The Formation Of A National Government: Introduction

"Every man, and every body of men on earth, possess the right of selfgovernment."
Thomas Jefferson, 1790
The success of the Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to give legal form to their political ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. Today, Americans are so accustomed to living under written constitutions that they take them for granted. Yet the written constitution was developed in America and theirs is among the earliest in history. "in all free states, the constitution is final," wrote John Adams, second President of the United States. And Americans everywhere demanded "a standing law to live by."

As early as May 10, 1776, Congress had passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments "such as shall best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents." Some of them had already done so, and within a year after the Declaration of Independence every state but three had drawn up a constitution.

Most of the new constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas. None made any drastic break with the past, since all were built on the solid foundation of colonial experience, English practice, and French political philosophy. But it is significant that it was in the actual drafting of these state constitutions that the American Revolution was accomplished.

Naturally, the first objective of the framers of the constitutions was to secure those "unalienable rights" whose violation had caused the former colonies to repudiate their connection with England. Thus each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights. Virginia's, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles, such as popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of the fundamental liberties - moderate bail and humane punishment; a militia instead of a standing army; speedy trial by jury; freedom of the press and of conscience; the right of the majority to reform or alter the government; and the prohibition of general warrants.

Other states enlarged the list of liberties to include freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition, and frequently included such rights as the right to bear arms and the right to a writ of habeas corpus, to inviolability of domicile, and to equal protection under the law. Moreover, all the constitutions paid allegiance to the three-branch structure of government - executive, legislative, and judiciary, each checked and balanced by the others.

While the thriteen colonies were being transformed into states and were adjusting themselves to the conditions of independence, new commonwealths were developing in the vast land stretching westward from the seaboard settlements. Lured by the richest land yet found in the country, pioneers poured over the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. By 1775, the far-flung outposts scattered along the waterways had tens of thousands of settlers. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of kilometers from the centers of political authority in the east, the inhabitants established their own governments. Settlers from all the tidewater states pressed on into the fertile river valleys, hardwood forests, and roffing prairies of the interior. By 1790, the population of the trans-Appalachian region numbered well over 120,000.

External link: to the Map Collection of the Hargrett Library at the University of Georgia Library