Origins of U.S. Government

Origins of U.S. Government

After declaring their independence in 1776, the thirteen states had to determine both what type of central government they should form and how the individual states would be related to that central government. Their initial efforts to answer those questions resulted in the Articles of Confederation. The Articles were drafted in 1776 but were modified during the ratification process, which ended when the Articles went into effect on March 1, 1781.

The Articles of Confederation created a weak national government, which lacked both an executive and a judicial branch. The national government consisted only of a Congress, which prosecuted the end of the War of Independence and negotiated the Treaty of Paris. By the end of the war, however, the Congress of the Confederation of the States found itself receiving less cooperation from the individual states. The Congress did enact the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which provided for the government of the Northwest Territory and established a procedure by which states could be carved out of the territory.

Dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation grew during the 1780s until Congress finally summoned a convention to amend and revise the Articles. All of the states except Rhode Island sent delegates to the convention, which convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in May 1787. A fundamental problem for the delegates was resolving a split between the states that favored a strong national government and those that preferred the strong state governments established by the Articles of Confederation.

As the convention debated the issues, it soon became apparent that a stronger national government was needed and that the Articles of Confederation would have to be replaced. A major conflict developed, however, between the large states, which favored a legislature apportioned by population, and the small states, which preferred a system under which each state would have an equal vote. The large states proposed the Virginia Plan, also known as the Randolph Plan, and the small states offered the New Jersey, or Paterson, Plan. At first, neither side would yield on the issue of representation. Finally, Roger Sherman, along with Oliver Ellsworth, proposed the Connecticut, or Great, Compromise, which called for a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house and equal representation in the upper house.

The U.S. Constitution was completed on September 17, 1787. It established three branches of government (legislative, executive, judicial) with an intricate set of checks and balances aimed at preventing one branch of government from gaining absolute control. The separation of powers is one of the hallmarks of the Constitution. The Framers did not, however, resolve the question of slavery. Southern states won the Three-fifths Compromise, which allowed them to count each slave as three-fifths of a white person in apportioning the House of Representatives and the electoral college.

Though opponents of the Constitution argued that it gave too much power to the national government, it was ratified by the requisite number of states by June 1788. George Mason, drafter of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and other States' Rights advocates opposed ratification because the Constitution included no guarantees of basic personal liberties. In response, the first Congress convened under the Constitution in 1789 enacted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

During the ratification battle of 1787 and 1788, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote eighty-five short essays in support of the Constitution. The essays, known as the Federalist Papers, sought to convince the voters of New York to persuade their legislators to vote in favor of the proposed federal constitution. The writers so clearly articulated the reasoning and scope of many of the constitutional provisions that the Federalist Papers have taken on lasting historical and legal significance.

The early years of the Republic saw a clash between the Federalists, led by Hamilton, and the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and other proponents of strong state governments accused Hamilton and other advocates of a strong national government of going beyond the constitutional restrictions on the power of the national government. This debate escalated after the federal Alien and Sedition Acts (1 Stat. 570, 596) were enacted in 1798. Jefferson and Madison prepared resolves, or resolutions, for the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures that proposed a "compact" theory of the U.S. Constitution. Under this theory state legislatures possessed all powers not specifically granted to the federal government, and states had the right to pass upon the constitutionality of federal legislation.

In the first years of the new nation, it was unclear whether the Supreme Court had the right to review an executive or legislative act and invalidate it if the act was contrary to constitutional principles. Article III of the Constitution was silent on the subject, but the Supreme Court settled the issue in 1803, when it ruled in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 2 L. Ed. 60, that a particular act of Congress was unconstitutional.

The United States entered the field of international relations in 1823, when President James Monroe enunciated a statement on foreign policy that has come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine asserted U.S. dominance over the Western Hemisphere and warned European nations not to interfere with the free nations of the region.

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