1776 brought a declaration of and a war for independence to Britain’s North American colonies. While they had all acted in concert to reach this decision, their memories of colonial life under the centralized British monarchy had lasting effect upon their views of what the federal government of their new republic would have the power to do. In the years following the Declaration of Independence, Congress came up with the Articles of Confederation to loosely govern the new republic at the federal level.
1781 found all 13 states ratifying the Articles of the Confederation as well as the conclusion of the War for Independence, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Already, the weaknesses of the Articles of the Confederation were beginning to show. Every one of the 13 colonies suffered economic setbacks as a result of the War for Independence. Devalued American currency as a result of the Congress’ habit of printing new paper money to cover the new republic’s war debt and the British blockade created high prices for goods.
The end of the war hardly helped the situation as Congress found itself powerless to levy taxes to pay off the war debt, powerless to regulate trade with other nations, and powerless to regulate orkers wages and the price of goods. This unregulated economic climate provoked citizens who were shouldering much of the debt as a result. Farmers of western Massachusetts who saw banks moving to foreclose on the mortgages of their farms demanded that the government do something to protect them in their time of financial need.
They saw the lower legislative house of Massachusetts draft and approve a measure, which included relief measures for them. Under the influence of the farmers’ creditors, the upper house blocked the actions of the lower house, which further enraged these local farmers. In 1786, a captain of the old Continental rmy Daniel Shays, led 2000 armed farmers against the state government. They shut down county courts to prevent foreclosure proceedings on their farms, and marched on the Federal Arsenal at Springfield, evidently to properly arm themselves.
Eventually in 1787, the Massachusetts state militia put down the rebellion. Both sides in the mess were unhappy with the new republic’s role (or lack thereof) in the crisis. Farmers were unhappy that the government wasn’t taking steps to protect their property from creditors, and creditors were unhappy that the government wasn’t taking steps to protect what was now their property due to oreclosure proceedings. The whole situation served to further emphasize the federal governments lack of capability to help either side.
With 13 states, and 13 differing opinions, diplomacy that was acceptable to all between the Confederation and neighboring nations was difficult to negotiate. Southwestern states had an independent streak of their own, and in order to placate them and draw them closer to the other states of the Confederacy, Congress dispatched their secretary of foreign affairs, John Jay to negotiate a treaty with Spain regarding American rights in navigating the Mississippi river.
The Spanish emissary, Don Diego de Gardoqui managed to convince Jay to sign an agreement for the new republic to give up all its rights to the Mississippi river for 25 years, in return for trading privileges for American trading houses based in Jay’s home state of New York. When the southwestern states got wind of this proposed treaty, it further deepened the rifts between them and the other states, as the trading privileges did not benefit them directly, and the treaty did the exact opposite of what they wanted regarding navigation of the Mississippi river.
Needless to say, the treaty was never ratified, and only served o foreshadow the hostility the South was capable of when sufficiently antagonize as would be further illustrated by the events preceding the Civil War. This situation was just one more that the framers of the Constitution had in mind as they convened in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of the Confederation. These 55 delegates from all over the new republic were aware of the lack of support for an Army or Navy for the national defense, and lack of power to tax and manage trade enough to pull itself out of its current economic woes.
A change to the powers given to the federal government by the Articles of Confederation was definitely in order. Part I, Question II We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The first phrase of the preamble to the Constitution of the United States We the People’ is a very powerful statement, in that it brings the reader to the immediate awareness of the perspective from which this document is written. This document is from the people, for the people, and while this is easy to take for granted in today’s worldwide political climate, during the 1780’s, this was a shocking statement. The concept of being part of a citizenry with a collective voice was foreign to the average peasant or craftsman, used to an authoritarian political culture.
The framers of our Constitution were aware of what absolute power does to people; it corrupts. They recognized that their government had to be powerful, yet split the distribution of the said power up with an integrated system of checks and balances. The main body of the Constitution outlines this system. The job of the executive, or President, is to implement laws, make cabinet appointments, and act as the head of state, not to mention act as the commander in chief of the armed forces in time of war.
The President proposes laws to Congress to pass, and approves or vetoes bills that Congress has passed and presents back for approval, which is one of the checks the executive has over the power of Congress. Congress in turn controls how money is spent, regulates internal and external commerce, and approves cabinet appointees and foreign treaties. The Congress can check the Presidents power by refusing to pass bills the President proposes, overriding the Presidents veto by a 2/3 majority vote, refusing to approve of cabinet appointees or treaties, and can even remove a President with impeachment!
The third branch of government is the Judicial branch, made up of Judges residing for life in the Supreme Court. Judges have the power to declare an executive order unconstitutional, which is their check on executive power, and they cannot be removed from the court once they are appointed. They can declare laws unconstitutional once they have passed through Congress, hecking the power of the Legislature. The President can grant pardons towards people who have been sentenced by the judicial system, and has the power to appoint new members of the Supreme Court.
Congress has the power to eliminate federal courts, impeach judges if it so chooses, and can refuse to approve of Executive appointees to the Supreme Court. At the root of all this structure dictating how the power triangle works, is the fact that no branches of government have power without the approval of the people. If the people are unhappy with the performance of any branch of the government, they are (usually! What a bad voting decade for the Left! ) quick to rectify the situation at the next opportunity they have to vote.
While they cannot effect the Supreme Court directly, they elect members of Congress who hold the rights impeach justices of the Court, and they elect the President who appoints new members of the Court. Power is not only shared by the 3 branches of the federal government, it is also shared between the states, and the federal government. Power is granted to the states that is not granted the federal government, with regards to such matters as law enforcement, marriage, and education.
On the opposite side of the same coin, the federal government can do things that no state can do, such as mint new money, control interstate trade, or declare war on an outside force. States and the federal government share power with such issues as taxation, trying criminals, and building new roads. It’s a wonder that anything gets done at all in our federal government and accompanying bureaucracy with all of its divisions of power! However, longevity is definitely an indicator of something that works, and our form of democracy based on the US Constitution has been around for over 225 years.