In 1787 delegations from twelve of the thirteen states of the fledgling United States (all but Rhode Island) descended on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to consider revising the Articles of Confederation, which had provided a roadmap for national government since their ratification in 1781. Over the course of four sweltering months, these delegations met under a cloak of secrecy to consider how best to keep the United States whole. The proposal that emerged in late September 1787 was not a revision of the Articles of Confederation but an entirely new document which, upon ratification, became the Constitution of the United States of America. That Constitution has survived, more or less intact, for more than 200 years.
In the years between the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention, the United States operated pursuant to the Articles of Confederation. As the name implies, the Articles envisioned a confederation of autonomous states, with a limited national government to provide national defense and otherwise manage foreign affairs. The national government, however, could do little without the consent of at least nine of the thirteen states.
The Articles of Confederation proved unworkable. The national government had difficulty collecting funds from the states to pay the immense debts incurred during the war, and they could not even compensate the soldiers who had fought on behalf of independence. Moreover, as the states coined their own money, forgave debts of their citizens owed to citizens of other states, and erected trade barriers among themselves, the national economy floundered. Among the country’s leaders, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York lobbied the loudest for reform. Shays’ Rebellion, an armed insurgency by a band of impoverished Massachusetts farmers, lent a sense of urgency to their demands and the national Congress decided to convene a delegation of reform in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Convention brought together some of the most prominent political voices of the time. Some, such as James Madison, considered the convention an opportunity to create a strong national government. In a tactical coup, Madison and his delegation from Virginia arrived early, marshaled their arguments, and proffered a coherent plan for sweeping reform—the Virginia Plan—a mere four days after the convention was called to order.
Delegates who favored state sovereignty and limited national government proposed alternatives, most notably the New Jersey Plan. The Virginia delegation, however, had successfully framed the debate, and while the convention debate prompted considerable compromise, the proposal that emerged from the convention vastly increased the power of the national government relative to the states.
Specifically, the proposed constitution created a bicameral legislature, with representation based on population in one house and equal for every state in the other; a unitary executive; and a Supreme Court. Perhaps most importantly, the proposed constitution vested control over interstate and foreign commerce with the national government and gave the national government the power to levy taxes rather than rely upon the largesse of the states for funds. Overall, the proposed document gave the national government control over the nation’s economy and foreign affairs; while states retained significant sovereign power, the document explicitly rendered that power inferior to that of the national government.
While the proposed constitution increased the power of the national government, it nevertheless reflected a deep skepticism of any unchecked power. The institutions of national government are each constrained by the others, forcing deliberation, compromise, and incremental policy making. Similarly, while the Congress and the president are ultimately accountable to electoral pressures, the Supreme Court is insulated from such forces by life tenure. In this way, the U.S. Constitution reflects the core concerns of classical liberal philosophy: a government guided by majority rule but providing protection for minority rights.
While the rhetoric surrounding the Revolutionary War and the framing of the Constitution emphasized equality and the inherent rights of man, the founders defined equality quite narrowly. Specifically, at the time of the founding, most states denied the right to vote and other privileges of citizenship to large classes of people, including women and citizens who did not own real property. Perhaps the most striking conflict between the ideals and the reality of the early United States was the institution of slavery.
The same citizens who were willing to fight and die for liberty during the Revolutionary War turned a blind eye to the institution of slavery or, in many cases, actually participated in it. While there were doubtless delegates who held personal moral objections to slavery, serious efforts to abolish slavery would have fragmented the foundling nation. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention discussed the issue of slavery, but the only serious concern was how slaves should be counted for purposes of taxation and representation. The ultimate compromise position—that each slave would count as three-fifths of a free person—remains an embarrassment to the nation.
The terms of the proposed constitution required ratification by nine of the thirteen states. Supporters of the new constitution, known as Federalists, appealed to middle-class merchants and creditors, exhorting the need for economic stability. Many state and local politicians, whose power was threatened by a strong national government, opposed the new constitution; these Anti-Federalists made emotional appeals about the burden of taxation the new government would create and raised the specter of Britain’s tyranny over the colonies.
The Anti-Federalists spread their message through public rallies and through a series of essays published in newspapers across the country. These essays, written under pseudonyms such as “Cato” and “The Federal Farmer,” later became known as the Anti-Federalist Papers. In response, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison collectively penned a series of 85 essays, dubbed the Federalist Papers, which sought to allay fears of government tyranny. These essays stand as perhaps the best defense of the United States’ republican system of government.
Ultimately the Anti-Federalist forces lacked coordination and failed to offer a single, coherent alternative to the new constitution. By January 1788, five of the necessary nine states had ratified the new constitution. The Federalists ultimately attracted additional support by promising to recommend, as a first order of business for the new government, a series of amendments designed to protect individual liberty against the tyranny of the state; these amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788; almost two years later Rhode Island became the last of the original thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution.
Since its ratification in 1788, the U.S. Constitution has endured remarkably well. Amending the U.S. Constitution is difficult, and this difficulty insulates the document from the most capricious tides of public sentiment, contributing to its stability. Amendments must first be proposed by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress or by a convention called by two-thirds of the state legislatures; ratification then requires approval from three-fourths of the states. Apart from the Bill of Rights, the United States has ratified only seventeen constitutional amendments. Most of the successful amendments have expanded the franchise or involved the administration of government; generally, efforts to amend the Constitution to implement social policy have failed. There are, however, two notable exceptions.
First, in the wake of the United States Civil War, the nation ratified three constitutional amendments related to the issues of race and slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizens equal protection under the law and required the states to afford citizens due process. The Fifteenth Amendment required the states to extend the right to vote to all adult men, regardless of race or previous condition of servitude. Collectively, these amendments radically changed the social structure of the United States; while racial equality continued to evolve for the next century and, indeed, continues to elude the United States, these amendments have served as a moral compass pointing toward true equality.
The other successful attempt to regulate social policy through constitutional amendment was, frankly, only successful for a brief moment in time. In 1919 the United States ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, and trade of intoxicating liquors. For the next fourteen years, this policy—known as Prohibition—created a black market for alcohol and contributed to a dramatic increase in organized crime. In 1933 the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth, was ratified.
While the Constitution is stable, it is not rigid. Rather, interpretation of the Constitution has adapted to changing social and political circumstances, and thus insured its continued political viability. Specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court, through the mechanism of judicial review, interprets the U.S. Constitution, and fluidity in its interpretation has allowed the Constitution to bend to adapt to political demands.
For example, the equal protection and due process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment—which were intended to protect racial minorities from mistreatment and discrimination—were construed by the Supreme Court to provide protection to large economic interests. Similarly, the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized a “right to privacy” implicit in the protections of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments; the Supreme Court has determined that this right to privacy essentially protects most sexual and reproductive decisions from government interference.
Ultimately, the U.S. Constitution is a document born of necessity and compromise, but it has proven remarkably robust and resilient. As society and technology have evolved, the Constitution, too, has evolved. But its evolution has occurred, primarily, through changing interpretation of static language. As a result, the Constitution has adapted but its essential character—the basic principles of liberty, equality, and democracy reflected in its language—has endured.
SEE ALSO American Revolution; Bill of Rights, U.S.; Civil Liberties; Civil Rights; Declaration of Independence, U.S.; Supreme Court, U.S.
Beard, Charles. 1986. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: The Free Press. (Orig. pub. 1913).
Bowen, Catherine Drinker. 1966. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May–September, 1787. Boston: Little, Brown.
Hamilton, Alexander, et al. 2003. The Federalist Papers. New York: New American Library.
Ketchum, Ralph. 2003. The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates. New York: New American Library.
Wendy L. Watson