The history of the United States Constitution





The Articles of Confederation of the United States of America were finally ratified on the 1st of March, 1781, and announced to the public amid discharges of cannon on land and from the vessels in the Delaware, conspicuous among which was the Ariel frigate, Paul Jones commanding. Yet the Articles were scarcely confirmed, amid panegyrics both at home and abroad upon the government thus instituted, when they proved lamentably insufficient. Powers which had been before exercised by Congress were taken from it by the Articles,--particularly the control of commerce. Congress could obtain a revenue only by requisitions upon the States; it had no common executive, no machinery by which to enforce its decrees, and formed rather a consulting body than a governmental power.

Yet the Confederacy had its merits. It settled the long dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania,--One of the few instances of the adjustment of quarrels between independent States by an arbitrating body. It met the pressing needs of the time, and served as an educational institution whose defects were lessons of the utmost value to the statesmen of America. It soon became generally felt that a change was necessary. Adams, Hamilton, Washington, and others deplored the weakness of Congress. A bill was passed recommending the States to lay an impost of five per cent. on imported goods. Some States acceded to this measure; others failed to do so. Madison, consequently, urged "the necessity of arming Congress with coercive powers," in order to force the delinquent States to do their duty.

The conclusion of the war, and the establishment of peaceful relations between the United States and England, made the need of a revision of the governmental organization yet more clearly evident. Robert Morris wrote, "The necessity of strengthening our Confederacy, providing for our debts, and forming some federal constitution, begins to be most seriously felt." Great Britain adopted measures calculated to create disunion between the States, endeavoring to treat with them as individuals. The war was succeeded by a commercial conflict, in which the recent enemy of the States sought in every way to restrict and hamper their commerce, adopting measures which the Confederacy proved inadequate to combat.

It had become strikingly evident that a stronger government must be organized, and the legislators of the country applied themselves to the task. Most prominent among these advocates of a change of government were Hamilton and Madison. These two men, both of them of unusual intellectual ability and thorough education in statesmanship, radically differed in views. Hamilton supported the aristocratic sentiment, distrusted the capacity of the people for self-government, and tended towards the formation of a vigorously centralized nation. Madison held opposite opinions, and advocated democratic doctrines. Minor differences of opinion existed. Franklin held to his long-entertained view of a single legislative body. Richard Henry Lee objected to giving Congress the power to regulate commerce. Madison proposed to give Congress authority to veto State laws. He was also the first to propose a government for the Union acting upon individuals instead of upon States. Washington took an active part in these expressions of opinion, and wisely remarked, "I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation without having lodged somewhere a power that will pervade the whole Union in as energetic a manner as the authority of the State governments extends over the several States."





Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)