American Government views
Hi welcome to the foundations of American Government Advanced Placement. Today we’re going to look at episode one. We’ll call it foundations. We’re going to look at it through the lens of our central question, who has power and where does it come from?
At the end of this unit, you should know quite a bit the problems caused by the Articles of Confederation, the great debates and the great debaters, and also, what were the great compromises that were affected in the summer of 1787.
The other day I get a letter from the IRS. Immediately my blood pressure begins to rise. I’m thinking what could I have possibly done? It reads something like this, “Dear Mr. Raznikov, as you know with the economic downturn of 2008, the mortgage crises and the war in Iraq, it's been a really rough year. So if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, we’d really appreciate it if you could make a large contribution to the Federal Treasury this year. With your continued generosity at this most difficult time, we’ll be able to continue to provide the comfort and services that the American people have become used to.”
Well, I didn’t really get that letter from the Internal Revenue Service, but imagine a government that was left to beg and plead for its very on economic survival. Such was the case in the American colonies immediately after the Revolutionary War in the 1780s. You know the time, the Articles of Confederation, 13 independent Sovereign states whose only connection at the National level was an agreement to defend each other. There’s no executive, no judicial branch of government in order to deal with the problems of the day. And of those, there were many.
Most of them revolved around the economy. For one thing, states that didn’t have enough money sometimes credit too much money, and inflation set in. Massachusetts wouldn’t take New York’s money, Georgia wouldn’t take South Carolina’s. They were taxing imports and exports and tariffs and pretty soon trade had slowed to a triple, pretty grim. The whole thing came to a hit in 1786 when a farmer names Daniel Shays led a group of a thousand angry farmers in Western Massachusetts on a march to try to avoid foreclosure of their farms. The rebellion was put down, but I think most observers believe that something needed to be done to address the problems of the articles. That something, was a meeting that occurred in Philadelphia the following May.
This is where historians take a contrary view. For example, one historical thought, Charles Beard says that they thought the Constitutional Convention was really about an aristocratic takeover of the government. Most historians believe today however, that it was really just a meeting to address the problems of the Articles of Confederation. Well, what were the problems? Well, simple, the national government at the time had no power to tax either individuals of the state. As you’ve seen it was government by begging and pleading.
They had no power to print a national currency. There was currency from each one of the states. It became a big mess. There was no executive, no judicial branch of government in order to interpret the law and no control of trade between the states.
Who were these delegates? Well, they were 55 delegates that showed up at the convention. They were from the North. There were many merchants. There were planters from the South, there were plenty of lawyers to go around. The average age was about 42 years old Ben Franklin was the oldest at 81. Jonathan Dayton is 27 and the youngest. Many of them are educated and the one thing that they have in common, is a belief that there is something very, very wrong with the system. They believed that there needed to be a drastic overhaul of the Articles of Confederation.
Governor Randolph from Virginia spoke very strongly for a federal government. He was followed by Elbridge Gerry and to a certain extent, maybe a lesser extent, James Madison. Probably the most extensive ideas, that are advanced during that particular convention, come from Alexander Hamilton. You know Alexander Hamilton on the 10 dollar bill. He of illegitimate birth. He scrapped his way to King’s College at the age of 15, now Columbia, and eventually married into the aristocratic blue blood class in New York. He became a very strong advocate for the national government.
Not only that, Hamilton had a very dim view of the masses in general. He thought that the masses were ignorant and that they could be easily misled or duped. Weren’t very many voices for democracy at the constitutional convention, perhaps George Mason, James Wilson, a little bit of Madison who was a social liberal and an economic conservative.
You now the compromisers, the first one of course called the great compromise in which the Bicameral Legislature is determined. Virginia speaks for the large states and they want representation on the basis of population. Massachusetts and New York are right with them for that, but the small states are not going to abide by that at all. Why would the small states enter into any kind of an agreement, if they were going to be clearly outvoted by the large states, hence the Bicameral Legislature. The House of Representatives on the basis of population, the United States Senate two for each state.
Maybe this is best explained by telling a small story.
When Thomas Jefferson returned from France in 1788, 1789 he spoke with George Washington. He asked him directly, “Why is it that you believe that we should have a Bicameral Legislature?” Mr. Washington says something to the effect of, “Don’t you pour that coffee into your saucer?” Jefferson says, “Yes I do. I do it in order to cool it.” Washington says, “There you have it, to cool it. To cool the passions of the common people.” Yes, all money bills are going to start in the House of Representatives, but they’re going to be filtered and cooled as they go through the United States Senate. Remember, senators are not chosen by the people. They’re picked in the state legislatures and the aristocratic class has quite a hold on them in the beginning of the Republic.
You know the differences as well. Then there was the 3/5 comprise as well. It’s about slavery and you know that in the constitution, the word slave is not mentioned in the opening. It says something like 3/5 of all other persons. It’s for the purpose of representation. I think it’s fair to say that if slavery was going to be any more of an issue than that, that there would not have been an agreement between the states.
Imagine I’m a planter from Columbia, South Carolina. My entire well-being depends on the fact that I can have low cost or no cost labor. If slavery is going to be outlawed, I have absolutely no economic future and I’m in the same boat as Daniel Shays in Massachusetts. I’m not going to agree to give up my sovereignty. So the best they could, the 3/5 compromise with regard to representation. As you know, slavery is going to continue to be that hot button issue. It’s not going to be resolved for another 70 years, until the civil war comes.
There were other compromises as well. You remember the one about the Electoral College, which pleased both the federalists who wanted a string federal presence. Who really, according to Hamilton actually thought, that if the voters made a mistake, that the electors might be able to fix it. It also pleased the states and the concept of federalism because it gave states power to choose their own electors.
Then finally, there was the Bill of Rights. It wasn’t included in the original Constitution that came in 1788. But it was something that was added on and promised and Madison penned it, and it was signed off to the states three years later. It was a guarantee against the federal government taking too much power.
Here is a quiz for you. Do you remember the first word of the Bill of Rights? You do? It’s Congress as in Congress shall make no laws. Congress, it’s a protection against the power of the federal government. That’s the purpose of the original Bill of Rights.
In those four months, these are the things that come out of it. But you should know also that, there was great discord at the end of the Constitutional Convention. Only 39 of the original 55 delegates actually signed that. It was going to be a very tough sail when it went back to the states. If all 13 states didn’t ratify, what would you have? You’d have the same kinds of problem you had with the Articles of Confederation.
Let’s go back to our essential question for a second, and talk about who has power and where does it come from? Well, you’ve gotten a little piece of that right now. It’s a huge question and we’re going to pick a way at it, in unit two and beyond. But right now, if we go back to our board, you should be able to know a little bit about the problems; the economics, the trade problems between the states, the currencies that weren’t being accepted. You should also know something about the great debates with the Constitutional comprise, and 3/5 compromise, Electoral College and the Bill of Rights.
From time to time the Advanced Placement of the College Board likes to ask a question in this in the free response section. Something about the problems caused by the Articles of Confederation and what were the solutions? Well, what do we know that can help us answer that question?
First of all, we know that there were major problems with money and the economy; currencies not accepted from one state to another, problems with trade, taxes, exports and tariffs. We also know that there was no executive branch of government in order to solve the problems of government. No judicial branch of government in order to interpret it. From the constitution, that’s exactly what we’re going to get. So the compromises that we do have are about representation, there’s a compromise about slavery. There’s also a compromises about Electoral College and the Bill of Rights. But the basic structure of the constitution itself, articles 1 and 2, are going to solve many of those problems. We’re going to catch those over in the other side in episode two.
Right now, I’d like you to check out your bonus materials and also go to the College Board website and check out their free response questions and see if you can take a crack at one of them.