clause was incorporated into the Constitution, despite some opposition to slavery, to ensure southern acceptance of the new form of government. The external slave trade would continue until 1808. When delegates were forced to choose between the Union or abolishing slavery, they chose the Union.

The final draft was submitted to the Continental Congress, which had been created under the Articles and

which had authorized the convention. That congress agreed to submit the draft to individual states for approval. In doing so the congress authorized its own demise and the replacement of the Articles by the Constitution as soon as nine of the thirteen states approved the draft. In short, the Continental Congress authorized its own overthrow by ballots, not bullets. The draft produced widespread debate on the principles and functions of government, provoking an extraordinarily intense and creative period in American political history during which the nation debated the meaning of the Revolution and the future of the United States.

The provisions of the Constitution were seen as novel, but not new. Some of its features resembled those already found in some state constitutions. The Constitution incorporated the principle of separation of powers by dividing the legislative, judicial and executive functions of government between three distinct branches rather than blending them as had been done in Great Britain. The Constitution enumerated the powers of the national government, yet provided for elasticity in exercising those powers. It also distributed powers between the national government and the state governments. In doing so, the Constitution made individuals citizens both of their states and of the nation. This dual citizenship, a basis for later claims of states' rights, fostered conflict over a variety of issues, such as the right of citizens to own slaves. While it did not contain a bill of rights (which was added in 1791), the Constitution did protect individual liberties. For example, it provided for habeas corpus, which permits an imprisoned person to demand that he or she be brought before a court to hear the charges. No existing state constitution incorporated all of the Constitution's provisions. Even more important, the Constitution proposed a federal republic of a type and scope never before seen in history.

approving the constitution

Voters in each state had to decide whether to accept or reject the Constitution as presented. Following the model created by Massachusetts, candidates sought election to their state's convention on whether they supported or opposed the constitution. The conventions met, cast one vote, and then dissolved. Thus, approval of the Constitution reflected the will of the majority of voters through elected delegates. Furthermore, the Constitution was to be the written framework to organize and restrict the powers of government, and as such was conceived as "higher law." It not only was the supreme law of the land, but represented the principle that no person was above the law.

In June, 1788 New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the Constitution and with that, the Articles of Confederation became null and void. Implementing the new form of government began with elections to the House of Representatives, the selection of senators by state legislatures, and the choice of president of the United States by the Electoral College. George Washington's inauguration in April 1789 formally ended that phase of the political revolution. Under this novel Constitution, the United States initiated an experiment in self-government in a federal republic guided by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.


The Constitution, a product of a period of political dissent, war, and post-war turmoil, has had a major influence in shaping American culture, society, and identity. The debate over ratification expressed in the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist replies created the most important source of American political thinking, one that continues to influence modern politics. The Constitution became an object of veneration that celebrated "American Exceptionalism." the idea that the United States is unique and had a special role to play in history. It has also come to symbolize American belief that the United States is a society governed by law and that no person is above the law. Constitutional law has proved to be organic, capable of applying and extending the Constitution's principles to unforeseen circumstances through amendments and interpretations made by the Supreme Court. Finally, the Constitution has been a means through which to express popular opinion and America's deepest cultural ideals, as seen in decisions such as Plessy v Ferguson (1896) that upheld segregation and Brown v Board of Education (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional.


Collier, Christopher and Collier, James. Decision in Philadelphia. New York: Random House, 1986.

Cornell, Saul. The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Kammen, Michael. A Machine That Would Go Of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

John P. Resch

See also:Articles of Confederation; Constitution: Creating a Republic; Continental Congresses; Declaration of Independence; Madison, James; Shay's and Whiskey Rebellions; Washington, George.

About this article

Constitution: Creating a Republic

Updated About content Print Article


Constitution: Creating a Republic