Founding of the U.S. Constitution
The founding of the United States Constitution is as shrouded in myth as it is in history. The original intent of its framers can, obviously, only be deduced rather than verified. However, extensive historical scholarship exists which helps to illuminate the intent of the original framers of the Constitution and also helps to elucidate exactly what type of government the founding fathers aspired to create and whether or not the Constitution reflects the formation of a single vision, or many visions. Regarding this latter point, the scholarship is clear: the Constitution reflects a dramatic political compromise between radically different parties, each with individual beliefs and interests. The Constitution in reflecting these compromises led to the formation of a government that was different than any single framer’s vision.
An important question regarding the founding of the U.S Constitution is that of the framer’s intent. “Were the framers[…] divinely inspired visionaries who[…] rose above petty self-interest to bequeath a majestic system of government and commerce, rights and liberties, checks and balances[…] Or were they fat cats and aristocrats who conspired in Philadelphia to favor the rich over the poor, decrease democracy while pretending to promote it?” (Black, 1988, p. 20) This question is less easily answered and scholars differ greatly on how closely the historical framers resemble the framers of American myth. Many scholars view the myth of the founding fathers as a crucial linchpin in the myth of the Constitution which,. in effect, holds the conventions of Democracy together in many ways. Other scholars view the myth of the founding fathers as just that: myth and seek to undermine the myths with detailed examinations of the personal faults and failings of the framers. This controversy in modern scholarship seems to mirror a schism among the framers themselves in their basic philosophies regarding huyman nature. “Children of the Enlightenment, most believed it was possible to apply the lessons of experience to the creation of a new government; at the same time, most were realists in regard to human nature, recognizing, as Madison argued in Federalist No. 51, that human beings were not angels and that government must necessarily guard against some destructive human impulses.” (Vile, 1997, p. 14) Madison became one of the most crucial and important of the framers: “James Madison is widely regarded as the father of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”(Hartnett, 1998)
This aforementioned philosophical schism — between individual (and state’s) liberties versus the centralization of power in a Federal government ignited the most dramatic and important debate in regards to the forming of the Constitution. This debate, in fact, was the reason that the Constitution was drafted. Prior to the Constitutional Convention, the fledgling United States existed under the Articles of Confederation. “The Articles of Confederation, which laid out the system of government that[…] did not form the 13 states into a large nation. In its own words, it created “a firm league of friendship” among 13 independent states” (Black, 1988, p. 21) However, a large segment of the delegates to the Convention were strong nationalists. “They were nationalists, which in their time meant they favored strengthening the national government at the expense of the states.” (Black, 1988, p. 20) So, at the time the Constitutional Convention was convened, America was a confederation of states and not a democracy of nay kind. “America was a confederation, according to its first instrument of government, the Articles of Confederation, agreed upon by the Continental Congress in 1777 but not ratified until 1781.” (Cunliffe, 2003)
At the Constitutional Convention two plans were presented, the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey plan. “This plan[…] dominated the discussion for the first two weeks. The plan called for a much strengthened national government, and, perhaps not surprisingly, its scheme of representation favored populous states like Virginia (Vile, 1997, p. 15) The New Jersey plan focused on the concerns of “those who were more fearful of granting increased powers to the national government. More obviously, it favored the interests of the small states. (Vile, 1997, p. 16) The two plans demonstrate clearly that no single form of government was being envisioned by the framers, rather each of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued on behalf of their personal beliefs and the needs and concerns of their states. Eventually, a compromise was reached — the “Great Compromise” which resulted in a bicameral legislature with a supreme court and “representation based on population in the lower house, and to that house the exclusive power to originate money bills; but in the upper house an equal state vote.” (Bloom & United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, 1941, p. 21)
After the Constitution was drafted, it was ratified as the “supreme Law of the Land,” which change might be considered as emphasizing the origin of the Constitution as the work of the whole–of the people–and not, of the states. This great “Law of the Land” clause has been called the linchpin of the Constitution, since it effectively binds the parts into the whole.” (Bloom & United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, 1941, p. 22)
The resulting form of government reflected the Federalist concerns as Republican concerns. Indeed, the Constitution itself became the from of government a constitutional government, born out of a schism between many radically differing viewpoints. Despite the debates and compromises , America stood united in its will against tyranny, with individuals difering in their beliefs of how to best control tyranny. “The United States, however, was the first new nation to declare itself a republic, repudiating the British monarchy in whose name the American colonies had been governed. Americans saw themselves as pioneers, setting an example for rising democracies all over the world.” (Cunliffe, 2003)
Black, E. (1988). Our Constitution: The Myth That Binds Us. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Bloom, S., ; United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission. (1941). History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution, with Liberty Documents and Report of the Commission. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off.
Cunliffe, M. (2003, February). Republicanism and the Founding of America – Republican Government May Be Seen as a Middle Path between Monarchy and Democracy. World and I, 18,.
Fisher, L. (1998). The Politics of Shared Power: Congress and the Executive (4th ed.). College Station, TX: Texas A;M University Press.
Hartnett, E. (1998). A “Uniform and Entire” Constitution; or, What If Madison Had Won?. Constitutional Commentary, 15(2), 251-299.
Vile, J. R. (1997). A Companion to the United States Constitution and Its Amendments (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
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