Principles Already Were Well Tried
The principle of separation of powers, familiar to most colonial governments, had already been given a fair trial in most state constitutions and had proved sound. Accordingly, the Convention set up a governmental system with separate legislative, executive, and judiciary branche - each checked by the others.
Thus congressional enactments were not to be made until approved by the President. And the President was to submit the most important of his appointments and all his treaties to the Senate for confirmation. He, in turn, might be impeached and removed by Congress. The judiciary was to hear all cases arising under the laws and the Constitution; in effect, therefore, the courts were empowered to interpret both the fundamental and the statute law. But the judiciary, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, might also be impeached by Congress.
To protect the Constitution from hasty alteration, Article V stipulated that amendments to the Constitution be proposed either by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or by two-thirds of the states, meeting in convention. The proposals were to be ratified by one of two methods: either by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states, or by convention in three-fourths of the states, with the Congress proposing the method to be used.
Finally, the Convention faced the most important problem of all: How should the powers given to the new government be enforced? Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government had possessed - on paper - large, though by no means adequate, powers, which, in practice, had come to naught, for the states paid no attention to them. What was to save the new government from the same fate?
At the outset, most delegates furnished a single answer - the use of force. But it was quickly seen that the application of force upon the states would destroy the Union. The decision was that the government should not act upon the states but upon the people within the states, and should legislate for and upon all the individual residents of the country. As the keystone of the Constitution, the Convention adopted a brief but highly significant statement:
"Congress shall have power... to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the... pow- ers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States..... (Article I, Section viii.) "This Constitution and the laws of the United States, which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding." (Article VI.)
Thus the laws of the United States became enforceable in its own national courts, through its own judges and marshals, as well as in the state courts through the state judges and state law officers.
On September 17, 1787, after 16 weeks of deliberation, the finished Constitution was signed by unanimous consent of the states present. Washington and the other delegates, impressed by the solemnity of the moment, sat in grave meditation. Franklin relieved the tension with a characteristic sally. Pointing to the half-sun painted in brilliant gold on the back of Washington's chair, he said:
"I have often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, and not a setting, sun."
The Convention was over; the members "adjourned to the City Tavern, dined together, and took a cordial leave of each other." Yet a crucial part of the struggle for a more perfect union was yet to he faced. The consent of popularly elected state conventions was still required before the document could become effective.
The Convention had decided that the Constitution would take effect as soon as it was approved by conventions in nine of the 13 states. By the end of 1787, three had ratified it. But would six others? To many plain folk the document seemed full of dangers, for would not the strong central government that it set up tyrannize them, oppress them with heavy taxes, and drag them into wars?
Differing views on these questions brought into existence two parties, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists - those favoring a strong government and those who preferred a loose association of separate states. Impassioned arguments on both sides were voiced by the press, the legislatures, and the state conventions. The ablest of the arguments appeared in the Federalist Papers now a classic political work, written in behalf of the new Constitution by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay.
A particularly sharp contest in Massachusetts, where agrarian discontent was still rife, resulted in a Bill of Rights appended to the state constitution in the form of amendments. Other states also incorporated such an addition to their constitutions, and a Bill of Rights, forming the first ten amendments to the federal Constitution, was incorporated in the supreme law of the land.
Among other rights these amendments have guaranteed to citizens of the United States freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; a militia instead of a standing army; the right to trial by jury; speedy trials by the law of the land; and prohibition of general warrants. Adoption of the Bill of Rights soon brought the wavering states to the support of the Constitution, which was finally adopted June 25, 1788.
The Congress of the Confederation arranged for the first presidential election, setting March 4, 1789, as the date that the new government would come into being.