The American Polity: From the Revolution to the Ratification of the American Constitution

The American Polity: From the Revolution to the Ratification of the

American Constitution

Historical Background

The suppression of liberties together with the imposition of exorbitant taxes of the British parliament in the Thirteen colonies prompted the colonists to rise in arms against the British Empire (Collier and Collier, 1986). The first act of the Continental Congress was the creation of a militia army to drive the British from the eastern seaboard. This was accomplished by asking each state to adopt voluntary enlistment for able-bodied men, and the hiring of mercenary units from France and Spain.

            While the first move of the Continental Congress was purely militaristic, it was founded on political ideals. To strengthen the cause of the revolution, there was an urgent need for the Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. On June 7 1776, Richard Henry Lee moved the independence resolve:

“That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved … That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for consideration and approbation” (Morison, 1965:221).

The move angered the British parliament. Great Britain was now more resolved to increase its military force in the eastern seaboard. British commanders of high calibre like Lord Cornwallis were sent to the colonies in the hope of immediate conclusion of the war. But things were not well for the British Army.

The Final Defeat

            At first, the British army were succeeding in defeating the Continental Army in major battles. However, France and Spain were eager to support the American cause in retaliation of British victories in the War of Spanish succession. France sent its naval force to assist the American siege of Yorktown. Spain sent supplies through Florida, after a British siege of St. Augustine was relieved. On November 1783, both New York City and Yorktown surrendered to the revolutionaries. On November 30, 1782, the Treaty of Paris was signed between the State of Great Britain and the United States of America. The American polity was thus created.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787

            Middlekauff (2005) argued that the convening of the American government in 1787 was a direct result of the inadequacy of the articles of Confederation adopted after the Treaty of Paris. While this is partially true, one may ascertain that the founding fathers wanted a government wherein the powers of the American polity were equally divided between the federal government and the member states (Morison 1965). The author also assumed that a clear division of powers between the national and state government was the guideline rather than the result of the federal convention of 1787 (Collier and Collier, 1986).

            On the 25th May to 17 September 1787, the Federal Convention began to draft the American constitution. The Convention immediately resolved itself into a committee of the whole to debate this national plan (Middlekauff, 2005). Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry opposed popular elections for the single reason that the excesses of democracy often result to tyranny. However, George Mason and James Wilson argued for popular election of the first branch of the National Legislature (which was then adopted) to give the people much power as possible.

            The Convention then resolved the issue whether the national executive power should be vested in one man or a council. Wilson argued for a single magistrate, as giving the most flexible mode of executive responsibility. Edmund Randolph opposed it arguing that a single magistrate is the remnant of monarchical tyranny (Middlekauff, 2005).

            After which, the Convention then debated the method of election and apportionment of the second branch, which it agreed to call the Senate. Madison wanted the US Senate to be elected by popular vote. Many of the delegates, however, insisted that the commercial and monetary interests of the people would be more secure in the hands of the state legislature. This was supported by George Mason who argued that to have senators elected by the states would be the best way to make these a significant part of the national government. The Convention then voted to adopt Mason’s arguments.

            Middlekauff (2005) noted that the debate on the structuring of the federal government was due to the perceived inadequacy and dangers of a centralized government (as what the British colonial experience produced). For some authors, such assertion is an overgeneralization. The federal government was constituted based on three factors: 1) the British colonial experience, 2) the selfish interests of the delegates, and 3) the recognition of the uniqueness of each member-state (Collier and Collier, 1986; Morison, 1965). All these factors contributed to the ratification of the American constitution, although not without drawbacks.

            The Convention then discussed whether the majority interest should limit the interest of the minority in state governments. Madison said:

All civilized societies were divided into different sects, fashions, and interests, as they happened to consist of rich and poor, debtors and creditors, the landed, the manufacturing, the commercial interest, the inhabitants of this district or that district … Why was America so unjustly apprehensive of Parliamentary injustice? Because Great Britain had a separate interest. The only remedy is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that a majority will not be likely to have a common interest separate from that of the whole or of the minority” (Morison, 1965:307).

The Convention unanimously adopted Madison’s arguments for the reason that it was the main clause of the Convention.

            When the mood in the Convention was amiable, William Paterson of New Jersey dropped a bomb in the form of the so-called New Jersey plan. The important point in this plan was one state, one vote. Delegates of smaller states would naturally approve of the plan, who feared that their interests would be shaken by the interests of larger states. The delegates of the four larger states, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Connecticut formed an alliance and defeated the New Jersey plan. However, having recognized the fundamental rights of states, changed the words in the Virginia plan from “national government” to “government of the United States” (Middlekauff, 2005).

            On the 16th of July, the convention adopted the great compromise of the Constitution. This was called by some as the Connecticut because it was suggested by a delegate from that state. According to this compromise, the House of Representatives would be popularly elected, and apportioned according to the number of inhabitants (with 3/5 of the slaves). The House of Senate however would consist of two members from each state, chosen by the state legislatures through election.

            Then, all agreed resolutions were submitted to a committee on detail. Delegate Paterson, a member of the committee proposed that if any state ignored or reject any act of Congress, the executive should call the power of the confederate states to enforce and compel obedience. Madison and Alexander Hamilton objected arguing that the larger states would be invulnerable from such act and such only the smaller states would feel the full power of the Congress. Instead of using the words “coercion by force”, “coercion by law” was substituted.

            Thereafter, the United States Constitution was created. Generally, the federal constitution set up a sovereign union of sovereign states under the guidance of law. The federal government was supreme within its sphere; however such sphere was defined and limited by the constitution. The same went for the state governments (Middlekauff, 2005).

The Ratification Issue

            A struggle was anticipated by most delegates in the convention. This struggle was in the form of “approval” or ratification of the United States Constitution. Before the ratification process, the Congress of the Confederation formally submitted the new constitution to each state and politely trashed out their authority before the first presidential inauguration.

            Two factions were campaigning for the ratification or rejection of the new constitution: the Antifederalists and the Federalists). The Antifederalists were indignant of the proposed government because they perceived it as unrealistic if not popularly elected in state conventions. The Federalists, on the other hand, wanted a government that defines the rights of both the federal and state governments, with sovereignty residing in the people (to be approved by the federal convention). In the contest for the ratification, the Federalists had many assets including intelligence, youth, and the support of both Washington and Franklin (both of whom were perceived as the fathers of the American nation).

            Out of fifty delegates, only thirty nine signed the Constitution. The struggle was never an economic, class, or sectional conflict. Rather it was a personal one. Jealousy was the constant cause of bitterness among the delegates. For example, some delegates from Virginia hated Washington for being too “cautious” in his dealings with other delegates (which could be interpreted as a sign of favour). Antifederalists then would naturally advance for a weaker federal government. The federalists approved of the new constitution on the grounds that some political powers such as foreign affairs, war and commerce cannot by nature be handled by all states. A federal government must be set up to look after these things, for the good of the American nation. Hence, the proposed Constitution was ratified.

The American Constitution and the Structure of the American Polity

            The United States Constitution called delineated the responsibilities (or more appropriately duties) of the federal and state governments. Among the spheres of the federal government were as follows: foreign policy, war, commerce, and general taxation. State legislation and other matters related to state affairs were delegated to the state governments.

            The executive power was vested in the President of the United States with the following powers: the power to appoint federal officials, enforce the acts of Congress, make treaties with other countries, command the armed forces (in fact, the president is the commander in chief), power to implement tax laws, and other powers usually vested to an executive.* Legislative power was vested in the US Congress divided into two houses: the House of Representatives and the House of Senate. The members of the House of Representatives were popularly elected through apportionment of the state population. The members of the House of Senate were regularly chosen by state legislatures (two senators per state). Although heads of departments were appointed by the president, they had to be confirmed in a bicameral committee composed of equal number of delegates from both legislative bodies. The US Congress had the power to declare war.

            On the 24th of September 1789, the first Judiciary Act was passed in the US Congress. It provided for a Supreme Court (which was already present in the US Constitution) consisting of a Chief justice and five associates, for thirteen district courts (which was later expanded), and three circuit courts (which was also expanded). For a moment, the role of the Supreme Court was shadowed by the “supremacy” of the executive and legislative branches of government (earlier, only in these two branches that a system of checks and balances was implemented). After some years, the US Supreme Court was able to acquire the “power of judicial review.” This power granted the Supreme Court the authority to review the constitutionality of any act or executive order of either the US Congress or the executive branch. Any act that was not in accordance with the constitution could not be implemented (in other words, rejected).

The Uniqueness of the American Polity

            Middlekauff (2005) and Collier (1986) argued that the uniqueness of the American polity rested on three factors: 1) the level of integration of the federal and state governments, 2) its system of checks and balances, and 3) the level of political participation that the constitution allowed for the citizens of the polity. In simple terms, the level of integration of the two types of government was unparalleled in history. For the first time, both the federal and state governments were able to function well (and cooperated highly) without any significant loss to authority (or even legitimacy). This system of government was eventually used by many countries after the Second World War (Garraty, 1991). Although the system of checks and balances was borrowed from the French, it was effectively used in the United States to counter tyranny, military intervention and other political instabilities. Political participation of the citizenry was encouraged rather than discouraged in the constitution (Garraty, 1991). No wonder why the US Constitution was unique and bold both in its content and structure.

References

Collier, C. and Collier J.L. 1986. The Constitutional Convention of 1787. New York: Ballantine Books.

Garraty, John. 1991. The American Nation: A History of the United States Since 1865. 7th Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Middlekauff, R. 2005. The Glorious Cause: the American Revolution, 1763-1789. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. 1965. The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press.

* Use of past tense does not indicate change or alteration, rather as a form of historical syllogism.