The Articles of Confederation was the colonies first attempt at a national government. It was a weak form of a central government which had very limited abilities. Most of the power was left to the states which operated almost like independent republics. There were several downfalls of the Articles of Confederation, the most prominent of which was its lack of power to tax. During the 1780’s, the wealthiest and most groups recognized the problems with the Confederation and began working towards a solution. Some believed the Articles of Confederation could simply be amended, however they soon realized drastic changes were needed.
Those that lobbied for a stronger national government saw the effects of too much power left in the hands of the citizens during Shays Rebellion. And so continued the balance between liberty and order. They also recognized the need to strengthen its weakest point, the inability to tax. The end result was the Constitution which established three branches of government; the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. This three branch system was a radical change but it provided a system of checks and balances. It did not come without great debate. There were several compromises reached, the first being between the small and large states.
The second compromise, and perhaps the longer standing, was the idea of sovereignty itself. Ultimately the Constitution was ratified but several critics remained. (American History, p164) The three branch system of government was first introduced by James Madison and became known as the Virginia Plan. He argued that a large republic with several different factions would be less subject to tyranny because no single group would be able to dominate it. This helped quell one of the main hesitations shared by a majority of Americans – concentered authority. (American History, p164) The Virginia Plan offered a system of checks and balances.
Congress (Legislative Branch) would have two separate houses with representatives from the states elected in different ways. Its members would have to agree before any law would pass. The President (Executive Branch) would have the power to veto any law passed by Congress. The federal courts (Judiciary) would rule if any laws passed coincided with the Constitution. They would also be protected from Congress and the President since they would serve life terms once appointed. (American History, p166) During the grand convention where the Constitution took form, there was debate between the small and large states.
The first source of contention was how the representatives of the legislature would be elected. The original form of the Virginia Plan called for two house, a lower and an upper. The lower would be represented in proportion to each states population. The lower house would the appoint members of the upper house. This could lead to the possibility of no representatives from the smaller states at times. A compromised was reached and it was agreed that members of the upper house would be elected by the state legislatures. (American History, p164).
The second source of contention was how the total population would be calculated. Larger states with a significant slave population, predominantly the south, wanted slaves to count for representation purposes but not towards taxation. Smaller states where slavery was insignificant, predominantly the north, wanted slaves to count towards taxation but not representation. Ultimately a ‘great compromise’ was reached. In the lower house, each slave would count as three-fifths of a free person for both taxation and representation purposes. In the upper house, states would be represented with two members apiece. American History, p165)
The question of sovereignty was nothing new to the American people. It had been the main source of conflict between the colonies and Great Britain and it continued during the formation of the Constitution. Madison attempt to answer the question of how could both the national and state government be sovereign and where did ultimate sovereignty fall. He concluded it came from the bottom, the people, and flowed up. The Constitution distributed powers between the national and state governments. The federal government had the power to tax, regulate commerce, and pass laws that were necessary and proper.
States no longer retained every power, however the Constitution recognized their separated existence and allowed them to pass their own laws. (American History, p166) After the Constitution was drafted, two separate groups of supporters and critics emerged. The supporters, known as Federalists, feared too much power in the hands of the people. They citied such incidents as Shays Rebellion, an episode of disorder and chaos. They wanted a government that could operate without interference from popular passions. The Antifederalists on the other hand, were fearful of too much power in a concentrated central government.
They opposed the Constitution because it put too many obstacles between the people and their ability to exercise power. (American History, p169) The Constitution was America’s second and far more successful attempt at a national government. Although there have been several amendments, it is over 200 years old and is still in existence today. The founding fathers successfully navigated several sources of contention during that time such as the debate between small and large states and the longer standing issues of sovereignty. They attempted to balance order and liberty which continues on to this day.