Road to the Constitution
“My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask who authorized them (the framers of the Constitution) to speak the language of ‘We, the People,’ instead of ‘We, the States’?”
After the first shots were fired in the American Revolution, the Continental Congress met to draw up the contract between the states and the new government. Thirteen articles were written to form a confederacy of the thirteen colonies.
These Articles of Confederation named the country and defined how the states would operate with each other, and the central government. It is important to understand how the Articles of Confederation envisioned how government would work.
Congress would act as the final word on all disputes. It would pay for debts by taxes paid by each state. Only Congress could enter into treaties, negotiate with foreign countries, declare war, or place embargoes.
The states were free to make their own laws, were charged with raising a militia for the defense of their state, provide troops for national defense, and providing representatives to Congress.
To change the Articles of Confederation required that all 13 states pass the change. All other decisions made by Congress required a 3/4ths majority.
The Articles of Confederation is a study in good intentions gone wrong.
Not ratified until 1781, the Articles of Confederation were the basis of the Continental Congress throughout the American Revolution. If you recall, George Washington had a hard time getting funds to pay the Army. This was a warning to some of the founding fathers, Washington among them, that the Articles of Confederation would not serve a growing country.
At the end of the Revolution in 1783, the new nation had war debts. It was attempting to make treaties for trade, and there were still British forts in the colonies. The real failure of the Articles of Confederation became all too clear.
Congress could take loans, but had no way to pay them back. The 695-man Army was charged with overseeing the withdrawal of the British from the forts. The army was not being paid and threats of mutiny were in the air. Several states were not paying their taxes. Legislators in New York were negotiating with Canada. Georgia was at war with local native tribes. South Carolina and New York were in violation of the Treaty of Paris by trying and seizing the property of loyalists. And Congress could do nothing about it.
One reason for this was the requirement to pass amendments or make decisions. Each state was required to send at least 3 representatives. If a state only sent one representative, their vote did not count. If there were two representatives with one voting yes and the other no, their voted did not count. With all votes requiring at least nine states to pass, nothing was being done. It would make today's Congress look very effective.
The idea of a respectable government in which the people were sovereign was quickly fading. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Rufus King called for a convention to write a new constitution that would reflect the values of liberty.
In February of 1787, Congress called for all the states to gather to draft a new constitution. There were no limits on what could be discussed, but the goal was to create a Government that could preserve the union.
As a stop gap measure, the Articles of Confederation did give the new nation a name. The United States of America promised a new form of Government based on individual liberty, responsibility, and laws. It was from this document that the enduring power of the United States Constitution was born.