The Articles of Confederation acted as a “federal constitution” for the original thirteen American states, but it had no enforcing power.
The story of the fight over the US Constitution begins after the War for Independence. At that time, the state governments ignored the Articles of Confederation. In fact, they refused to cooperate on much of anything. Chaos crept in and threatened a total breakup of the union. So the states called for a Constitutional Convention to rewrite the Articles.
The states sent delegates to this convention. There, the majority decided to completely scrap the Articles. Instead, they wrote a whole new constitution. Of the fifty-five convention delegates, only thirty-eight, barely two thirds, signed the new constitution. The signers became known as the Federalists. That group included:
- George Washington, president of the convention. He was also America’s savior, because he won an impossible war;
- Benjamin Franklin, a master foreign negotiator as well as a world renowned scientist and sage;
- James Madison, who is called the Father of the Constitution because he played a much bigger role than anyone in the final document. He also wrote many of the Federalist Papers;
- Alexander Hamilton, who wrote most of the Federalist Papers. Those papers are the best description in existence of the Federalists’ intentions for the US Constitution.
Two other very important founders were not in the convention. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in England and France, respectively, as U.S. Ambassadors.
Nearly a third of the convention delegates refused to sign the new constitution.
Some walked out early in disgust while some stayed to fight the Federalists. Those who opposed the new constitution became known as the Anti-Federalists, and included:
- Patrick Henry, who back in 1776 made a speech that convinced many to join the revolution. It ended with “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
- George Mason, the namesake of George Mason University, and principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. That document provided many of the concepts Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence.
- Richard Henry Lee, who officially presented the motion to declare independence from Britain, and was later a U.S. senator and president pro tempore of the Senate. He also happened to be a great-uncle of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
- James Monroe, later the fourth U.S. President. He also helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, and served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State.
- John Hancock, president of the U.S. Continental Congress at the time of the Declaration of Independence. He is remembered today for his huge defiant signature on the Declaration.
- Samuel Adams, one of the ‘Sons of Liberty’, instigators of the Boston Tea Party event. He was also incidentally a first cousin to later President John Adams.
- Elbridge Gerry, who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, and later served as U.S. Vice President.
- George Clinton, who was a brigadier general in the Continental Army. He also served as Governor of New York and as U.S. Vice President under two presidents.
The fight over the US Constitution was about the division of power in the new nation.
The Federalists wanted the national government to be run by a “natural aristocracy”. That means the “better” or more sophisticated and educated men of the nation. The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, wanted the national government to be more under the control of everyday people. Also, the Federalists wanted a strong national government, whereas the Anti-Federalists wanted strong state governments.
This fight over the US Constitution continued into the separate state conventions for ratifying that document. It even laid the groundwork for the first political parties.
Given the stature of these Anti-Federalists, do you think they may have had good reasons for refusing to sign the new constitution? Do you think America is run by a “natural aristocracy” or rather by everyday people through voting? Do you think the national government has too much, too little, or just the right amount of power, relative to the states?
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