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Ratifying a Revolution:
The U.S. Constitution
By revolutionizing government in America, the writers of the Constitution proposed a nation stronger and more united, which many reacted against, fearing the loss of citizens’ rights with the delegation of more power to the centralized government. The Bill of Rights reformed the new government, successfully addressing the question of individual freedom, while making ratification of the Constitution possible.
During the early stages of the American Revolution, the states created the Articles of Confederation to establish a national government. A decade later this form proved to be inadequate as individual states made independent decisions. The Articles stated that “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence,” making each state almost its own country. Stanford professor, Jack Rakove says, “The Articles attempted to balance the need for an effective national government with the traditional independence of each state.”
However, this attempt only gave the states independence, it did not set up a successful national government. Because the states were unorganized, trade and foreign policy became issues. The country did not employ a standing army, resulting in violence across the nation. According to historian John Kaminski, “The Confederation Congress seemed incapable of adequately addressing the enormous problems facing the country. Amendments to the Articles were proposed but, because of the requirement of the unanimous ratification by the state legislatures, none were adopted.” To fix the problem of state superiority, a groundbreaking Federal Convention began in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787.
James Madison crafted the bold and controversial Virginia Plan, proposing to revolutionize the government by abolishing the Articles of Confederation. In the new system Madison created an effective three-branch government with checks and balances to keep each branch from being too powerful.
This Virginia Plan gave representation in the legislative branch based upon population creating a debate between the large states, which wanted proportional representation, and the small states, which wanted equal representation. Eventually this led to a bicameral legislature; the Senate had equal representation and the House of Representatives had proportional representation.
Many Framers pointed out sections of the document they disliked, but as a whole delegation, they believed the new government would be successful in managing the nation. However, because the Articles of Confederation had been replaced by a radical plan for a strengthened central government, debate among the people was inevitable.
As soon as the delegates signed, debate began throughout the country over the new Constitution. To combat the resistance, supporters of the Constitution adopted the name federalists implying the system was a league of state governments.
Although not true, it helped citizens believe that the states still had the majority of the power. The primary federalist idea was that the federal government would be strong enough to act on behalf of the states while allowing the country to flourish and grow.
Many citizens opposed the idea of Federalism because they feared the loss of citizens’ rights; they had just fought a war to be free from tyrannical rule and unjust taxation. It was no surprise that the American people thought the Constitution shared many similarities with the oppressive government from which they had just revolted. “Unless this cycle could be broken, Independence would mean little more than the exchange of one tyranny to another,” comments Ralph Ketcham of Syracuse University.
Since government existed to protect natural rights, it was outrageous that these rights were not listed, anti-federalists argued. To restrict government, they favored small district or town legislatures that would have authority over small areas.
Under the name “Publis,” Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote a series of essays called the Federalist Papers, which defended the new government. “It's not tyranny we desire; it's a just, limited, federal government,” explained Alexander Hamilton, who understood the need for a unified country. In reaction, those against the Constitution published their own papers.
They complained that because the rights of individuals were not listed, it put them in jeopardy. The "Centinel" proclaimed that the government had “none of the essential requisites of a free government.” George Mason argued that “in the House of Representatives there [was] not the substance but the shadow only of representation,” giving the president too much power.
Although only nine of the state ratifying conventions had to approve the Constitution, most wanted unity among all thirteen states but the absence of a “bill of rights” would be an obstacle. The people of the United States wanted a government that was effective, but also protected the rights of individuals. In order to keep this balance, a bill of rights was crucial.
"[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference" --- Thomas Jefferson December 20, 1787.
By fall of 1788, James Madison realized that adding a bill of rights was not only imperative to ratification, but also in the best interest of the people. In 1791, Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York explicitly agreed to ratification on the condition that a declaration of rights was added to ensure protection of the people's civil liberties. Madison became the chief advocate for the adoption of the amendments and by the time the First Congress convened in 1789, he had taken on the task of drafting the proposed amendments. On December 15, 1791, with the following words as preface, “The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution,” Congress adopted the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights.
The struggle for the balance of governmental power and individual rights continue in the United States today.
In the landmark case Mapp v. Ohio (1961), a woman’s house was searched without a warrant for a bomb suspect. The police did not find supporting evidence, but discovered unrelated obscene pictures leading to her arrest. In court, Mapp argued that the Fourth Amendment states that evidence found with an “unreasonable search or seizure,” could not be used against her. Mapp’s victory and the court ruling were monumental in shaping the protection of citizens’ rights.
Another case exemplifying this debate is the current “Occupy” movements, where debates over freedom of speech and governmental duty to protect safety intersect. Protestors argue that government cannot interfere because it violates the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (First Amendment). Initially, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said about the movements in his city, "The issue of people expressing what they feel, you have to respect that in a democracy. Government doesn't get to pick and choose which types of free speech it likes or it doesn't." As the protestors grew unruly McGinn declared, “When protesters break the law, it’s not about their topic, it’s about their behavior” implying that in order to keep the people safe, the government should limit the first amendment rights.
“Remarkably the new Constitution created a much stronger central government while at the same time providing more protection for individual rights.” (Kaminski) Because of its strong foundation, the Constitution, along with its amendments, successfully governs the United States, even as the country changes. Amazingly, in a period of about five years, Americans created a revolutionary form of government, and through a reactionary period of ratification added the reform necessary to establish a solid government that would protect the nation for years to come.
Because of our interest in early American history, we decided to select a topic that occurred during the birth of the United States. Originally, we tried to relate the topic to the Revolutionary War. As we tried to connect it to the theme, revolution, reaction, and reform, we realized that the war only connected to revolution, and that reaction and reform were not obvious. We then changed our topic to the Constitution and its ratification. At first we focused our research mainly on ratification, but over time we balanced our sources with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution today.
To begin our research process, we used basic sources such as magazine and encyclopedia entries to find background information that helped us develop our thesis. Once we finalized the thesis, we divided the research into three parts, with each of us researching and writing our own section. After choosing the Constitution as our topic, we focused on the Constitutional Convention. Today, historians know the events of the Constitutional Convention only based on the notes of James Madison, who recorded the daily meetings. Along with Madison’s notes, we used other primary sources such as newspaper articles, which aided in reaction, and documents from the time. At the end of our research process, we drove to Stanford University and interviewed Pulitzer-prize winning author and American history professor Jack Rakove. His vast knowledge of the topic helped us to connect ideas and relate the topic to present day situations. Our interview with Professor Rakove was clearly the most important secondary source.
To present our research we chose the website format because we have experience working with technology and we thought it was the most effective way to present the project to the viewer. We originally thought about a simple website with basic tabs and drop-downs, but we realized that something more creative would have more of an effect on the viewer. Our ideas led to the book layout, which was coded on the web design tool Coda, and then transferred into Weebly. The website allowed us to combine elements of an exhibit, paper, and documentary. We used clips from our interview in combination with the text to emphasize and address certain aspects of the Constitution.
The writing of the Constitution and its ratification has shaped one of the most enduring democracies in the world. Without the revision of government in 1787, the United States may not have survived. Ideas about balancing an effective government with individual freedom have not only affected America, but they have greatly influenced other countries as shown in the Arab uprisings over the past year. This topic connects to the NHD theme because of the obvious revolution in representative government, the reaction during the ratification period, and the addition of the Bill of Rights to reform the government. Without the legendary Constitution, America would not have a strong national government that guarantees freedom for all people.