The Basis of the American Republic
"... A constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs."
JOHN MARSHALL, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819
The Constitution of the United States is the central instrument of American government and the supreme law of the land. For 200 years, it has guided the evolution of governmental institutions and has provided the basis for political stability, individual freedom, economic growth and social progress.
The American Constitution is the world's oldest written constitution in force, one that has served as the model for a number of other constitutions around the world. The Constitution owes its staying power to its simplicity and flexibility. Originally designed to provide a framework for governing four million people in 13 very different colonies along the Atlantic coast, its basic provisions were so soundly conceived that, with only 26 amendments, it now serves the needs of more than 240 million people in 50 even more diverse states that stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
The path to the Constitution was neither straight nor easy. A draft document emerged in 1787, but only after intense debate and six years of experience with an earlier federal union. The 13 British colonies, strung out along the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States, declared their independence from England in 1776. A year before, war had broken out between the colonies and Great Britain, a war for independence that lasted for six bitter years. While still at war, the colonies -- now calling themselves the United States of America -- drafted a compact which bound them together as a nation. The compact, designated the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union," was adopted by a Congress of the states in 1777, and formally signed in July 1778. The Articles became binding when they were ratified by the 13th state, Maryland, in March 1781.
The Articles of Confederation devised a loose association among the states, and set up a federal government with very limited powers. In such critical matters as defense, public finance and trade, the federal government was at the mercy of the state legislatures. It was not an arrangement conducive to stability or strength. Within a short time -- less than six years -- the weakness of the Confederation was apparent to all. Politically and economically, the new nation was close to chaos. In the words of George Washington, the 13 states were united only "by a rope of sand."
It was under these inauspicious circumstances that the Constitution of the United States was drawn up. In February 1787, the Continental Congress, the legislative body of the republic, issued a call for the states to send delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles. The Constitutional, or Federal, Convention convened on May 25, 1787, in Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted 11 years earlier on July 4, 1776. Although the delegates had been authorized only to amend the Articles of Confederation, they pushed the Articles aside and proceeded to construct a charter for a wholly new, more centralized form of government. The new document, the Constitution, was completed September 17, 1787, and was officially adopted March 4, 1789.
The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation. They represented a wide range of interests, backgrounds and stations in life. All agreed, however, on the central objectives expressed in the preamble to the Constitution:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The primary aim of the Constitution was to create a strong elected government, directly responsive to the will of the people. The concept of self-government did not originate with the Americans; indeed, a measure of self-government existed in England at the time. But the degree to which the Constitution committed the United States to rule by the people was unique, and even revolutionary, in comparison with other governments around the world.
The Constitution departed sharply from the Articles of Confederation in that it established a strong central, or federal, government with broad powers to regulate relations between the states, and with sole responsibility in such areas as foreign affairs and defense.
Centralization proved difficult for many people to accept. America had been settled in large part by Europeans who had left their homelands to escape religious or political oppression, as well as the rigid economic patterns of the Old World, which locked individuals into a particular station in life regardless of their skill or energy. Personal freedom was highly prized by these settlers and they were wary of any power -- especially that of government -- which might curtail individual liberties. The fear of a strong central authority ran so deep that Rhode Island refused to send delegates to Philadelphia in the belief that a strong national government might be a threat to the ability of its citizens to govern their own lives.
The great diversity of the new nation was also a formidable obstacle to unity. The people who were empowered by the Constitution to elect and control their central government were of widely differing origins, beliefs and interests. Most had come from England, but Sweden, Norway, France, Holland, Prussia, Poland and many other countries also sent immigrants to the New World. Their religious beliefs were varied and in most cases strongly held. There were Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Huguenots, Lutherans, Quakers, Jews, agnostics and atheists. Economically and socially, the Americans ranged from the landed aristocracy to slaves from Africa and indentured servants working off debts. But the backbone of the country was the middle class -- farmers, tradesmen, mechanics, sailors, shipwrights, weavers, carpenters and a host of others.
Americans then, as now, had widely differing opinions on virtually all issues, up to and including the wisdom of breaking free of the British Crown. During the Revolution, a large number of British loyalists -- known as Tories -- fled the country, settling mostly in eastern Canada. Those who stayed behind formed a substantial opposition bloc, although they differed among themselves on the reasons for opposing the Revolution and on what accommodation should be made with the new American republic.
In the past two centuries, the diversity of the American people has increased, and yet the essential unity of the nation has grown stronger. From the original 13 states along the Atlantic seaboard, America spread westward across the entire continent. Today it encompasses 50 states, the most recent additions being Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. Throughout the 19th century and on into the 20th, an endless stream of immigrants contributed their skills and their cultural heritages to the growing nation. Pioneers crossed the Appalachian Mountains in the east, settled the Mississippi Valley and the Great Plains in the center of the continent, then crossed the Rocky Mountains and reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean -- 4,500 kilometers west of the Atlantic coastal areas settled by the first colonists. And as the nation expanded, its vast storehouse of natural resources became apparent to all: great stands of virgin timber, huge deposits of coal, copper, iron and oil, abundant water power and fertile soil.
The wealth of the new nation generated its own kind of diversity. Special regional and commercial interest groups sprang up. East coast shipowners advocated free trade. Midwest manufacturers argued for import duties to protect their positions in the growing U.S. market. Farmers wanted low freight rates and high commodity prices; millers and bakers sought low grain prices; railroad operators wanted the highest freight rates they could get. New York bankers, southern cotton growers, Texas cattle ranchers and Oregon lumbermen all had different views on the economy and the government's role in regulating it.
It was the continuing job of the Constitution and the government it had created to draw all these disparate interests together, to create a common ground and, at the same time, to protect the fundamental rights of all the people. The Founding Fathers had little precedent to guide them when they drafted the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation had also set up a federal government, but its powers were so limited that the states were united in name only. Although the people's experience with federalism was limited, their expertise in the art of self-government was considerable. Long before independence was declared, the colonies were functioning governmental units, controlled by the people. And after the revolution had begun -- between January 1, 1776, and April 20, 1777 -- 10 of the 13 states had adopted their own constitutions. Most states had a governor elected by the state legislature. The legislature itself was elected by popular vote.
Compared with the complexities of contemporary government, the problems of governing four million people in much less developed economic conditions seem small indeed. But the authors of the Constitution were building for the future as well as the present. They were keenly aware of the need for a structure of government that would work not only in their lifetime, but for generations to come. Hence, they included in the Constitution a provision for amending the document when social, economic or political conditions demanded it. Twenty-six amendments have been passed since ratification, and the flexibility of the Constitution has proven to be one of its greatest strengths. Without such flexibility, it is inconceivable that a document drafted more than 200 years ago could effectively serve the needs of 240 million people, and thousands upon thousands of governmental units at all levels in the United States today. Nor could it have applied with equal force and precision to the problems of small towns and great cities.
The Constitution and the federal government thus stand at the peak of a governmental pyramid which includes local and state jurisdictions. In the U.S. system, each level of government has a large degree of autonomy with certain powers reserved particularly to itself. Disputes between different jurisdictions are resolved by the courts. However, there are questions involving the national interest which require the cooperation of all levels of government simultaneously, and the Constitution makes provision for this as well. American public schools are largely administered by local jurisdictions, adhering to statewide standards. But the federal government also aids the schools, since literacy and educational attainment is a matter of vital national interest, and it enforces uniform standards designed to further equal educational opportunity. In other areas, such as housing, health and welfare, there is a similar partnership between the various levels of government.
No product of human society is perfect. Despite its many amendments, the Constitution of the United States probably still contains flaws which will become evident in future periods of stress. But two centuries of growth and unrivaled prosperity have proven the foresight of the 55 men who worked through the summer of 1787 to lay the foundation of American government.