Documents: Creation of the Constitution
King John of England signed this document in 1215. The Magna Carta limited the power of the king and stated that not even the king was above the law. It also guaranteed important rights to noblemen and freemen. For example, they could not have their property seized by the king or his officials; they could not be put on trial based only on an official’s word without witnesses; and they could only be punished by a jury of their peers. The Magna Carta influenced many future documents, such as the English Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Bill of Rights with these same principles.
The English Bill of Rights was written in 1689. It stated that the power to make laws and impose taxes belonged to Parliament. It also included the right of citizens to petition the government and the right to trial by jury. It influenced the U.S. Bill of Rights which drew upon many of the same ideas. For example, both the English Bill of Rights and the U.S. Bill of Rights protect citizens against excessive bail or fines and cruel and unusual punishment.
The Articles of Confederation was the document drafted in 1781 which outlined a government for the newly-formed United States of America. The government created by the Articles had no chief executive, no judiciary, no power to tax, no power to raise an army, required unanimous agreement from all thirteen colonies to change the document, and left most of the power to the states. The states were not in favor of a strong central government for fear that it would become too powerful like the British monarchy. Even though the Articles of Confederation was a weak document, Congress did manage to pass two important laws: The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Due to its weaknesses, the Articles of Confederation was replaced in 1789 by the U.S. Constitution.
The Congress of the Articles of Confederation passed two laws during the early years after the American Revolution: The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. These laws were designed to help govern new territories and establish new states. The Land Ordinance of 1785 divided the Northwest Territory into townships and sections for settlement. The law also set aside land in each township for the support of public schools.
The Congress of the Articles of Confederation passed two laws during the early years after the American Revolution: The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. These laws were designed to help govern new territories and establish new states. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established these four basic principles: slavery was abolished in states carved out of the Northwest Territory, the rights of citizens were protected, fair treatment of Indians was guaranteed, and the importance of public education was emphasized. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set up orderly procedures for the expansion of the United States. It created a system of government for new territories and provided a way to admit new states to the Union once a territory’s population reached 60,000 free white males. New states would also be considered equal to existing states. This procedure for admitting new states was adopted in the new U.S. Constitution.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, northern and southern states disagreed about whether slaves should be counted as part of a state’s population when calculating taxes and determining the number of representatives a state would have in the House of Representatives. The North wanted slaves to count for taxation purposes, but not for representation, while the South wanted the opposite (to count slaves for representation, but not for taxation). Delegates compromised and decided that three-fifths (3/5th) of the slave population would be counted for both taxation and representation. In other words, for every five slaves in a state, three would be counted.
As states held ratifying conventions debating whether to accept or reject the newly proposed Constitution, two groups emerged. Those in favor of the new Constitution were called “Federalists” because they favored a strong federal (or national) government, and those opposed were called “Antifederalists” because they feared that the Constitution made the new central government too powerful. Alexander Hamilton, a strong Federalist, wrote the largest number of the 85 essays explaining and defending the Constitution. He quickly enlisted the help of James Madison who had taken extensive notes during the Constitutional Convention and who wrote the second largest number of the essays. John Jay wrote five essays as well. The 85 essays were published anonymously under the pseudonym “Publius” in the New York newspapers in 1787-1788. Today, these essays are considered the best insight into the Founders’ logic and purpose behind the Constitution.
As states held ratifying conventions debating whether to accept or reject the newly proposed Constitution, two groups emerged. Those in favor of the new Constitution were called “Federalists” because they favored a strong federal (or national) government, and those opposed were called “Anti-Federalists” because they feared that the Constitution made the new central government too powerful. In 1787-1788 Anti-Federalists published essays in newspapers speaking out against ratification of the Constitution. Patrick Henry, a strong Anti-Federalist, spoke out publicly in his speech to the Virginia Convention, saying “…Your President may become king…” Anti-Federalists like George Mason and Mercy Otis Warren argued that the new Constitution had no Bill of Rights and that a Bill of Rights was necessary to protect citizens’ rights.
After ratification of the Constitution, the first U.S. Congress met in 1789 and James Madison, a Representative from Virginia, immediately began drafting the first amendments (changes) to the Constitution. Congress proposed twelve amendments which Madison had written and introduced. These twelve proposed amendments then had to be ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. Ten were ratified by the required number of states in 1791, and they became known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights protects some of our most important freedoms, such as religion, speech, trial by jury, and due process.