Growth of a New Government

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Growth of a New Government

James Madison ...41
Benjamin Franklin ...51
Thomas Jefferson ...67

Adopted in 1781 as America's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation soon proved inadequate for governing the young nation. By 1787, the United States was in crisis. The states, officially united in a loose association of state governments, had ever worsening relations with each other. Each state issued its own currency, and then all the states bickered about the value of their currency within other states. States taxed each other on goods brought across their borders from other states. Attempting to gain economic advantages over their neighbors, states independently made trade arrangements with foreign countries.

The Continental Congress, which served as the national government under the Articles, was powerless to control trade difficulties between the states or to resolve issues over the value of thirteen different currencies. Neither was it empowered to control trade with foreign nations. Causing more serious difficulties, the Articles gave Congress no power to tax states or citizens; therefore, it had no way to raise money. Congress could only request that states donate a certain amount each year to cover the costs of running the national government, and it received only a fraction of what it requested. Therefore, Congress could not pay off the nation's war debt—money borrowed to finance the American Revolution (1775–83), the war American colonists fought to win independence from Britain. Without reliable revenue, Congress also could not raise a military force to protect territories west of the Appalachian Mountains from lingering British hostilities and Native American attacks. The government appeared to be on the verge of failing. Almost everyone agreed that the Articles needed revisions to give Congress greater powers, especially the power to tax and to control trade agreements, both between states and with foreign nations.

Shouldering the difficulties of the nation, fifty-five men representing twelve states came together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787 to revise and strengthen the Articles of Confederation. These men are now known as the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers were leaders of the new nation who played a role in shaping one or more of the three founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1781), and the U.S. Constitution (1787).

Meeting in Philadelphia from May 14 until September 1787, the Founding Fathers crafted the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers, also called the Framers of the Constitution, had the education, political and economic experience, and vision to rescue America from disaster. During the historic Philadelphia convention, later commonly called the Constitutional Convention, they tried to avoid divisiveness and hold the union together. They all knew a stronger national government was needed; the challenge was to strengthen the national government while leaving considerable power with the states.

On May 29 and 30, the delegates from Virginia, including Governor Edmund J. Randolph (1753–1813), presented the Virginia Plan to the convention. The first excerpt here is the text of the Virginia Plan as read to the convention delegates; the excerpt is taken from Documents of American History, edited by Henry S. Commager. The purpose of the convention was to revise the Articles, but the Virginia Plan called for a newly structured government and an entirely new constitution. When the Virginia delegates presented their plan, they set in motion discussion and debates that lasted more than three months and that resulted in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. Setting aside their differences, the delegates from the twelve states compromised on one key issue after another, all of them striving for the common good.

The second excerpt, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, is taken from a book with the same title, edited by Adrienne Koch. The excerpt consists of notes taken by Virginia delegate James Madison (1751–1836) on September 17, 1787, the final day of the Constitutional Convention. Madison records a speech by Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). In the speech, Franklin explained why he was urging all the delegates to sign the Constitution. Franklin was in fact too ill to deliver the speech himself; another Pennsylvania delegate, James Wilson (1742–1798), made the speech for him.

The Founding Fathers finished their work on the Constitution in mid-September and turned the document over to the states for ratification (approval). Although they sensed their work was very good, they nevertheless had no idea if the new government they proposed would really work. None had any idea how successful the Constitution would be.

The U.S. Constitution was a revolutionary work. The Constitution set up a new form of government not seen before. It was a republican government, meaning it was run for the benefit of the people by representatives elected by the people. In 1800–1801, another revolutionary event occurred in America. Incumbent vice president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was elected president in November 1800, and on March 4, 1801, he was installed as the nation's third president. In the election of 1800, Jefferson defeated the sitting president, John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801) of Massachusetts. Jefferson and Adams represented political parties with conflicting views on how to operate the U.S. government. However, the transfer of government power from one political party to the opposing party was calm and orderly. Because most government leadership changes in the world involved violence and bloodshed, Jefferson referred to the peaceful transition as a revolution, a radical change in world history. In the third excerpt, "Jefferson's First Inaugural Address," Jefferson asks his country to remain united despite political differences, beginning the tradition of peaceful leadership changes in the U.S. government. The excerpt is from Commager's Documents of American History.