I) Articles of Confederation – because of the belief that the government which governed the best governed least, the government that was created by this document created a weak central government, one that was reliant upon the states for support and the money with which to run it.
A) Economic problems – a series of economic problems in the post-war era undermined support for the Articles of Confederation.
1) Inflation – the Continental dollar traded against the Spanish dollar at the rate of 3 to 1 in 1777, 40 to 1 in 1779, and 146 to 1 in 1781, by which time the Congress had issued more than $190 million in dollars. The tremendous increase in prices led to a great outcry, which state and local governments responded to this crisis with attempts at wage and price controls.
(a) Perceptions that the problems were caused by hoarding, and often mobs in towns “called” upon merchants suspected of hoarding—or worse, of price gouging—to demand that they sell their merchandise at “fair” prices; those who refused often (but not all of the time), had their merchandise removed and sold by others at a “fair” price.
2) Deflation – in the years immediately after the Revolutionary War, the fact that the new United States had few manufacturing industries, and continued to export raw materials and import finished goods, meant that the trade deficit continued to grow with the US’s largest trading partner, Great Britain.
(a) Currency drain – in order to pay for goods imported from Great Britain, US merchants had to pay in gold or silver, which meant that the supply in the US decreased
(b) Public debt – the deflationary spiral occurred at a time when the United States had a huge public debt to pay off from the money the government borrowed to finance the war; this meant that the money which was borrowed was even more expensive to pay back than had been anticipated.
B) Shays’ Rebellion – backcountry farmers became disenchanted with the lack of response on the part of the government, and began protesting and resisting the effects of economic disarray locally.
1) Closing courts – local courts had been throwing debtors who could not meet their debts into jail; local militia groups rallied and began marching on these courts and closing them—just as they had during the Revolutionary War period. With the courts not able to meet, they could not throw any more debtors into prison.
2) Action widespread – although the action in western Massachusetts gets most of the attention (this is were Daniel Shays and his compatriots operated), these same kinds of protests occurred at other places, as well. In fact, similar kinds of protests took place in every state in New England except Rhode Island (and not in Rhode Island because farmers had already captured control of the state government); a large scale protest involving over 200 people took place in one county in Maryland; near York, Pennsylvania, an auction whose proceeds were earmarked to pay off debt was halted by armed men. James Madison in Virginia claimed that officials in that state had on numerous occasions watched prisons, courthouses, and clerk offices burn because of the actions of large groups of people.
C) Aftermath – the climate that all of this conflict and uncertainty created made many people receptive to the idea that changes were necessary to the Articles of Confederation. A small coterie of political leaders were advocating greater centralized powers for government, although most American people, if opinion polls were taken at the time, would have opposed this.
IV) Federal Constitution
A) Localism v. nationalism – in the years after the Revolutionary War, most Americans advocated the idea of localism over nationalism—that is, they closely identified themselves as residents of a specific locality (say, Boston or Baltimore) rather than as “Americans.” The further removed from locality that government became, for most Americans, the less loyalty that they felt towards that government (Civil War example—people like Robert E. Lee did not feel they were being disloyal towards the United States, but displaying loyalty toward their state, which had chosen to leave the Union; most northern supporters of the Union did so by volunteering to serve in their state militias, not in the Federal Army).
1) Fear of government power – most Americans feared a strong central government; after all, that the power of a strong central government had been one of the driving forces behind the Revolution.
2) Fear of government being too removed – the fear that a central government would be too far removed from the people to be responsive to those people (also one of the driving forces behind the Revolution).
B) Annapolis Convention – representatives from several of the larger states (namely Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York) called on all of the states to send representatives to a convention in Annapolis to discuss the viability of the Confederation; with the exceptions of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, all of the states did so. At the Annapolis Convention it was decided that a convention of all the states would be called for May of 1787, “… to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render 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 Legislatures of every state will effectually provide for the same.” (Alexander Hamilton, “Proceedings of the State Commissioners at Annapolis, Maryland, September 11-14, 1786”)
1) Authority – the call for the upcoming convention to meet in 1787 in Philadelphia was to make the necessary changes to the Articles of Confederation—not to create a new document of governance for the United States (discuss legality—which seems okay since this new document was sent back to the states for approval).
V) Meeting at Philadelphia – the vaunted meeting at Philadelphia created a new instrument for governing which removed much of the direct control that voters had over their government
A) The Constitution and Elections – it is perhaps easiest to see how the new US Constitution subverted democracy by closely looking at how elections for officials were to be run. The only politicians directly elected by the people in this new federal government were in the House of Representatives; everyone else who held an elective office in the federal government was at best indirectly elected—so they were removed from being directly responsive to the people.
1) Election of representatives – every two years, directly elected by the people; number of representatives was to be determined by population.
2) Senate – two senators, chosen for a six-year term, and selected by the state legislature (and stayed that way until the 1910s). Not only are senators’ terms three times longer than representatives, but also the people they are to serve did not directly elect them.
3) President – four-year term, elected by the electoral college (people “pledged” to vote for a specific candidate, although they are allowed to change that vote); there has never been a popular election for the highest office in the land.
4) Supreme Court – completely “independent” (or, to put it another way, unaccountable to the American people), and they serve for life (or until they feel like retiring).
B) Checks and balances – in Madison’s scheme of things, the three branches of government were suppose to provide a check on the other’s powers, and keep one branch of government from overpowering the others—but did the “founding fathers” really see the three branches as equal partners in this endeavor?
1) Legislature – charged with the responsibility to make laws; this power, it is clear, was assumed by those responsible for creating the constitution, was assumed to be the greatest responsibility, so it is clear that the “founding fathers” intended Congress to be the senior partner in this governmental triad.
2) Executive – charged with enforcing the laws that the legislature makes; this office has probably witnessed the greatest change since its inception.
3) Judicial – to hear disputes arising under the Constitution; nowhere in the Constitution is the Supreme Court given the power to decide the constitutionality of a particular law—that power was assumed by the Court itself, and was unchallenged by Congress. Congress, in fact, has within its powers to take away this practice of judicial review by legislative fiat—but in practice that right is rarely used.
C) Bill of Rights – was reluctantly acceded to by early Federalists in order to quell fears of both friends and foes of the new Constitution; Madison and Hamilton both claimed that no “bill of rights” was necessary, since all rights not explicitly claimed in the Constitution remained safe for individuals and the states.
1) Second Amendment “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Does this guarantee the rights of individuals to keep guns, or the right of states to have militias?
2) Fifth Amendment – the right not to self-incriminate (a valuable commodity for Enron executives these days.