When, in 1776, the 13 American colonies east of the Appalachian Mountains declared their independence from the British Crown, they set about forming a national government in subsequent years. The Articles of Confederation is the culmination of this process which concluded with the signing of a peace treaty with Britain in the year 1783. However, the Confederation Congress and the adopted Articles proved unsuitable instruments of governance in the new geo-political reality. Firstly, the Revolutionary War had depleted the financial resources of the colonies. This condition was exacerbated by the creditors’ reluctance to accept the currency of Continentals. The problem arose from the fact that the Articles of Confederation did not stipulate the jurisdiction for printing money among the 13 states. Furthermore, the Articles constrained the Confederation Congress from raising taxes and initiating legal proceedings in disputes between states. The inadequacy of the Articles was further exposed by the Shays’ Rebellion, “in which farmers refused to pay taxes and took up arms to protect their right not to pay those taxes. The national government called out the federal militia and stopped the rebellion, but the entire episode made very clear the fact that a stronger national government was needed” (www.socialstudiesforkids.com). These weaknesses inherent in the Articles impelled the drafting of a more robust framework of governance in the form of the Constitution.
The purpose of the convention for the drafting of the Constitution was to elicit a consensus on the preferred mode of government and the process of electing representatives. Fifty five delegates in total attended the convention. Considering the diverse range of views and opinions expressed, as well as taking into account the handful of radical proposals made in these sessions, the delegates considered it prudent to maintain utmost secrecy. While the convention initially set out to amend the Articles of Confederation, its thrust soon shifted to replacing it completely. Intense debates raged between the delegates from Virginia and New Jersey. While the former wanted a more democratic and representative Constitution, the latter preferred the status quo. James Madison and Edmund Jennings Randolph, both of whom represented Virginia, argued that “no confederacy could endure if it acted upon states only and not directly upon individuals. Madison and Edmund Jennings Randolph were able to enter the Constitutional Convention with a plan of government conferred an enormous political advantage“(www.socialstudiesforkids.com). William Paterson led New Jersey delegation, on the other hand, preferred more autonomy and equal status for individual states – a position that concurs with the Articles of Confederation.
The Virginia and New Jersey Plans had differences in their view of slavery. But, eventually a compromise solution was proposed by Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman which was agreeable to both sides. The Great Compromise “retained the bicameral legislature envisioned by Madison, but apportioned the lower house by population and granted equal representation to all states in the upper house; it also decided that the lower house would be apportioned by population another difficulty arose for the convention” (Dahl, 2003). Still, states that had a large population of slaves wanted their slave contingent be counted along with their masters, but this would weaken the influence of Free states in the Congress. It was at this juncture that James Wilson proposed another compromise solution, whereby slaves would be counted as 3/5 of a free person when considered for apportionment.
Although the Constitution has many admirable qualities in it, it also marked a ‘reactionary’ phase in American history, for it neglected the concerns and aspirations of minority communities. For example, “socially, the constitution denied to voting rights to women, slaves and Native Americans. Politically, the legislatures in the United States lost some power with the advent of the Constitution.” (www.booksie.com) The Constitution does not explicitly mention that only land owning Caucasians can hold high offices or that woman do not have the right to exercise their franchise. Where there are no specific proclamations, the legislators interpreted the laws to suit their interests. As a result, ‘independence’ was no more than an abstract notion for the minority groups (Tucker & Hendrickson, 1982).
Internet Modern History Sourcebook: American Independence, Mid-18th Century Politics, retrieved from www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook12.html on 27th April, 2009
RW Tucker & DC Hendrickson, The fall of the first British Empire: origins of the war of American independence, JHU Press, 1982.
The Making of the Constitution, retrieved from http://www.socialstudiesforkids.com/articles/ushistory/makingoftheconstitution1.htm on 27th April, 2009.
RA Dahl, How democratic is the American Constitution?, Yale University Press, 2003.
The American Constitution — A Reactionary Phase in History : Jul 3, 2008, retrieved from http://www.booksie.com/other/essay/chicago/the-american-constitution-a-reactionary-phase-in-history on 27th April, 2009.