The First Constitution
The Articles of Confederation were dubbed a "loose confederation" or a "firm league of friendship," under which the thirteen independent states joined together in dealing with foreign affairs. Otherwise, the states were to remain sovereign, a weak Congress was to be the chief bureaucratic agent, and there was to be no executive branch. Britain's King George III, whom they had so recently wrested freedom and self-governance from, had simply left the people with a bad impression of a strong central government.
Within Congress, each state held only one vote, so 68,000 Rhode Islanders had the same voice as over ten times that number of Virginians. In addition, any amendments to the Articles themselves required a unanimous vote. Considering the vast interests of the thirteen states, unanimity was almost impossible. Thus, the amending process, which would have been a fortunate option, was impractical.
The Articles of Confederation, by design, had resulted in a weak Congress. Suspicious states, having just wrested control over their internal affairs, taxation and trade from Britain, had no desire to yield their newly acquired privileges to a national legislature, even one of their own making. So, states were free to establish their own trade and navigation laws, even if they conflicted with other states. Furthermore, Congress could not protect itself against indignities from citizens within a state, nor even enforce its tax-collection program -- states donated tax contributions on a voluntary basis.
This system quickly crippled the new nation's economic strength and proved untenable. On the high seas, pirates disrupted trade patterns. Domestically, some states quarrelled over land boundaries and levied duties on goods from neighboring states. Others minted their own currency, which only raised inflation. There were also several uprisings by disgruntled citizens.
The Consitutional Convention of 1787
These many problems induced Virginia to lead and call a convention in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786; however, only five states were represented. Alexander Hamilton brilliantly saved the convention from failure by calling upon Congress to summon all states to be represented at a convention the following year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thus, the following year, Congress invoked an assembly, authorizing representatives of the Constitutional Convention to address the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. The official purpose of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation but when the convention convened, the delegates realized that they had two general goals in common: to create a republican form as well as a new constitutional form of government. However, the Constitutional delegation consisted of members from all areas of the United States who held varied interests and ideas on how the government should be organized. The three general divisions were between large and small states, northern and southern states, and slave and free states. Thus, the convention had to compromise on several issues. Fortunately, the smallness of the assemblage facilitated intimate acquaintances and hence, compromise. The delegates knew that they would generate heated differences and they did not want to advertise their own dissentions; thus, they conducted their sessions in complete secrecy with armed sentinels posted outside convention doors.
This important occasion called for the most able men to drop their personal pursuits and come to the aid of their country. The caliber of representatives and participants was extraordinarily high -- Thomas Jefferson dubbed everyone present as "demigods." George Washington, enormously prestigious as "the sword of the (American) revolution," was unanimously elected chairman of the convention. Benjamin Franklin added the experience and urbanity of an elder statesman. James Madison's contributions were so notable that he was dubbed "the Father of the Constitution." Alexander Hamilton and other notable representatives also participated in this history altering event. Together, these men sought to preserve and strengthen the young Republic, forestall anarchy, ensure security of life and property against dangerous uprisings, create a political structure that would endure, and design a firm, dignified, strong, and respected government that would be recognized by countries abroad.
For seventeen weeks, these men discussed plans, such as Virginia's "large-state plan," which proposed that they abolish the Articles of Confederation and create a new form of government, under which representation in both houses of a bicameral (two house) Congress be essentially based on population -- an arrangement that would naturally give more representation to larger states. New Jersey countered with its "small-state plan," which called for equal representation of the states in a unicameral (one house) Congress (as it was under the Articles of Confederation), regardless of population or size. After prolonged debate, the delegates arrived at the "Great Compromise" or "Connecticut Compromise," which formed a new national government with three branches -- executive, legislative and judicial -- as a "checks and balances" system. Furthermore, the legislative branch would be bicameral and the number of delegates each state had in the House of Representatives of the legislative branch was to be based on population. Smaller states were appeased with Article I, Section III, paragraph 1 that stated that all states would have equal representation within the Senate of the legislative branch. Each state, regardless of population size, would have two senators. In addition, to encourage the larger states to accept the compromise, a provision was included that any bill for raising revenue must begin in the House of Representatives. The Convention delegates also decided that the members of the House of Representatives would be elected directly by the people of the states and would serve two-year terms. The members of the Senate would be elected by the state legislatures and would serve six-year terms.
The new Constitution also provided for a strong, independent Executive Branch, which included a President and Vice President. The President had a term of four years to institute his programs though he could be re-elected if his performance garnered sufficient support. The president was to be the commander-in-chief of the military and was to have wide powers of appointment to domestic offices, including Supreme Court judges. The president was also granted the power to veto legislative bills. To choose the President, the Convention adopted the idea of an electoral college, under which citizens of each state would vote for electors who, in turn, would elect the President.
The third branch of the new government, the Judicial Branch, had little specific authority. The Judicial Branch included a Supreme Court that had appellate and original jurisdiction. The Legislative Branch controlled all the other courts and jurisdiction.
Before the Constitution could take effect, it had to be ratified. Of the original 55 Constitutional Convention delegates, 42 remained to ratify the document. Only three of these 42 refused to sign the Constitution. When the Constitution was presented to the individual states, the founding fathers claimed that the Constitution was not an amendment to the Articles of Confederation, since it established a completely new form of government. They declared that it required approval by two-thirds, or nine, of the states, therefore the states held ratification conventions. The delegates from the state conventions, who were chosen by voters in each state, approved the new constitution. The new government thus would receive its power from the people rather than from the states. Several states were alarmed that a Bill of Rights was not created, but they were assured that the first Congress would add such a safeguard by amendment.
Thus, in July of 1789, the people of the United States ratified the Constitution and instituted it as the supreme law of the land.
Today, the United States Constitution is the oldest, written constitution that has continuously remained in effect in the world. It also established the first federal form of government, as well as the first system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch of government from acquiring too much power. Thus, the many compromises of the delegates and individual states to a common ground for the welfare of the entire country allowed the convention to accomplish and reach its constitutional vision.