When the American colonists decided that they had had enough of England’s onerous rule they took action. Two of the more celebrated events took place in Massachusetts, the Boston Tea Party, on 16 December 1773 and the “Shot heard around the world” at Concord on 19 April 1775.
Even though much of the early action took place in the New England area all 13 colonies were involved and contributed to the effort. Each of them sent representatives to the first and second Continental Congresses but they were first and foremost individual colonies. The Congresses tended to be rather contentious affairs with each colony’s representatives fighting to ensure the interests of his own colony was fairly represented.
This emphasis on the interests of the colonies carried over into the writing and ratification of the Articles of Confederation, written by the direction of the Second Continental Congress. Under the Articles the states maintained a mostly sovereign position within the whole. The union was a very loose confederation and that was the way the states wanted it. One of the main complaints against the Articles was that there was no power of taxation; the central government had to ask for funds to operate, to wage war, to carry out diplomatic missions, etc. and the states were not obligated to accede to the request. It was recognized by the states that there needed to be a structure to bind them together but it was not going to be a strong central government like that which they were battling at the time. The emphasis was on the freedom and sovereignty of the individual states.
This sovereignty was so important that the smaller states came to feel that they did not have commensurate economic power or balance with the other, larger states. The concern was that the larger states’ economic power would dominate them. Also, the larger states felt that they contributed more to the Union but each state had only one vote and therefore the small states held too much power.
These concerns were addressed and corrected by the establishment of the US Constitution in 1788. Like the discussions in the Second Continental Congress over the provisions of the Articles, the Constitutional Convention was no less “spirited.” For four months in the summer of 1787, delegates from all of the states met in Philadelphia to hammer out the Constitution. A great deal of the discussion and dissention was based on how to fairly represent the states. The result was the Constitution without any amendments.
With the emphasis on States’ Rights, the Constitution was ultimately drawn up as a contract between the States to establish the federal government. This is an important concept, that the states established the federal government by use of a contract called the Constitution.
The new nation had just come through a long war to free themselves of the tyranny of a strong central government and these new states needed some assurance that the new federal government would not become the same type of tyrannical government from which they had just freed themselves. The states intended to ensure that that would not happen by writing certain guarantees into the contract, the Constitution. These guarantees set down the duties and responsibilities of the federal government and the states. There were also restrictions that delineated the relationship between the federal government and the states. This relationship was quite clear. The states were still in the driver’s seat and the federal government served at the pleasure of the states.
In addition, the states’ representatives were concerned about the rights of their citizens, so, to the end of the contract they added a codicil, the Bill of Rights. Make no mistake the first nine amendments in the Bill of Rights were meant to guarantee the rights of the individual and the Tenth Amendment specifically told the federal government where their authority ended. This was the contract drawn up by the states to set down the limitations and responsibilities of the federal government.
This has merely been a primer on the background and reasoning underlying the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In my next Discourse I will delve a bit more deeply into the relationship requirements and limitations set down by this contract.
As always, your comments and discussions are welcome.