The forming of American government was not quick, nor was it easy. It was the culmination of years of political struggle, with opposing groups going at one another to determine who would eventually shape the future of the nation. With this is in mind, one of the biggest changes to the country happened shortly after the US gained independence. In the 1780s, the US suffered from a depression, and people wondered about the direction of the nation. However, the country would eventually come out of its beleaguered state, but only after a new set of foundational documents was formed. The constitution came about, with compromises being made along the way to ensure that the government count function properly. There were several critical differences between the articles of confederation and the constitution. In some ways, the constitution was stronger, and allowed the country to move forward in a way that worked for many interested groups rather than one.
Perhaps the most central weakness of the articles of confederation came from taxation power. In the articles, the federal government had a right to request taxation from the states. The constitution changed that, vesting in the federal government the right to levy taxes directly on the citizenry. This helped the country during a time when the country desperately needed funds to get going again. The articles of confederation also left an unorganized and difficult to understand system for the courts. If there were disputes between the states, for instance, there was an arbitration arrangement that was neither easy to process nor easy to access. There were many potential grounds for disputes, including the Western Problem, which is the term used to describe what happened when various states claimed western territory for themselves (Vile, 2015). The constitution helped to clear this up by giving the federal government the power over those unclaimed lands. The constitution also went about the business of establishing courts for the first time. Article III of the constitution set out the duty of the courts and the structure that the federal court system would take (Pope & Treier, 2012). It established not only the Supreme Court, but also those federal appeals and district courts that would hear disputes among the states and disputes among citizens of different states.
This gave the federal government extra power, essentially putting the ultimate ability to resolve disputes not into the different states’ hands, but into the hands of a central governing body. This helped to bring the country out of the dark in terms of its ability to actually deal with the disputes that would arise between various parties. It was necessary, it seems, because the sure growth of the country would bring about many disputes between parties with opposed goals. One of the weaknesses of the articles, as well, was in how they gave states with smaller populations the same political power as states with larger populations. With the revelations in the constitution, this all changed. All of a sudden, the bi-cameral congress included not only a senate with an equal representation among the big and small states, but also a house, where the representation would be based upon the population of each.
With so many different states having their own specific goals, it should come as no surprise that there was a contentious battle when it came to writing the document itself. Every group and state wanted to ensure the constitution gave them a fair fight, but this was hard, given that some states had interests that were actually opposed to those around them. With this in mind, there had to be creative compromises during the drafting of the constitution. There was some worry among the smaller states that with the new constitution, the larger states would begin to dominate the smaller states in governing power. As mentioned previously, there came a compromise, where the congress would be based upon two different houses. The Great Compromise was ensuring that the small states were not overrun, and instead, giving them tremendous power through the utilization of the senate, which gives to this day a lowly state like South Dakota the same voting power as a populous state like California. This helped to assuage some of the concerns of the people in smaller states who worried that under the new federal government power, they would simply be left to their own devices to languish under the control of their bigger brothers and sisters.
It was quite a battle to ratify the constitution. The two primary parties in the conflict were the federalists and the anti-federalists. Their disagreements were deep and cut to the core of the debate on the role of government and the need to limit the power and effect of government. Federalists, like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, were primarily interested in a strong federal government that would have the ability to govern despite the many challenges presented along the way. The anti-federalists were scared of concentrated power. People like John Hancock and Patrick Henry argued that in the wake of British control, it was best to have a government that vested the majority of its power in the states. This made up the crux of the debate, and other debates trickled down from there.
Perhaps nowhere was the debate between the two sides more heated than in the discussions on the bill of rights. The bill of rights was added to the constitution at the behest of the anti-federalists, who did not think the constitution went far enough in protecting the rights of citizens. The anti-federalists believed that under the constitution, the federal government would have the ability to dictate too much to the people in the states, and as a result, the constitution needed to be amended in order to ensure that certain rights were not able to be infringed by the government (Morone & Kersh, 2013). For instance, the anti-federalists were very concerned about the ability of the federal government to house soldiers in the homes of citizens. This is why the constitution includes the anachronistic third amendment, which does not seem even the least bit relevant in today’s world. The federalists ultimately agreed to these changes to the constitution, at least in part because they were somewhat better at seeing into the future than the anti-federalists (Cornell, 2012). While the anti-federalists argued that the bill of rights was necessary for protecting citizens from the federal government, the federalists recognized that eventually, the bill of rights could be used by the federal government in order to protect people from unreasonable treatment by the governments of the state. Today, this is the primary function of the bill of rights. Federal courts can overturn state convictions, for instance, if they believe that a person’s sixth amendment right to a fair trial has been violated because the state failed to provide an adequate attorney for the accused.
Ultimately the constitution and articles of confederation were both key in the formation of America. They represent the deep debate at the time about power and who should have it. The different sides had varying interests, but the constitution reflects the beauty of compromise, with sides coming out with a plan that works for all rather than just a few. Ultimately the document was not a grand visionary work by one person or one group, but the result of months of hammering away until the document was suitable to people who did not agree on all that much about how the future of the nation would look.
- Cornell, S. (2012). The other founders: Anti-federalism and the dissenting tradition in America, 1788-1828. UNC Press Books.
- Morone, J. A., & Kersh, R. (2013). By the people: debating American Government. Oxford University Press.
- Pope, J. C., & Treier, S. (2012). Mapping Dimensions of Conflict at the Federal Convention of 1787. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 37(2), 145-174.
- Vile, J. R. (2015). A companion to the United States Constitution and its amendments. ABC-CLIO.