The United States Constitution

In the spring of 1775, few Americans, angry as they were, favored separation from Britain. Support for independence grew over the next six months as fighting continued and the colonists debated the issue. The Americans had declared their independence but still had to win it. They had capable leaders and were strengthened by their dedication to the cause of liberty. The Americans emerged victorious from the Revolutionary War and adopted a plan of government that became a model for other nations (Middlekauff, 1982). Led by then General Washington, Americans launched a battle to drive the British out of Boston.

The American victory impressed Britain’s enemies in Europe. In 1778, France decided to aid the Americans in their struggle against Britain. The foreign help provided much-needed weapons, money, and troops. A number of experienced European military men volunteered their services in training and leading the American soldiers. The Treaty of Paris, signed in September 1783, officially ended the war and liberated what we call now as the United States of America. Having won their independence, the thirteen states had to decide what form of government they would adopt.

All the states chose republican forms of government and all adopted written constitutions, or plans of government. The unwritten British constitution, they reasoned, had failed to protect them from tyranny of George III. Many of the state constitutions included bills of rights, which listed certain freedoms guaranteed to citizens. Drawing on their experience with the colonial governments, the planners of the state constitutions limited the powers of government officials. The greatest powers were given to the lower houses of the state assemblies, or legislatures, whose members were directly elected by voters.

In most states, the governors were elected by the members of the assembly. The new states were not democratic in the modern sense. Although they extended voting rights to more free white males, they did not abolish property requirements altogether. Women could not vote, nor could black slaves or American Indians, either male or female. The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and adopted in 1786, was the first state law to ensure freedom of religion. It allowed citizens to follow the religion of their choice and declared that people’s beliefs would not affect their rights as citizens.

At the time, other states had religious tests for voting, officeholding, and jury duty. It also declared that no Virginian could be compelled to attend or support any church. To bring the states together, the Second Continental Congress submitted a plan of union for their approval in 1777. This plan, the Articles of Confederation, called for a “league of friendship” among the states (Stoessinger, 2002). The Articles of Confederation (approved by all the states in 1781) set up a Congress in which each state had one vote.

Its duties were to conduct foreign relations, settle disputes between states, and rule in certain matters of common concern, such as relations with the Indians and the fixing of weights and measures. The Congress, however, could not impose taxes to raise money, nor did it have any way to enforce its decisions. These weaknesses caused problems for the new nation, but many Americans feared the power that a strong central government would have. Working in secret sessions through the summer of 1787, the delegates completed their work by September. The Constitution they presented to the people was a federal system of government.