The articles of the confederation and the US constitution

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The United States Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 is an instrumental symbol of the country’s national identity and occupies a large portion of the country’s history and politics. Prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the country was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which aimed at facilitating democracy. The Articles of Confederation were a form of state-centered decentralized government where most of the power was held by the states. Various differences existed between the two documents. The government under the articles was unicameral where only the congress existed where each state was represented by two to seven members who only had one vote while under the Constitution, the government has three branches; the Executive made up of the President whose function is to carry out the law, the Legislative made up of Congress and the Senate and whose function is to make the law, and Judiciary made up of the Supreme Court and the Federal Courts and whose function is to interpret the law. The articles gave more power to the states rather than Congress while under the Constitution, the powers of the states are limited and reserved to issues such as marriage and divorce, public school systems, licensing for practices, giving permits and regulating all forms of gambling (Brungardt n. d). While the Congress elected everything with each state represented by one vote under the Articles, the Constitution allows all eligible individuals to vote for local, state, and national positions.

Although great accomplishments were realized under the Articles of Confederation such as the signing of the treaty with France in 1778, the successful war against Britain leading to independence, and the negotiation to end the American Revolution in 1783, they were not without weaknesses. The decentralized form allowed each state to retain its freedom and hence function as an independent country with powers to make its own currency and engage in interstate and foreign trade. This led to a weakened national Congress with no financial resources as it could not make money or levy taxes. Consequently, the Congress could not fund the army and the navy and therefore was unable to defend the nation. In addition, the Articles did not provide for federal courts hence it was challenging for the United States citizens to have their rights legally enforced.

Concerns arose on the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and its ability to protect the young nation. This was especially galvanized by Congress’ inability to respond to the Shays Rebellion in 1786 when more than 2,000 Massachusetts farmers protesting the foreclosure of their land, which they had been promised would not happen during the Revolution War. This prompted representatives from five states to call for a constitutional convention for all the thirteen states in order to revise the Articles of Association. However, the fifty-five delegates sought to completely do away with the Articles of Confederation and instead write a new constitution altogether.

Five issues proved to be thorny during the writing of the Constitution. These were the determination of how much more power should the national government be given. Some such as Alexander Hamilton sought the complete scraping off of states’ governments while others such as Martin Luther opined that the national government’s role was to merely support the states’ governments. Other issues included whether representation should be by state or population, democracy in the ability to vote or implementation of checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, and the question of slave trade (Ladenburg, 2007). There were delegates who stood at both extremes while a majority were caught in between these extremes. This therefore called for a series of compromises with Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania assuming the role of compromiser.

Franklin and Sherman presented a compromise that resulted in the House of Representatives where the delegates conflicted on whether states that were more populous should be allowed to have more votes or whether all states should be treated equally in terms of voting. The southern states also wanted an assurance that slaves would be counted as part of population, which was opposed by the northern states who feared that doing so would give the southern more power. The Great Compromise led to the creation of the bicameral government where the upper house would have equal representation, that is two senators per state, while representation in the lower house would be based on a state’s population, which included 3/5 of the slave population. This appeased all the states, large and small, southern and northern.

During the process of the ratification of the Constitution, the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton and Antifederalists led by Thomas Jefferson engaged in one of the greatest public debates in American history. The major conflicting issue was on whether the government ought to be centralized or decentralized. The federalists believed in a centralized government whose priority was safeguarding the national interests through providing order thereby facilitating the growth of businesses and industries (Holloway, 2015). They sought a powerful government, which was led by the elite as they distrusted other individuals. Hamilton wanted the country to grow into an economic giant and to this end, he facilitated the establishment of a national bank offering credit to businesspeople and merchants in order to enhance economic growth.  The establishment of a national bank promoted their stance of an expansive interpretation of the Constitution as there were no express provisions conferring powers on the federal government to establish a national bank.

The Antifederalists on the other hand believed in the participatory democracy, which included all individuals regardless of the social or economic statuses.  They believed in a decentralized government in which the greatest power was placed on the states and consequently making the people more powerful. This was the premise of the Articles of Confederation in which the government lacked the sovereign and absolute power and whose greatest responsibility was to its constituents (Klausner, 2014). They believed that the national government should only exert its strength in issues relating to foreign policy but have minimal power on the domestic issues. Hence, the responsibilities of the government was offering support on its citizens in the endeavors they decided to pursue or simply not get involved at all. In order to protect the citizens from the excesses of the government and to prevent it from becoming a tyrant, they supported the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. For the lack of a Bill of Rights, the ratification of the Constitution was heavily opposed by the Anti-Federalists as they felt that giving the government unlimited power would be an impediment to individual rights and freedoms. Finally, the Federalists compromised, which began a series of amendments that eventually led to the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791.

The Bill of Rights aimed at providing a balance between the power of the federal government and that of the states (people). This means that the government could only function within the powers conferred to it by the Constitution while the states dealt with the other issues. However, there has been a gradual but steady shift of more powers being conferred on the federal government in matters that were initially an exclusive of the states such as the regulation of interstate trade and commerce. Hence, it can be said that the Bill of Rights was only relatively successful.

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  1. Brungardt, A., n. d. Articles of Confederation vs. the U.S. Constitution. Weebly. Retrieved from http://pfanneshenderson.weebly.com/uploads/3/8/0/6/38064889/articles_vs_constitution.pdf.
  2. Ladenburg, T., (2007). Writing the U. S Constitution: A Simulation. Digital History. Retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/teachers/lesson_plans/pdfs/unit2.pdf.
  3. Holloway, C., (2015). Alexander Hamilton and American Foreign Policy. First Principles, No 57.
  4. Klausner, Z., (2014). The Contemporary Anti-Federalist: Contextualizing Snowden’s Allegations into the Intricate Framework of American Governance. UMICH. Retrieved from https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/107744/zklausne.pdf?sequence=1.
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