(This first post will be a little different from the soon-to-be norm. It’s not about a presidential election, but how we got them in the first place!)
Four Eleven Years
Congratulations, new nation! You just won independence from the evil Great Britain! But… what do you do next? How do you run your new country? Constitution Day hasn’t been invented yet. Heck, THE CONSTITUTION hasn’t been invented yet! That’s still a decade away! Well, you can start with the one thing everyone can agree on – government sucks! You spent years fighting a tyrannical government. You need a way to prevent the new government from getting too powerful. And the best way to do that? Create a government that’s super weak!
The Articles of Confederation (lame)
The first US government was deliberately weak. It had one branch, comprised of one elector from each state. Any decision needed nine of the thirteen votes to pass (super majorities are hard!) and had to be unanimous for amendments. This meant that nothing could get done. If things could get done, those things were intended to be restricted to: declaring war, conducting foreign affairs, and making treaties. Essentially, the government was a loose organization for states to represent themselves on the world stage. Notably, what it could NOT do was collect taxes. As it turns out, revolutions are expensive! The government had a lot of debt, and it had to rely on the states to pay for it. Some war veterans, like Daniel Shays, had not been fully paid for their service and returned home to mounting debt. The economic conditions in Massachusetts got so bad, Shays and others struggling farmers protested the courts, forming Shays Rebellion. This situation really highlighted the limitations of the new government. Perhaps it was time to call a mulligan.
Northwest Ordinance Pause!
“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Hey, cool quote. We should put it on a building. Maybe a building belonging to a midwest university.
One thing that the government of the Articles of Confederation did manage to pass was the Northwest Ordinance. This act provided rules for the expansion of the young nation into the northern midwest (at the eventual expensive of the Native American tribes). Previous western land claims by the thirteen original states were nullified and the land was to be divided into three to five new states. Eventually, the new states became Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and ohio. One dividing line for the proposed states was to be “an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.” Although the inaccurate maps at the time failed to show it, this places Michigan’s TRUE southern border below Toledo.
Now that America had properly seen that their weak government sucked, it was time to fix it. Meetings began in 1786 to create solutions. When the group met in Philadelphia in 1787, they decided to completely ditch the Articles and write the much better Constitution. They created the system we know today, which of course has three branches of government to separate powers and balance each other out. The greatest division when planning this new-new government was between the big states and the small states. Under the proposed Virginia Plan, each state’s representatives would be proportioned based on population. The people of New Jersey said, “Fuck that,” and argued for one representative per state, giving more power to the small states. Honestly, it seems like both of them were being super selfish, but eventually, the Great Compromise saved the day! The final system was a two-house legislature; with the House of Representatives, based on population; and the Senate, with two members per state. Similarly, the head of the executive branch (becomes more important later!) was to be chosen by delegates totaling the number of legislative representatives each state had (House plus Senate). That part works great!
Now the next issue, how to count population? Southern states wanted to count slaves towards their population, meaning more representatives. The much more tolerant northern states said, “No, you racists, black people deserve a vote !” Wait hold on… nope. They wanted to not give them a vote and not count them towards population. Shit. Well, what they decided on was the Three-Fifths Compromise, to count three of every five slaves towards each state’s population. So that sucked.
The Constitutional Convention completed the Constitution just in time for Constitution Day, on September 17th, 1787. The Congress of the Confederation chose to let the individual state legislatures ratify the new document. Once nine of the thirteen states approved, it would go into effect. Thus, the debate began! Supporters of the Constitution, or Federalists, argued in favor of the increase in government power. To convince the New York state legislature to vote in their favor, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote The Federalist Papers, a series of essays outlining their argument. Anti-Federalists saw the new document as a huge overstep of government power. They felt that true power belonged to the states. In order to appease this faction, many state legislatures, such as Massachusetts, added a series of proposed amendments to be considered following the passage of the Constitution. This BILL was intended to specify that individuals (and states!) had certain RIGHTS that were protected under the new-new government.
Some states were easy to win over, like Delaware, who was pretty much down for whatever and became the first state to ratify the Constitution on December 7th. By the summer of 1788, enough states had agreed that the new government could be put into effect! New-new America had an opening date, March 1789. (Sorry North Carolina and Rhode Island! You took too long to ratify and aren’t invited until you do.)
What Did It Say About America?
The Founders were understandably afraid of the tyranny of a strong government. They fought really hard to get away from one! But after years of going too far the other way, it was hard to deny that a new government needed to be formed. The people were ready for change (as decided by rich, white land owners). And they were ready for a fuckin’ PRESIDENT.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yeah, obviously. Ok, maybe I’m a little biased because I love presidential history and Constitution Day. The Constitution isn’t perfect. The power it intended to consolidate was not really for the average person (senators were originally appointed by the state legislatures!). And 232 years later, we’re still debating how much power the federal government should have and if large states or small states should have an advantage (like in the electoral college!!). Not to mention, the shame of the Three-Fifths Compromise. But the goal was to get America back on track for success, and it did that! It was a great framework to start with, though it was (and is) far from being finished.