The American Constitution di Barbara Franchino


By the early ‘70ies of the XVIII century the thirteen American colonies were nearly all royal provinces administered by governors named by the English king. They all had popularly elected legislatures and about the same judicial organization and procedures, heritage of the English Common Law [E][F] [Es] [I].There were, however, substantial geographical, economic and political differences among the colonies, which were to be overcome by the Revolution [E] [F] [Es] [I] because of the general intense dislike of the British rule.

The First and Second Continental Congresses

A system of intercolonial organization began in 1774 with the First Continental Congress [E] [F] [Es], held in Philadelphia. It was an irregular body representing dissatisfied elements in the colonies, but on the whole the delegates were not revolutionary. They were willing to stay with the Empire, but they objected to the power of Parliament to tax them and legislate for them. The British government would not yield its power, and military preparations began on both sides.

Before the Second continental Congress met in May 1775, war had begun with the Battle of Lexington [E][F][Es]. The Congress found itself busy with the task of managing a military operation, and carrying on de facto government. Something more effective on the way of a central organization were a resolution in Congress in the favour of a Declaration of Independence [E1] [E2][F] [Es] [I] and a second resolution proposing a permanent Confederation [E] [F] [Es] [I].

The Articles of Confederation [E1][E2][F1] [F2][Es][I]

The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Congress in 1777, but were only ratified in 1781. This Confederation lasted for only eight years and proved unsatisfactory. The Articles did not provide for an executive, so virtually all functions were concentrated in a single legislative chamber [E][F] [I]. The authority of the Congress did not rest in the people, but on the state legislatures that had ratified the Articles. The confederation lacked most of the powers essential to an effective central government. Congress could not levy taxes, could not regulate commerce between the states and could not act directly on the citizens, having to depend on the state governments to execute its measures. The confederation could hardly call itself a government: as the Articles stated, it was a league of friendship among sovereign states. Nevertheless, the Revolution was brought to a successful conclusion in 1783.

After the Revolution, the public finances were in desperate situation, and the Congress was incapable of correcting the economic ills of the country. Many of the leaders of the Revolution, such as George Washington [E] [F] [Es] [I] and Alexander Hamilton [E] [F] [Es] [I], believed that a stronger national government was essential. They lamented the disruption of commerce and travel caused by the quarrelsome states and feared the possibility of foreign military intervention, with England and France playing one state off against another. A small number of men, conferring in Mount Vernon in 1785, decided to call a meeting to discuss trade regulation. This meeting, held in Annapolis, was not well attended (for instance, no delegates arrived from New England), so a new meeting took place in Philadelphia in May 1787 to consider ways of remedying the defects of the Confederation.

The Constitutional Convention [E1][E2]

The protection of life, liberty and property were the objectives of the Convention, but there was no shared political theory to tell what kind of national government would serve the goal. Some seventy-four delegates were appointed, but only fifty five of them the attended the sessions. Rhode Island refused to send any delegate. George Washington was the president officer. Old and sick Benjamin Franklin [E] [F] [Es] [I] was also there. He participated seldom in debates, but his influence and endorsement were essential to the debate. The men who did the most talking and who exercised the greatest influence on the decisions of the Convention were Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson of Pennsylvania, James Madison [E] [F] [Es] [I] of Virginia and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.

It was apparent to the leaders that the confederation, with its powerless Congress, could not provide what they felt the country needed: security for business development, encouragement of foreign trade, protection against competitive state taxation, a sound currency, and protection against foreign countries and Indians on the frontier. The Convention produced therefore not a revision of the Articles of Confederation, as it had been authorized to do, but a wholly new written Constitution [E] [F] [Es] [I] creating a true national government unlike any that had existed before.

The Virginia Plan [E1] [E2][F] [Es] [I]

The Virginia delegation opened the proceedings by presenting a series of resolutions providing for new national government. They called for a “strong consolidated union” organized into three governmental branches - the legislative, the executive and the judicial. The Congress was empowered “to legislate in all cases in which the separate state are incompetent, or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by exercise of individual legislation”. Congress could also veto state laws that in his opinion violated the Constitution. A national executive was to be chosen by Congress, and there would also be national Courts. A national legislature would then have supreme powers on all matters on which the separate states were not competent to act, and at least one House of the legislature would be elected directly by the people.

The New Jersey Plan [E][F] [Es] [I]

As debate went on, the opponents of a strong national Government became increasingly worried that the convention was not going to consider any alternative to the Virginia Plan. Led by William Paterson of New Jersey, some delegates produced a set of resolutions that were designed to amend, not replace, the Articles of Confederation. In essence, whereas the Virginia Plan was based on the notion of popular sovereignty and national government with broad powers, the New Jersey Plan was based on the concept of state sovereignty and a national government with limited powers.

The Virginia Plan was accepted on June 19. With the tide running in favour of a strong national government, the supporters of states’ rights had to shift their strategy. Many of them were from small states, and they now began to focus their efforts on ensuring that they could not be outvoted by the larger ones in the Congress. One way was to have the members of the lower House elected by the state legislatures rather than by the people, with each state getting the same number of seats rather than seats proportional to its population.

The Great Compromise

The debate was long, and finally a committee was appointed to work out a compromise. The Great Compromise was adopted on July 16: the structure of the national legislature was set as follows:

- a House of Representatives consisting initially of 65 members apportioned among the states roughly on the basis of population and elected by the people;

- a Senate , consisting of two senators from each state to be chosen by the state legislatures.

After the Great Compromise, many more issues had to be resolved: when one delegate proposed having the Congress choose the president , another, James Wilson, proposed that he should be elected by the people. He was concerned that Congressional choice could lead to legislative intrigues and make the president subservient to Congress. A committee then invented a plan for an Electoral College [E1][E2] [F] [Es] [I] that would choose a president. If any one candidate received a majority, he was elected president; the candidate with the second highest number of votes would be vice president. If no candidate received a majority, the House would select the President from the five higher candidates, the delegation from each state casting a vote. Because there were not as yet any political parties or any system for nominating candidates for the Presidency, this elector plan was as close as the Convention could come to popular election. In fact, it was expected that no candidate would be likely to get majority of the electoral vote, and therefore the House would usually select the President.

Some states also wanted the Supreme Court to be picked by the Senate; others wanted it chosen by the president. They finally agreed to let the president nominate the justices who would then have to be confirmed by the senate.


The Articles of Confederation provided that revision could be made only by a favourable vote of Congress and approval of the legislatures in all thirteen states. Rhode Island had not even sent delegates to the Convention, and there were other states whose approval of the new Constitution was doubtful. Public opinion at the time was badly divided on the need for a stronger central government.

Ignoring the unanimity requirement, the drafters provided that the Constitution became effective on ratification by nine states. They also excluded both the Congress and the state legislatures from ratification process. The document would go directly to state conventions elected for the specific purpose of considering ratification.

Less than three months after the Constitution was signed, Delaware became the first state to ratify it, on December 7, 1787. New Hampshire was the ninth state, putting the Constitution into effect on June 21, 1788.

The ratification campaign left as a legacy the most famous commentary on American government, The Federalist [E] [I]. These essays were newspaper articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Gay to influence the vote in the doubtful state of New York. These discussions of the proposed Constitution were of considerable influence, and they have been subsequently accepted as authoritative guides to constitutional interpretation.

The Constitution was eventually ratified by wide majorities in seven of the state conventions, but in the important states of Massachusetts, Virginia and New York the voting was close. The absence of a bill of rights was the feature most widely criticized in the ratifying conventions, and in several doubtful states the promise that a bill of rights would be added was instrumental in securing the votes needed for ratification.



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