How the Constitution was written

Historical background

The colonization of the 'new world'

The USA is a nation of immigrants. However, the original inhabitants of the Americas were themselves immigrants, crossing from Asia over the Bering Straits approximately 15-20,000 years ago.

America before the arrival of European settlers had advanced civilizations — the Mayas in Central America, the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru. Some or all of these had developed societies with advanced language and number systems, impressive architectural structures and administrative systems that covered a wide area. In North America, although there were no 'great' civilizations, there was considerable diversity amongst the tribes, over 200 languages and most had developed farming and, or, fishing. When European explorers arrived in North America at the end of the fifteenth century the native population numbered around two million and roamed over most of the continent. So, America was a 'new world' strictly from a European perspective.

The first explorers to reach this 'new world' were from Spain. The Pope drew a line of demarcation between the overseas empires of Spain and Portugal in 1493, from the north to south poles to the West of the Cape Verde Islands (off the West African coast). Spain was granted the rights to the 'heathen lands' to the west of the line and therefore concentrated its efforts on the region, with such explorers as Christopher Columbus, an Italian, sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain; Amerigo Vespucci (who gave his name to the continent); Vasco de Balboa (crossed Panama and reached the Pacific Ocean in 1513); Ponce de Leon (landed in Florida in 1513); and Ferdinand Magellan (circumnavigated the globe, 1519-22).

Spanish conquistadores soon began to colonize and plunder the new world for its precious metals. Hernando Cortes defeated the Aztec empire in Mexico (1520), Francisco Pizzaro conquered Peru (1531), Hernando de Soto colonized the Mississippi region (1539-42) and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado pushed Spanish territory beyond the Rio Grande (1540). However, the rule of the conquistadores was soon supplanted by direct rule from Spain and by 1575 the Spanish empire stretched from the southern regions of North America down to the southern-most tip of South America.

The French and the Dutch also explored and settled. The French in particular established their presence in Quebec, along the St Lawrence and Mississippi rivers in the sixteenth century. As result, French territory extended from New France (modern-day Canada) down through Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.

The English colonies

Explorers under the patronage of the English Crown had begun to explore the North American coast in the fifteenth century. However, it was not until the defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1588 that the English navy became predominant on the high seas. And the accession to the throne of James I in 1603 brought more support for overseas adventures.

The settlers brought a spirit of adventure and desire for freedom.

Many of the settlers who migrated from England to North America were discontent with their lot in England. Religious dissenters, whether Puritan or Roman Catholic, sought to be free of Church of England. Many peasant farmers had been dispossessed by the spread of the enclosures, as large landowners took over great tracts of arable and common land, upon which the peasants were reliant for their livelihood, turning it over to pasture. These peasants sought a new life in the lands of the 'new world'. Some settlers were leaving debts or a criminal record behind whilst others were seeking new outlets for their wealth. The availability of funds to be invested in the Americas allowed the monarch to make grants of land to individuals (proprietorships), which required no investment from the Crown, but created a source of raw materials and a market for English goods.

The first English colony to be established was Virginia (1607). After an uncertain start it began to prosper under royal patronage. By 1660 there were 40,000 settlers in the colony, with the best lands divided amongst the wealthiest inhabitants, who also dominated the politics of the colony. 'Bacon's Rebellion' was an attempt to wrest control of the colony from the rich landowners, but it failed and proved to be the most serious challenge to royal authority until the American Revolution itself.

The colonies of New England (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island were initially settled by Puritans and Calvinists. The Puritans wished reform the Church of England, leading it away from any practices not mentioned in the bible and the influence of the Roman Catholics. Calvinists followed the teachings ofSwiss theologian John Calvin, believing in an omnipotent God, hard work and piety.

William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1681 in order to create a 'holy experiment' aimed to create a community governed by the principles of the Society of Friends, `The Quakers' — pacifism, plainness in manners and dress and democracy in their worship. In order to reap a return on his investment Penn encouraged settlers to come from all over Europe, creating a multi-cultural community of English, Germans an Scandinavians, amongst others.

New York was originally the Dutch colony of New Netherland. It was captured by English in 1664 and given to the Duke of York by his brother Charles II. The Dutch momentarily regained control in 1674 but were ultimately pacified by the promise religious and cultural toleration.In the south the colony of the Carolinas was created in 1660. The northern half was populated by farmers of smallholdings; those in the southern half concentrated on producing goods for export. Ultimately, holding these halves together proved impossible and they were divided in 1729. The final English colony to be created was Georgia, in 1732, and this was primarily for military reasons. The English feared attack from the Spanish colony of Florida, and populated Georgia with only the most reliable settlers. Roman Catholicism and slavery were banned, the size'of holdings was restricted and the import of rum was prohibited. However, these rules were rapidly relaxed as it became difficult to recruit settlers.

Georgia's problems were familiar to most of the other colonies. Even after they had been established, the colonies faced problems of declining populations and falling migration rates. Consequently, many of the rules initially adopted were abandoned in the search for new recruits.

The economies of the colonies developed according to the assets of each region. New England suffered from harsh winters and poor land and so concentrated on fishing, small-scale manufacturing and overseas trade. New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware benefited from better soil and so agriculture prospered and they became major suppliers of wheat to the rest of the colonies. The economy of the southern colonies came to be dominated by large-scale agriculture — the plantations; Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina all produced tobacco. By the middle of the eighteenth century Maryland and Virginia were producing 50 million pounds of tobacco per year. South Carolina exported 500,000 pounds of rice per annum.

The need for a large labour force on the plantations lay at the root of forced immigration into the colonies — slaves. Although the majority of workers were drawn from the poor white communities, in 1700 there were 25,000 slaves throughout the whole of the colonies, with perhaps half in Virginia, and by 1760 there were.300,000.

Aside from slaves from Africa, settlers also came into the English colonies from Germany, Scotland and Ireland. German groups tended to settle in Pennsylvania, although they were also found in the southern colonies. Similar patterns of migration were followed by the Irish-Scots, who had initially colonized Northern Ireland but left due to religious persecution.

The battle for supremacy in North America

From the end of the seventeenth century for almost a century, the attitudes of France and Britain to their American lands were largely determined by the intensity of their struggles for predominance elsewhere. France possessed great areas of North America, known as New France, from Montreal down to the Mississippi. However, the population of these areas was little more than 75,000, located mainly around isolated trading posts. As a result they were forced to ally themselves with local Indian tribes in order to defend their territories.

The English colonists coveted control of the fur trade and the Ohio—Mississippi basin and feared losing control of the Atlantic fishing ports. As a result of this competition the eighteenth century was punctuated by periods of war and uneasy peace. However, the British forces prevailed, taking the capital of New France, Quebec, in 1758. The Paris Peace Treaty (1763) saw Britain gain all French lands to the east of the Mississippi (except New Orleans), Canada and Florida, which was taken as compensation from Spain in exchange for Cuba and the Philippines. Spain gained all French lands to the west of the Mississippi and New Orleans. French influence in North America was therefore reduced to its holdings in the West Indies.

The English colonies and imperial administration

The victory over France had been achieved at great cost to the British government and many in the British government believed that the colonists had not contributed sufficiently to the cost of the war. They therefore moved towards imposing greater restrictions on them.

A regime of control and restriction was nothing new to the English colonists. Whether Mercantilism

under rule by the monarch, James I, Charles I and, following the restoration of the

monarchy, Charles II or under Parliament the American colonies were always governed directly from England. The colonies were viewed as a valuable source of raw materials and as a market for finished products and as such they could help England build considerable trade surpluses with which it could then purchase precious metals.

According to the economic theory of mercantilism the level of precious metals accumulated determined a country's wealth. With this in mind Parliament passed a series of acts designed to maximize revenue from Revenue from the American colonies. These included the Navigation Acts (1651 and 1660), the the colonies Enumerated Commodities Act (1660), the Staple Act (1663), the Duty Act (1673) and the Enforcement Act (1696). The Navigation Acts required all goods entering English ports to be carried on ships owned and largely manned by British subjects. The Enforcement Act introduced tough measures to enforce the Navigation Act. All English and colonial ships were to be registered and customs officials were given the power to search ships and warehouses.

However, in Britain there were demands for these laws to be tightened to prevent the colonists avoiding the Navigation Acts and to increase revenues from the colonies so that the burden of the national debt on the British taxpayer could be reduced.

New legislation included the Sugar Act (1764), the Currency Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765) and the Quartering, or Mutiny, Act (1765). The Sugar Act reduced the tax on molasses that had been introduced in 1733 but increased the duty on sugar and a range of new taxes on imported goods. The Currency Act forbade the printing of further paper money in the colonies. This prevented colonists taking advantage of the inflation to repay their debts at a depreciated rate. The Stamp Act required all legal documents in the colonies be taxed and furthermore that they be given an official stamp to prove the taxes had been paid. Finally the Quartering Act sought to reduce the cost of lodgings for British troops by forcing colonists to offer soldiers a billet if existing barracks proved inadequate.

This new legislation led to protests in the colonies. The more radical opponents of the Colonial protest measures, calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, organized demonstrations and terrorized tax collectors. More widely, the legislation served to unite the disparate colonies in opposition against British rule.

Whilst the British government was aware of the unrest in America its decision to repeal the Stamp Act and to reduce many of the duties was the result of falling trade between the colonies and Britain. However, the relaxation of control was short-lived. Under Prime Minister William Pitt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, attempted to reassert Britain's control over the colonies' trade. Duties were introduced on glass, lead, tea and paper in 1767; in the same year the New York legislature was suspended for failing to comply with the Quartering Act and a similar fate befell the assemblies of Massachusetts and Virginia for writing a letter calling for resistance to parliamentary taxation.

Colonial resistance was rekindled by the new legislation and by a series of incidents between British troops and colonists, including The Boston Massacre (1770) and the attack on the British ship Gaspee (1772).•The cargoes of three ships were dumped into Boston harbour in response to the Tea Act which had given the East India Company a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies. This became known as the Boston Tea Party (1773).

The British Parliament then passed a series of Coercive Acts, known as the Intolerable Acts in America, in an attempt to restore control over the colonies. These provoked a new round of united resistance to British rule. Representatives from all but one of the colonies (Georgia) met in Philadelphia in 1774 for the Continental Congress. Here they agreed to form the Continental Association which would boycott trade with Britain.

The American Revolution

To the American colonists the actions of the British government appeared oppressive and designed to remove their liberties. All British legislation was imposed without reference to colonial governments and in some cases colonial government had been suspended completely. For example, all officials of Massachusetts were to be appointees of the Crown and public meetings without permission of the Governor were banned. However, the majority of colonists hoped for a softening of the British position rather than independence.

With this in mind the Second Continental Congress (1775) sent an 'Olive Branch' message to King George III in an attempt to fend off war. But by this time British troops and the Massachusetts Minutemen had clashed at Lexington and Concord, where the British suffered 1000 casualties. The Congress therefore laid its own plans to raise an army, appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief and attempted to build an alliance with France.

To an extent the British Prime Minister, Lord North, attempted to take a conciliatory position by offering to stop Parliament taxing the colonists, except in cases where tax was designed to regulate trade, if colonial assemblies would raise their own taxes to support the Crown in their colony. But this was rejected by the Congress. Shortly afterwards it became known that the king had not accepted the 'Olive Branch' petition and considered the colonies to be in rebellion. In 1775 Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act, which closed all American ports.

Reluctantly the American colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776 in a Declaration of Independence

document composed largely by Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration fulfilled different Independence purposes: it was a statement of the reasons for separating the colonies from Britain and served as a political pamphlet to win over any colonists who might be undecided.

The war which followed was marked by the inept leadership of the British forces and War the skill of George Washington. Washington's deployment of the small American army prevented its destruction by the British and, once in alliance with France, took it to victory at York Town. The Peace of Paris ended the war in 1783.

The constitution was drawn up at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Before the American Revolution in the 1770s, America was a British colony, and the revolution had its origins in what the colonists saw as the oppressive behaviour of the British government. Their discontent culminated in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which rejected the British monarchy and Parliament, and claimed the sovereignty of a new nation.

The Articles of Confederation

The first attempt at a US Constitution was the Articles of Confederation drawn up in 1776, and passed in 1777 by the Second Continental Congress, the national representative body. The history of arbitrary British rule and consequent suspicion of centralised authority meant that the primary aim of the Articles of Confederation was to protect the rights of the 13 states, and create only a weak national government. The national legislature, to be known as the Congress of the Confederation, was to consist of one chamber in which members served one, 1-year term. There was no national executive or judicial branch, and the Congress had no enforceable powers of taxation; any legislative action it took required the approval of a minimum of nine of the 13 state delegations. In the years that followed, with no sustainable source of income, the federal government struggled to function. Congress was unable to regulate trade, either between the states or with other countries, and commerce suffered. Meanwhile, in the 13 states the suspicion of authority meant that the legislative branches came to dominate; in some states, there was no constitutional provision for a governor at all, and in most the governor was chosen by the legislature. It saw the rise of men who James Madison described as being 'without reading, experience or principle', and who were keen to advance their own interests, often at odds with those of the propertied and moneyed classes.

The Constitutional Convention took place against the background of these two contrasting periods of American history; the arbitrary rule of the English had been replaced by a weak federal government and the dominance of the state legislatures, which, in the view of the political establishment at least, was just as bad. The experience of the growing power of the legislatures led Madison to write of them in Federalist Paper 48 that 'it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people exhaust all their precautions.'

Federalists and anti-federalists

After the Constitutional Convention had met, debate over the ratification of the new constitution took place, mainly between two groups—the federalists and the anti-federalists. This debate formed the basis of the first party division in the USA.

The federalists, the supporters of the constitution, favoured a stronger central government to counter the dangerous tendencies they saw in the state legislatures, and to enable the country to function. Their belief that the views of the common man needed filtering by passing through the medium of a chosen body of citizens 'whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country' (Federalist 10) led them to advocate a republican government (an indirect democracy). This model of strong institutions and central government is associated with Alexander Hamilton- Hamiltonian Democracy. Federalists had their support in the cities and among the wealthy merchants and land owners.

In contrast, the anti-federalists, who were suspicious of many elements of the constitution, were hostile to any notion of the elevation of the few at the expense of the many. They believed that representatives should mirror rather than filter public opinion or, preferably, that there should be no representatives at all, and government be conducted through assemblies of the people. Any strengthening of central government at the expense of the states would work against the interests of the majority. An advocate of this model was Thomas Jefferson- Jeffersonian Democracy. Anti-Federalists drew their support from the poorer farmers and labourers.