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U.S. History/History - the Constitution


What events and developments in the 1780s contributed to the drafting of the Constitution?  In what specific ways did the Constitution address the seeming failures of the Articles of Confederation? Under what authority was the Constitution drafted and ratified?

These are very good questions.  The answer to the problems under the Articles of Confederations is quite extensive.  Federalist Papers #15 - 22 explain the problems under the Articles and the problems in all previous confederacies throughout history.  It is far too extensive to go into on a forum like this.  Check out the Papers for a complete answer.

About the convention's authority, I am putting my translation of Federalist Paper #40 below, which explains their "authority".

Number 40:  Was Convention Authorized to Draft Constitution?
[This paper continues the discussion started in Number 39, paragraph 8.]

The second question:  Was the convention authorized to create and propose this mixed [with both national and federal features] Constitution?

Convention’s Mission Defined
2   Why did the States send delegates to the Convention?  The meeting in Annapolis in September 1786 and the congressional meeting in February 1787 defined their mission.
Annapolis Meeting, September 1786

3   The Annapolis meeting in September, 1786, recommended that the States appoint delegates to meet and consider “the situation of the United States; to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render [make] the Constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to by them, and afterwards confirmed by the legislature of every State, will effectually provide for the same.”

Congress Recommendation, Feb 1787
4   In February, 1787, Congress recom¬mended: “Whereas there is provision in the Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union for making alterations therein, by the assent of Congress of the United States and the legislatures of the several States; and whereas experience has evinced that there are defects in the present Confederation; as a means to remedy which, several States, and particularly the State of New York, by ex¬press instructions to their delegates in Con¬gress, have suggested a convention for the purposes expressed in the following resolution; and such convention appearing to be the most probable means of establishing in these States a firm national government:

5   “Resolved, —That in the opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a convention of delegates, who shall have been appointed by the several States, be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, and reporting to Congress and all the legislatures the alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render [make] the federal Constitution adequate to meet the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union”

Convention’s Objectives/Tasks
6   These two acts seem to say:
  1) The convention’s objective was to establish a firm national government that is adequate for the needs of the government and the preservation of the Union.
  2) This goal could be met either by “revising the Articles of Confederation [with] alterations and provisions” (from act of Congress) or by “such further provision as should appear necessary” (Annapolis).
  3) To take effect, Congress and the States must agree to the changes.

Convention’s Mission Statement
7   We can summarize the convention’s authority: (1)  Frame a national government that can (2) meet the needs of government and the Union, and (3) change the Articles of Confederation into a form that accomplishes these purposes.

Conflicting Goals: Sacrifice Less Important
8   To analyze this mission statement, logic and legal axioms have two rules:
First, if possible, every part of the mission statement should have meaning and made to reach some common goal.

Second, if parts of the mission statement conflict, the less important should give way to the more important part.  The means should be sacrificed to the goal, rather than the goal to the means.

Change Articles vs. New Constitution
9   What if the convention felt that they could not form a national government that meets the Union’s needs [#1 and 2 in paragraph 6 above] . . . by alterations of the Articles of Confederation [#3 in paragraph 6 above].  Which part of the mission should be pursued and which part should be rejected?  Which is more important—forming an adequate government or preserving the Articles of Confederation?

The people who object to the convention’s work should answer this question: What was the purpose of government reform?  To preserve the Articles?  Or to establish an adequate government, even if the Articles have to be sacrificed?

Maybe Goals Are Not Irreconcilable
10   But are these goals irreconcilable?  Perhaps the convention did alter the Articles of the Confederation to form a national and adequate government.

Alteration vs. Transmutation
11   The convention was authorized to alter and add new provisions to the Articles of Confederation.  Therefore, changing the title to “Constitution” is not an exercise of ungranted power.

Where is the line between authorized and unauthorized changes?  What degree of change is an alteration?  How much change is actually a transmutation of the government?  The States solemnly appointed a convention with big objectives.  They must have expected some substantial reforms.

Did the convention change the fundamental principles of the Confederation?

Both the Articles and the proposed Constitution regard the States as independent sovereigns.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the people, not the State legislatures, may elect the delegates to Congress—a trait of a national government.

Some opponents say that the national government’s power must act on States rather than individuals.  Sometimes the new government will act on the States.  And sometimes the existing confederation acts on individuals.

Do these fundamental principles require that States must play a role in all taxation?  The current Confederation has a direct tax on the post office.  And Congress says the power of coinage is a tax.

Besides these examples, one of the convention objectives—and the people expected—that the national government would regulate trade so it would be an im¬mediate source of general revenue.  Congress said that federal trade regulations are consistent with the fundamental principles of the Confederacy. And twelve States have already complied with the plan of Congress.

Should the federal government’s powers be limited?  Beyond this limit, should the States have sovereign and independent jurisdiction?  In the new government—as in the old—the national powers are limited.  And the States have sovereign, independent jurisdiction over all powers not specifically stated in the Constitution.

12   The important principles in the proposed Constitution are not new.  They expand the principles found in the Articles of Confederation.  The Constitution only looks like a new system because the Articles needed so much clarification.

Ratification Process Changed
13   In one area, the convention departed from their specific commission.  Nine States need to ratify the Constitution, instead of all the States.

Although this could be an objection to the Constitution, it is rarely mentioned.  This is probably because it would be absurd to subject the fate of twelve States to the perverseness or corruption of the thirteenth.  Therefore, it has received little criticism.  I dismiss it without further comment.

Did Duty Override Authority?
14   The third question is: How much did the delegates’ feelings of duty to their country supply any lack of regular authority?

Convention Only Recommends Plan
15   Up to this point, we have rigorously analyzed the convention’s work as if it had the authority to establish a Constitution for the United States.  It has held up to scrutiny.
The convention was only authorized to advise and recommend.  And the proposed Constitution is nothing more than pieces of paper, unless the people approve it.

Convention Delegates: Considerations
16   From the convention notes, the delegates seemed deeply concerned about the crisis in their country.  Almost with one voice, they created the solemn Constitution to correct the errors that produced this crisis.  They all agreed that the proposed reform is necessary to meet the convention’s goals.

Citizens throughout this great empire anxiously watched their deliberations.  And delegates believed that every external and internal foe of liberty and prosperity of the United States hoped they would fail.

Virginia offered an amendment to the Confederacy, which the delegates studied.  The Annapolis convention—with very few deputies from a very few of the States—had recommended an important change that was not part of their commission; however, the public accepted it and twelve of the thirteen States made the change.  And Congress has assumed powers to solve problems, problems far less urgent than those faced by the convention.

Delegates knew that when an established government needs great changes, form must give way to substance. The people have the right to “abolish or alter their governments as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”* Rigidly holding onto a specific form would make this nearly impossible.  People don’t spontaneously and universally move together towards their objectives.  Therefore, some informal and unauthorized proposals made by some patriotic, respectable citizens start changes.

The States first united against danger because people believe that they could plan for their safety and happiness.  Committees and congresses worked hard, defending the people’s rights.  Conventions established the State constitutions.  The only people who demanded that existing forms be followed were people who secretly wanted to block delegates from creating the constitutions.

As they wrote the new Constitution, delegates knew that it would be submitted to the people themselves.  If the people reject the plan, it will be destroyed forever.  Likewise, approval by the people overrides any irregularities in its formation.

The delegates might have realized that once trivial objections are settled, the question of whether they exceeded their authority would not be criticized, particularly if their recommendation met the national needs.

Judging the Delegates
17   What if the convention hadn’t created a system that they felt could secure the country’s happiness?  What if they had coldly decided to disappoint the country’s deep hopes and sacrificed substance to form?  Their country would have faced the uncertainties of delay and the hazard of events.  Let me ask the rational patriot—how would the impartial world judge the convention?  How would the friends of mankind and every virtuous citizen judge the conduct and character of this assembly?

If there is a man who wants to condemn the delegates and the convention, how does he plan to punish the twelve States who usurped power by sending deputies to the convention?  How will he punish Congress, who recommended the appointment of this body?  Or punish the State of New York, which first urged and then complied with this unauthorized intervention?

Source of Good Advice Unimportant
18   To disarm the objectors, let’s agree for a moment that the convention was neither authorized by their commission nor justified by circumstances to propose a Constitution for their country.  Does it follow that the Constitution, for that reason alone, should be rejected?
If it is lawful to accept good advice from an enemy, shall we refuse advice when our friends offer it?  In all cases, the prudent inquiry shouldn’t be from whom the advice comes but whether the advice is good.

Convention Didn’t Exceed Authority
19   Opponents of the proposed Constitution say that the convention exceeded its power.  The only change was the ratification process, which is rarely mentioned by the objectors.  Otherwise, the charge has no foundation.

And if they did exceed their powers, they were not only justified but also required.  They were servants of their country, who used their liberty to fulfill their mission.
And finally, even if they violated both their powers and their duty in proposing a Constitution, it should be ratified, if it seems to meet the goals and promote the happiness of the people of America.  We are investigating whether this describes the Constitution.

*Declaration of Independence--PUBLIUS

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Mary E Webster


Federalist papers. What the Founding Fathers would have to say about current political issues based on the Federalist Papers, written to defend and promote ratification of our Constitution. Spent 4 years studying The Federalist Papers and re-writing them into easier-to-read English. My new edition was published in Spring, 1999: The Federalist Papers: In Modern Language/Indexed for Today`s Political Issues Other than the Federalist Papers, my knowledge of history is very limited.

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