History 3.3
Oct. 18-23, 2001

A Roof Without Walls:
Creating the United States

I. A National Government Without Sovereignty: The Articles of Confederation

A. National government a major victim of Revolutionary ideas: desire for very direct representation, suspicion/fear of authority (esp. distant authority) prevented any power from being conferred on U.S.

B. Most problematic aspects: Congress elected by states, each state had one vote; Confederation had no taxing power or ability to compel states, "President" but no executive, unanimous vote needed to amend.

C. Elements of confusion: States were supposed to be sovereign, but Congress had many sovereign-like powers.

D. International Weakness of the Confederation

1. Could not force states to comply with Treaty of Paris (1783) ending war.

2. British kept their western forts open and restricted American commerce.

3. Spanish closed New Orleans and the MS River (1784).

E. Economic crisis of the Confederation

1. Confederation had to pay for war by requisitioning money from the states or printing or borrowing it.

2. New democracy in the states made taxation hard.

3. States’ failure to pay Congress or manage their own finances correctly led to hyperinflation & bankruptcy.

II. The Crisis of the Confederation and the Movement for a New Government

A. Catalysts for the Nationalist Movement (clip from video "Liberty! The American Revolution")

1. Dissatisfaction of younger Revolutionary leaders (such as Alexander Hamilton of NY and James Madison of VA) with weakness of national government, unfitness of state governments, conflicting trade and economic policies.

2. Satisfaction of most Americans with localism and decentralization of Confederation.

3. Economic depression and widespread hardship for common people during 1780s. Conflict between debtors and creditors.

4. Elite fears of a further revolution that might get rid of them: Shays' Rebellion, 1786-87.

5. (after video) Madison and Hamilton saw root of problem in the excessive democracy and Revolutionary zeal they saw in states.

B. The "Conspiracy" for a Constitutional Convention

1. Conference at Mt. Vernon led to Virginia's call (Jan. 1786) for a convention to discuss interstate commerce.

2. Annapolis Convention (Sept. 1786), issued surprise call for another convention to revise Articles of Confederation.

III. The Philadelphia Convention,
May-Sept. 1787

A. Make-up and procedures of convention

1. Convention made up of nation's elite (in contrast to state legislatures).

2. Met in private, with no spectators or reporters.

3. Voted by states. Most delegates thought they were there only to reorganize the Confederation.

B. Nationalist Proposals: Led by Madison's Virginia Plan.

1. Main elements of Virginia Plan: national representative government with bicameral legislature (both houses apportioned by population), national veto on state laws.

2. Strong nationalism of Virginia Plan quickly rejected.

3. Issues became: small states vs. large states; people, states or property as the basis of representation; sovereign national government or not.

4. Another, sometimes submerged issue, was how the Constitution would treat slavery. Deep South wanted protection from North & Revolutionary ideals.

5. Strong executive (the presidency) emerged as element of most plans partly because all knew that the trusted George Washington would fill the office.

C. New Jersey Plan: small-state response, a modified Confederation with representation by states, but legislative supremacy over states and power to tax.

D. Great (or Connecticut) Compromise: broke large state-small state deadlock, split basis of representation (population or states) between two houses.

1. Fudged issue of sovereignty (where it was located, whether national government had it).

2. Created unique U.S. "federal" system in which functions of government and ultimate responsibilities were divided.

3. Basic issue that came up in Civil War era, relationship of states to federal government seriously confused.

4. Also included a North-South compromise, the "3/5 clause," partially counting slaves for purposes of representation and taxation. Debate sometimes bitter, both sides threatened to walk out.

E. Committee of Detail then worked up final draft that enumerated national powers and made other important changes.

1. Headed by John Rutledge of South Carolina.

2. Among the enumerated powers: tax and borrow money, regulate foreign and interstate commerce, establish courts.

3. Important nationalist loophole added: power to make any laws "necessary and proper" to execute the enumerated powers.

4. States prohibited from engaging in diplomatic relations, issuing money, or laying import duties. National laws "supreme" over state laws.

5. Much emphasis was placed on protecting property rights and restraining democracy: contract clause, anti-insurrection powers, Electoral College, Presidential veto.

6. No Bill of Rights included, in contrast to state constitutions. Not needed, was the argument.

7. Additional protections for slavery, demanded by Rutledge: fugitive slave clause, protection of slave trade (for 20 years), ban on export taxes, "full faith and credit" clause.

F. Committee of Style muddied the waters further on key issues of slavery and sovereignty.

1. Slaves or slavery never mentioned by name in the document despite many special protections.

2. Preamble of Constitution invoked "We the People" and suggested that a consolidated, sovereign, national republic had been created.

IV. Ratifying the Constitution

A. Ratification procedures: only 9 states needed, approval by specially elected conventions rather than state legislatures, all in violation of the Articles of Confederation.

B. The Ratification campaign

1. Federalist had strong advantages, including control of press, all big political names except Patrick Henry, and bad economy. Made heavy use of patriotism as an appeal.

2. Voting for conventions divided most clearly along urban-rural, coast-interior lines.

3. Some northern Antifederalists complained about proslavery clauses, foreshadowing later abolitionist rhetoric.

4. Antifederalists were strong enough to extract promise that a Bill of Rights would be added immediately if the Constitution was approved.

IV. End Result:
National Government as a "Roof Without Walls"