Chapter Study Outline
This chapter treats the framing and ratification of the Constitution (and indeed, the American Revolution before that) as fundamentally political events that exemplify the principles of politics. Individual goals informed the actions of American Revolutionaries and constitutional framers; the difficulties of collective action and the institutions and ideas needed to overcome the impediments thereto emerge as central explanations of the Revolution and the critical period; and the institutions established by the Constitution created a path in American political history that has shaped, and continues to shape, American political development and policy outcomes.
1. The First Founding: Interests and Conflicts
What were the interests and goals of American Revolutionaries and the first founders? In what ways might we view the American Revolution and the critical period that followed it as essentially political events caused in part by the goals and instrumental acts of political actors? How did the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation seek to coordinate the political activities of these disparate interests?
- Colonial American society can be divided into five predominant sectors: (1) the New England merchants; (2) the southern planters; (3) the “royalists”; (4) shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers; and (5) small farmers. The disparate interests of these diverse groups held revolutionary sentiment in check until British tax and trade policies facilitated the emergence of collective interests.
- British taxes—like the Stamp Act and Sugar Act—served to antagonize colonists and propel collective action among the various groups. That the British policies backfired is a useful reminder that the rationality principle only requires that political actors act in response to their interests as they understand them; sometimes, however, actions must be taken under conditions of uncertainty and, indeed, actors sometimes simply miscalculate.
- Colonial resistance to taxes provoked retaliation from Great Britain, which further antagonized and radicalized American colonists, eventually producing collective action—including the First Continental Congress, which assembled delegates from throughout the colonies and, soon thereafter, the Second Continental Congress, which produced the Declaration of Independence.
- The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson and approved by the Second Continental Congress. The document, influenced significantly by the thought of British philosopher John Locke, is remarkable in its outline of grievances against the King of England and assertion of the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the United States’ first written constitution. Formed primarily with the goal of limiting the central government’s power, it lacked judicial and executive independence as well as the ability to adequately secure revenue or regulate commerce. Lacking these institutions and powers, the government faced great difficulties in overcoming the impediments to collective action.
2. The Second Founding: From Compromise to Constitution
What were the immediate problems and key differences that confronted America during the critical period under the Articles of Confederation? How did the framers of the Constitution address these problems during the Constitutional Convention?
- The divisions among the American states and the inability of the central government to overcome them left the United States divided and economic prey to European powers. Domestically, the democratizing spirit of the revolution threatened economic and social hierarchies in the former colonies.
- An early attempt to address these collective problems—the poorly attended Annapolis convention—produced no direct solutions, but it did result in a resolution calling on Congress to send commissioners to Philadelphia “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”
- In 1786, Daniel Shays led armed farmers in a rebellion against the Massachusetts state government to prevent bank foreclosures. At the time, Shays’s Rebellion demonstrated the vulnerability of the government to maintain order, prompting Congress to act on the Annapolis resolution. In retrospect, Shays’s Rebellion also reminds us of the importance of focal events to propel change and facilitate collective action against the status quo.
- At the Constitutional Convention in May 1787, the competing interests and ideals of disparate segments of society motivated delegates to push for a much stronger central government. To accomplish this aim, however, the Founders had to strike many compromises, including the Great Compromise, which provided states with equal representation in the Senate and representation based on population in the House, and the Three-fifths Compromise, which postponed the slavery issue that divided northern and southern states by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives.
3. The Constitution
What were the institutions and processes established by the Constitution? How were power, authority, and jurisdiction allocated among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches? How was power divided? How did these institutional choices affect the subsequent path of American political history?
- The Constitution established a bicameral legislative branch in which power was divided between a House and a Senate.
- The House, directly elected by and representative of the people, was the more democratic of the two, whereas the Senate, whose members were indirectly elected for longer terms, was but one example of how the Constitution guarded against “excessive democracy.”
- Congress’ expressed powers included the ability to collect taxes, borrow money, regulate commerce, declare war, and maintain the armed forces, while the “necessary and proper” (or “elastic”) clause represented a potential source of expanding congressional power and national government strength.
- Article II established the president as head of the executive branch. Independent of the legislative branch of government and “energetic,” the president was endowed with requisite powers to defend the executive branch from congressional encroachments. Elected not directly by the people but rather indirectly by the electoral college, the president was to be insulated from excessive democratic pressures.
- In Article III, the framers established a judicial branch that was both the highest court in the national government and also above state courts.
- Justices and judges were to be removed from popular politics, having been appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and once selected, serving lifetime terms.
- The courts’ power of judicial review was not an expressed constitutional power but was later asserted by the Supreme Court.
- Establishing a central government that could promote national unity and power, the framers of the Constitution provided for comity or reciprocity between the states in Article IV and expressly stated in Article VI’s supremacy clause that national laws and treaties would “be the supreme Law of the Land.”
- Article V established the procedures by which the Constitution could be amended.
- To prevent the government from abusing its power, the Constitution incorporates the principles of the separation of powers (via checks and balances) and federalism.
- Although the inclusion of a bill of rights was only briefly debated and received little support at the Philadelphia Convention, the Bill of Rights was later added to secure ratification of the Constitution.
4. The Fight for Ratification: Federalists versus Antifederalists
What institutions, interests, and ideals informed the fight over the ratification of the Constitution? Who were the Federalists and Antifederalists and what did they believe and argue?
- The battle over ratification was carried on in thirteen separate statewide campaigns; nine of thirteen states were needed to ratify the Constitution.
- Federalists were property owners, creditors and merchants who supported the Constitution and sought to repel the “excessive democracy” of the critical period by establishing a strong national government. Many of the central arguments in favor of the Constitution are known today collectively as the Federalist Papers.
- Antifederalists tended to be small farmers, frontiersmen, debtors, and shopkeepers who opposed the Constitution, sought to protect democratic representation systems, and favored the retention of power by state governments.
5. Changing the Institutional Framework: Constitutional Amendment
How frequently has the U.S. Constitution been amended? What are the procedures by which the Constitution can be amended? What are the twenty-seven amendments that have been made to the Constitution?
- The Constitution has been changed or amended only twenty-seven times.
- Article V describes the amendment process.
- There are two means of proposing amendments: passage in the House and Senate by a two-thirds vote or passage in a national convention called by Congress in response to petitions by two-thirds of the states (34).
- There are also two means by which successfully proposed amendments can be ratified: acceptance by majority vote in the legislatures of three-fourths of the states (38) or acceptance by conventions called for that purpose in three-fourths of the states.
- Since ten of the amendments occurred in the first few years of U.S. history and two cancel each other out (prohibition), there have only been fifteen amendments concerned with the structure or composition of government and expansion of the electorate since 1791.