Great Resources on American Government:


The Constitution of the United States

·        United States is a constitutional republic – a representative form of government limited by a constitution

·        Americans hailed from the same part of Europe, spoke a common language, and at least in a broad sense shared the same religion.

o       John Jay writes that this was crucial to founding of the American republic

§         “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people a people descended from the same ancestors,    speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs" (Federalist No. 2)

Roots of America’s Constitution

·        Compact – forerunner of written constitution

o       Between people themselves

o       Mayflower Compact

·        Charter – establish relationship between king and colonies

·        State constitutions

o       Written by states in the time of Revolution

o       8 of 55 Framers were instrumental in framing state constitutions

o       set stage for federal constitution (laboratory)

o       Massachusetts sets precedent by having state constitution written by a constitutional convention (not a state legislature)

Articles of Confederation

·        1776 – declared independence – now what?

·        Need for a government to run the new United States’

·        1776 – Congress begins talking about a permanent confederation of states

·        1777 – Congress puts forth recommendations, known as Articles of Confederation (textbook, pp. 261-268)

o       ratified by all 13 states and into effect March 1, 1781

·        creates a confederacy – “a firm league of friendship”

·        central gov’t is subordinate to the state governments and only has powers state govt’s give to it

·        only one branch of Gov’t – Congress – to which states sent delegates annually

o       powers

§         foreign affairs

§         borrow money

§         regulate value of currency

§         make war and peace

§         raise an army

§         settle disputes between states

·        Pros

o       National government from 1781-1789

o       Concludes Treaty of Paris of 1783, ending Rev. War

o       Held states together

o       Land Ordinance of 1785, provided by the surveying of Northwest Territory

§         Northwest Ordinance of 1787

·        New states on equal footing with original states

·        Complete religious freedom

·        Create public schools to teach religion

·        Cons

o       No executive branch to enforce laws made by Congress and no judicial branch to enforce the laws – states have a veto on Congress and could ignore its demands at will

o       States treating one another like foreign nations

o       Insulted abroad

o       Do not allow majority rule

§         At least nine states have to approve any measure before it could be passed by Congress

o       Congress does not have the power to tax

o       Fear of anarchy

o       Could not raise an army

o       Exposed the states to dangers from foreign and domestic enemies

o       By no means clear that the basic rights of Americans would be protected

o       Was the Revolution all for naught?

o       General Pinckney of S. Carolina said Articles were no longer binding because they were a compact between the states that had been repeatedly broken by every state in the union


Sidebar: Quashing a Revolt


·        In spring of 1782, before the peace was signed, Washington gets a letter from one of his officers, Colonel Louis Nicola

o       Details abuse and neglect of army by Congress during the Revolution

§         Men in rags

§         Had not been paid

§         Food not fit for the pigs

·        Offers Washington the crown as King George I of the United States

·        He said that the army would install him in power

o       like lots of other countries in the past

·        Washington is horrified!

·        Writes back that it would nullify everything the Revolution was about

o       Would America exchange one yoke of slavery for another?

·        Still, the military was restless

·        Ten months after Nicola letter, a circular moves through the military officers

o       Calls for a military revolt and setting up a dictatorship, with or without Washington

o       Would be a secret meeting on March 12

·        It comes to Washington’s attention on March 10, 1783, and he manages to delay the meeting for three days while he figured out what to do

·        Washington hurriedly calls a meeting of his officers on March 15 at officers’ quarters in Newburgh, New York

o       Says he hears them and will work with Congress for a redress of grievances

o       His offers are sullen and silent – he had not persuaded them

·        Then he held up a paper with a plan from Congressmen to help the situation

o       Paper shortage and written closely together

o       Suddenly, Washington began to fumble about for something

o       He had forgotten where he put his glasses – only his intimates had ever seen him wear them

o       He says, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

o       That simple statement does what before had seemed impossible – softened the hard hearts of the officers

o       Officers were instantly in tears and renewed love for their commander

o       Washington quietly finishes the congressman’s letter, walked out, and mounted his horse to ride off

o       Back at the tavern, the officers vote unanimously to work for a peaceful solution to the problems

·        Jefferson later said that the fate of the Revolution hung in the balance that day, and that only one man saved the nation from further bloodshed

·        Only six years later, French Revolution would begin, only to end in bloodshed, the guillotine, and eventually rule by the dictator Napoleon in 1799, the year of Washington’s death

The Crisis Mounts

·        Peace treaty (Treaty of Paris) formalized on Feb. 3, 1783

·        Washington waits for last British troops to leave New York on Nov. 25, 1783 before we has willing to leave the field of battle and return home to Mount Vernon

·        On Dec. 4, he goes to a tavern in New York and bids officers farewell

·        On Dec. 23, he reports to Congress and resigns his commission

·        He wanted to retire form public life, but events wouldn’t allow it

·        Washington knew that there needed to be a change in the form of national government

o       England thought the US would collapse, and had troops at the Canadian border, waiting for an opportunity to attack

o       “What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious!”

·        By 1785, American citizens began to talk of an imminent civil war

o       Forming three confederations – New England, Middle States, South

·        Other signs of instability

o       1781 – 2,400 soldiers mutiny and led to protest march to Congress in Phil. to vent their anger – Washington intercepts them at Trenton

o       mutiny in NJ – 2 officers shot before order is restored

o       June 1783 – about 100 soldiers storm Congress in Philadelphia, and members of Cong. Flee to Princeton and then Annapolis for safety. Gov’t not back to Philadelphia until after Constitution was adopted.

o       Business interests+army to set up a military dictatorship

§         Gouvernor Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Washington’s top generals, Gates and Knox are all involved

·        Americans suffering under a deep economic depression

o       Inflation

§         Because Congress didn’t have power to tax, it instead printed money to finance the war

·        Promised that states would redeem it through their taxes

§         Congress prints $200 million in paper money, but states print $200 million of their own

§         Eventually the Continental dollar is worth less than one cent

o       Thousands of Americans were foreclosed by creditors after the war

o       Debtors prisons

o       Mobs of farmers create “committees of correspondence” and draft petitions

o       Shay’s Rebellion (Jan. 1787) – 1,100 men led by farmer and war veteran Daniel Shays to seize federal courthouse and arsenal in Springfield

§         Meet fierce resistance

§         Flee to the Republic of Vermont, then (and now??) its own country


·        Hamilton called the situation “almost the last stage of a national humiliation.”

·        Washington lamented to Madison in November of 1786, “No day was ever more clouded than the present….We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion.” But he sounded a hopeful note. There was a possible glimmer of light: “A liberal and energetic constitution, well guarded and closely watched to prevent encroachments, might restore us.”


The trick – too much freedom of individual states versus too much consolidation of power in the federal government


A New Constitution

·        As much a miracle getting the convention together as was the document it produced!

·        As early as 1782, Alexander Hamilton gets NY to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional convention – no other state would support it

·        In 1783, Hamilton is elected to Congress and again pushes for a convention, but falls on deaf ears

·        During the plot to install a military junta, Washington sends a letter to every state urging a national convention, but nothing happens

·        In frustration, Washington decides to start small and go from there

·        Preliminary meetings

o       1785 – Mount Vernon conference

§         Washington’s house

§         Virginia and Maryland over navigation resources

§         Went so well all states were invited to send members to convention next year

o       1786 – Annapolis Convention

§         Only 5 states send delegates

§         No real business could take place

§         But delegates Alexander Hamilton and James Madison draft a report to Congress proposing that all thirteen states get together to revise the Articles

·        Congress dallies

·        Finally, on Feb. 21, 1787, it extends an invitation to several states to send delegates to Philly on May 14


Constitutional Convention

§         purpose is to revise the Articles of Confederation, but it was quickly realized that revision was impossible

·        need for a federal system

·        some relationship between states and federal government

§         55 delegates – most distinguished assembly ever?

·        Chosen by states

·        73 picked by states, but only 55 show up

o       most states don’t pick up travel expenses

·        All states except Rhode Island send delegates

o       Some businessmen from RI send letter apologizing for their state leaders!

·        Majority (31) had law training

·        Two college presidents

·        Nine born in foreign countries

·        28 had served in Congress and most of rest served in state legislatures

·        Three were current or past college professors

·        Half were college graduates

·        At least nineteen had served in the army

·        Virtually every single one of them shared a Christian, biblical world view

o       Of those 55 delegates, we know what their sworn public confessions were. Twenty-eight were Episcopalians, eight were Presbyterians, seven were Congregationalists, two were Lutheran, two were Dutch Reformed, two were Methodist, two                  were Roman Catholic, one is unknown, and only three were quasi-deists --Williamson, Wilson, and Franklin.

§         At the time, church membership entailed a sworn public confession of biblical faith

§         Franklin's emotional call to humble prayer on June 28, 1787, that was actually the turning point for a hopelessly stalled Constitutional convention.

·        Seven had been state governors

·        Average age in 42 – youngest is 26

·        Only 4 members were over 60

·        George Washington

o       Head of convention

o       Almost doesn’t come

§         Brother just died

§         Mother and sister were seriously ill

§         Intense pain from rheumatism he could barely sleep at night

§         Had another offer from military fraternity Society of Cincinnati, which he had already declined

§         Decided to come at last minute after Madison said it would look like he had lost faith in the American government

·        Benjamin Franklin – age 81 – oldest by 15 years

·         James Madison – age 36 – 5’6”

o       single most important man there

o       “Father of the Constitution”

·        Alexander Hamilton – born in West Indies

o       Federalist Papers

·        Gouverneur Morris

o       Literally “writes” Constitution

·        May 25, 1787 – get a quorum of seven states

·        Some delegates arrive late and other leave early

·        Gather in Pennsylvania State House

·        Deliberations were secret and Madison’s Notes aren’t published until after his death in 1836

A Bundle of Compromises … But More Than That

·        “Miracle at Philadelphia” – ends up with best written constitution in world history, and even better with Bill of Rights

·        Virginia Plan sets the tone for the convention

à 41 provisions


o       Bicameral (two-house) legislature

o       Members of each house elected by people of the states

o       Members would be paid stipends for services rendered

o       Each house based on state population

o       Senators serve for longer than Reps.

o       Legislature can override a presidential veto

o       Set up national judiciary and lesser courts

o       Federal judges serve for life

o       Articles will stay in force until a new Constitution is adopted

o       Oath of office to support the constitution

o       Constitution must be approved by state conventions

            What was rejected?

1.      Senators elected by House of Representatives

2.      Members have to wait a while before being reelected after serving one term

3.      Congress can nullify state legislation thought to be unconstitutional

4.      Congress can send troops against individual states

5.      President chosen by Congress

6.      President can only serve one term

7.      National courts handle cases of impeachment

Problem: Small states object that it would favor large states

·        New Jersey Plan

o       Calls for unicameral legislature

o       All states have equal representation

o       More than one executive

o       Small minority can control legislature


·        Hamilton has plan while debate between Virginia and New Jersey Plans

o       Single executive chosen for life by state electors

o       President would have absolute veto over any legislation

o       Senators chosen for life (House of Lords)

o       House of Reps. – 3 year terms

o       State governors appointed by federal government

à Deafening silence. Plan not even discussed

à Interesting because most of these ideas were British in origin

·        American leaders were critical of the British system overall because it is weak on popular representation in the federal government. They believed that there was no other example of a people governing themselves. Unlike any other nation, the written constitution was the supreme law of the land. State supremacy (like in Articles) and legislative (England) supremacy were upended.


·        As summertime heated up in late June, the convention was stuck between the two competing plans.

·        June 28 – Franklin calls for prayer (textbook, p. 64)

·        July 10-16: over 60 ballots to decide how president is elected

·        July 16- breakthrough -Connecticut Compromise

o       Roger Sherman

o       Two houses

o       House of Representatives – based on population

o       Senate – each state gets two seats

·        On Sept. 17, 1787, 42 of the original delegates meet to sign the finished document

·        Three don’t sign because Constitution didn’t have a bill of rights

·        Four months after they started, 39 signatures affixed to the finished document

·        Article VII – 9 of 13 states necessary to ratify

·        Founders believed that the Constitution would not just be a light for America, but an example to the rest of the world – exporting freedom and prosperity around the world


·        Franklin says it looks like it will last, but “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”

à Jefferson said, “We can surely boast of having set the world a beautiful example of a government reformed by reason alone, without bloodshed.”


Sidebar I: Slavery -- Did Founders Believe “All Men are Created Equal”??

à More light on the Founders and slavery:

Dinesh D’Souza, “We the Slaveowners: In Jefferson’s America, Were Some Men Not Created Equal?Policy Review 74 (Fall 1995)


·        Many people think the Founding Fathers were frauds, or at least insincere, for not eliminating slavery right off the bat in the Constitution.

·        Even former Supreme Court justices have called the government set up by the Constitution “defective”

·        One Abolitionist said the Constitution was “a covenant with death”




·        First, we need some context:

o       Slavery was a part of almost every civilization – Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, etc.

o       Native Americans, Africans and Arabs practiced slavery

§         Native Americans practiced slavery

·        Cherokee – uses “slave catchers”

·        Some tribes in pacific Northwest were 10-15% slave

§         Arabs from 7th – 19th centuries transported more than 14 million slaves across the Sahara and the Red Sea

·        More than were shipped to the Americas

o       In Africa, kingdoms of Ghana, Songhay, and Mali all rely on slave labor

§         Includes Turkish slaves, shipwrecked white European sailors

§         Many slaves purchased by Europeans were already slaves in Africa

·        Important source of income for African chiefs and tribes

o       Many whites in New World become indentured servants – 7 years

o       Free blacks in Colonies owned slaves, too


·        Slavery was seen by Founders as contrary to Founding principles of Revolution and Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal”

·        In America, the proslavery movement was essentially comprised of rationalizations for obvious fact that slavery was against American ideals as fought for in Revolution and enshrined in Declaration and Constitution


·        Slavery issue was one of the most divisive issues at the Convention

·        8% of blacks (60,000) in 1790 were free and voted in several states

·        With Madison, we need to read Constitution in light of the Declaration of Independence

à See discussion in Thomas West, Vindicating the Founders, pp. 5-8


Problem is conflict between two central and competing American principles –

1.      all men created equal and

2.      government by consent of the governed (majority white population)

·        “To outlaw slavery without the consent of the majority of whites would be to destroy democracy, and thus to destroy the very basis for outlawing slavery.” (Dinesh D’Souza)


So… the Founders saw the slavery compromises as necessary in order to gain acceptance of a document that enshrined principles of liberty that would one day bring down the institution of slavery if it didn’t wither by itself.


·        Three-Fifths Compromise

o       On July 12 Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut proposed that representation for the lower house be based on the number of free persons and three-fifths of "all other persons," a euphemism for slaves.

o       A few minutes later, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposes that blacks equal one while person.

§         This he urged was nothing more than justice. The blacks are the labourers, the peasants of the Southern States: they are as productive of pecuniary resources as those of the Northern States. They add equally to the wealth, and considering money as the sinew of war, to the strength of the nation. It will also be politic with regard to the Northern States, as taxation is to keep pace with Representation.

§         But he was voted down.

à See the text of the July 12 debate here

o       Does this mean the Constitution was “a covenant with death,” as Abolitionists later said?

§         Most of Framers knew, and many said, that slavery was wrong

§         Powerful interests in support of slavery in South (Georgia and South Carolina)

§         Choice: compromise or no Constitution

§         Hamilton: w/o compromise, “no union could possibly have been formed.”

§         As a result, Congress gained authority over domestic slavery – just waiting for the political and social will

§         If no Constitution, Southern states may have formed their own Confederacy (Federalist No. 5) and reform of slavery would be impossible

·        Frederick Douglass – his argument in 1850s for keeping union together

·        Slave Trade Clause

o       Congress couldn’t touch slave trade until 1808

o       After 1808, Congress could abolish slave trade, which it did

o       Allowed Georgia and S. Carolina delegates ability to regulate interstate commerce


à Important: Not amazing that West – U.S., England, etc. – practiced slavery, but what is amazing is that West was the only culture to work to eliminate slavery.

1772-slavery abolished on British soil

1833- slavery outlawed throughout British empire (France follows in 1848)

·        Tribal leaders from African nations such as Gambia and Congo petitioned to have slavery maintained for economic reasons!

·        Slavery still exists in many Muslim countries today


Sidebar II: A Godless Constitution?

·        Critics say the Constitution doesn’t mention God:

o       “The Constitution was silent on the subject of God and religion because there was a consensus that, despite the Framers’ personal beliefs, religion was a matter best left to the individual citizens and their respective state governments (and most states in the founding era retained some form of religious establishment). The Constitution, in short, can be fairly characterized as "godless" or secular only insofar as it deferred to the states on all matters regarding religion and devotion to God.” (David Barton)

·        Critics point to ban of religious tests for federal office holders (Article VI):

o       Their argument rests on the false premise that, in the minds of the framers, support for the Article VI ban was a repudiation of state establishments of religion and a ringing endorsement of a radically secular polity. The numerous state constitutions written between 1776 and 1787 in which sweeping religious liberty and nonestablishment provisions coexisted with religious test oaths confirm the poverty of this assumption. The founding generation, in other words, generally did not regard such measures as incompatible.” (Barton)

o       “Significantly, there were delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia who endorsed the Article VI ban but had previously crafted religious tests for their respective state constitutions.” (Barton)

à Also important is our unwritten constitution: "…no matter how admirable a constitution may look upon paper, it will be ineffectual unless the unwritten constitution, the web of custom and convention, affirms an enduring moral order of obligation and personal responsibility."

·        What does our unwritten constitution look like?



Ratification Debates –<<<<<<<<<< MORE ON THIS>>>>>>>>>


·        Took nine months to get nine signatures

·        Ferocious battles in state ratifying conventions

·        Federalists

o       Washington, Adams, etc.

o       Federalist Papers – Madison, Hamilton, and Jay

§         85 essays written for NYC newspapers in 1787 and 1788

§         Defense of the Constitution written under the pseudonym “Publius”

§         In favor of a stronger central government

·        Anti-Federalists

o       Prominent Americans on the other side as well

o       Include Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Samuel Adams,


We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors; by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty. But now, sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire.


If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together.


There will be no checks, no real balances, in this government. What can avail your specious, imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances?...It is on a supposition that your American governors shall be honest that all            a supposition that your American governors shall be honest that all the good qualities of this government are founded; but its defective and imperfect construction puts it in their power to perpetrate the worst of mischiefs should they be bad men; and, sir, would not all the world blame our distracted folly in resting our rights upon the contingency of our rulers being good or bad? Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men without a consequent loss of liberty! I say that the loss of that dearest privilege has ever followed, with absolute certainty, every such mad attempt.


o       Not against union, but against this union, because they feared rights of states would be eroded

·        Nine states ratified, but really all thirteen states were needed for gov’t to be able to function properly

·        Several states express concern that there is no Bill of Rights

o       Virginia (#10) ratifies only after Madison attaches to ratification a bill calling for a bill of rights

o       NY ratifies a month later, followed by NC and RI (who didn’t even send delegates to the Const. Convention)

o       Idea is that American have dual citizenship – citizens of federal government and individual states

§         Founders thought that national government could have few powers compared with the states

§         Amendment #10 – Great Insurance Policy – we’ll talk more about that in November


A New Government


·        Old Congress chooses NYC as temporary capital of the new nation and asks states to make plans for Presidential and Congressional elections

·        George Washington unanimously elected president

·        New government begins to function when Washington is inaugurated


Main Features of the Constitution

·        Supreme law of the law (Article VI)

·        Six purposes in Preamble

o       Form a more perfect union

o       Establish justice

o       Ensure domestic tranquility

o       Provide for the common defense

o       Promote the general welfare

o       Secure blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity

·        Seven articles/parts

o       One: Legislative Branch

o       Two: Executive Branch

o       Three: Judicial Branch

o       Four: Relations of states to one another

o       Five: Amending process

§         Proposal by 2/3 vote in both houses of Congress or Constitutional Convention called by Congress at request of 2/3 of state legislatures (ratified by ¾ of states or conventions)

·        This latter option has never been exercised

·        Some have proposed new Constitutional conventions, but the fear is that the cure will be worse than the disease!

o       2700 proposed amendments introduced into Congress

§         only 17 passes since Bill of Rights ratified in 1791

§         12 of these amendments were passed in the 20th century

o       Six: General provisions/supremacy clause

o       Seven: Ratification of the Constitution

·        Concept of separation of powers

o       Legislative – makes laws, appropriates money, imposes taxes, approves treaties and appointments

§         Senate and House of Reps.

o       Executive – enforces laws, makes appointments, commands armed forces, power of veto

§         President, Vice President, Cabinet, administrative agencies

o       Judicial – interprets laws, tries cases involving federal laws

§         Supreme Court

§         Courts of Appeals (13)

§         District Courts (50)

·        Twenty-seven amendments

o       Key amendments

§         1-10: Bill of Rights (1791)

§         13: Abolition of slavery (1865)

§         14: Citizenship to black Americans (1868)

§         15: Suffrage for black Americans (1870)

§         16: Income tax (1913)

§         17: popular election of Senators (1913)

§         18: prohibition (1919)

§         19: Women’s suffrage (1920)

§         21: Repeal of prohibition (1933)

§         22: President limited to two terms (1951)

§         25: Transfer of power when president becomes disabled (1967)

§         26: voting age at 18 (1971)

§         27: Congressional pay (1992)

·        Rights and corresponding responsibilities

o       Freedom of worshipàhonor God in our lives

o       Freedom of speechàspeak honestly and purely; respect opinions of others

o       Freedom of pressàkeep informed; no “yellow journalism”

o       Freedom to voteàvote faithfully and wisely

o       Freedom to own propertyàgood stewards; respect property of others

o       Freedom to earn a living in one’s chosen vacationàtake advantage of education, develop good work habits, be responsible employees

o       Freedom of assemblyàmeet to share ideas, be patriotic


Republican Government

·        Constitution sets up and guarantees Americans a republican form of government (Article VI)

·        Whole purpose of Constitution was to restrain governmental power

·        Three limitations on absolute political power

o       Federalism

§         Division between national and state governments

§         Federal government has delegated powers

·        Coin money

·        Regulate interstate commerce

·        Declare war

§         State government and individuals have reserved powers

·        Marriage and divorce laws

·        Education

·        Auto licensing

§         Concurrent powers are given to state and national government

o       Separation of powers

§         Political power divided between three political institutions

§         Idea from Mostesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws

·        Said greatest threat to liberty is tyranny

·        Best bulwark against tyranny is breaking up concentrations of power

à also echoes of this idea in Roman government during Republic

§         Three branches of government each do something different

·        Legislative – makes laws

·        Executive – carries out the laws

·        Judicial – interprets the laws

o       Checks and balances

§         Each branch exercises control over another

§         Works on federal and federal/state levels

·        Presidentàveto over Congress; appoints SC/federal court justices

·        Supreme Courtàdeclare actions of executive branch unconstitutional; check Congress by declaring laws unconstitutional

·        CongressàCheck SC by writing laws to override SC decisions; Initiate Constitutional amendments; impeach and convict judges; override a Presidential veto

§         Federal/state level

·        States draw Congressional lines

·        Senate and House check each other