Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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We the People Kind Of

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


I'm calling this episode to order. I'm doing it dressed as a judge, because this is the first of four episodes about the Constitution and the Supreme Court. To really understand American History, I think that you've got to have a great working knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and how the Supreme Court has interpreted those things. Really the back bone of the country relies on those great institutions.

To understand history and politics, we really want to first look at the Constitution and Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights, of course being part of the Constitution. So in this first segment, we're going to look at how did self-government evolve in the United States? How did we end up with this constitution and this Supreme Court? A really crucial factor in the constitution's development is this idea of Checks and Balances. This has nothing to do with you local bank. We want to talk about Checks and Balances in relation to how the federal government operates.

Finally, interpreting the constitution which really became the law of Supreme Court really defined the political system in this country. So if you want to know if you’re a Democrat, or a Republican, a Liberal, or a Conservative, you have to understand the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But even more so, you’ve got to understand how it’s interpreted to see are you a Liberal? Or a Democrat? Are you a Conservative, or Republican or somewhere in between? Does it change on issue to issue? All of that comes from the Constitution and the Supreme Court, and how it’s evolved over time. So we’re going to start looking at that right now. We’re going to adjourn to look at some big ideas.

So we’re focused on the British colonies, the Eastern seaboard colonies that I pointed out on a map an episode or so ago. You know those colonies. Basically, it’s the New England colonies, the Middle Atlantic, and the Southern Colonies; the first 13 states. One of the things that’s important to know is that Great Britain founded those colonies, but they weren’t Great Britain’s only colonies. In fact, Great Britain was a colonial empire around the world. The sun never set on the British Empire.

They were pretty interested in Africa and India. So these13 little seaboard colonies in North America didn’t get a lot of attention. In fact if we go back and we remember our cause and effect ideas, one of the things that happens is colonies are so efficient. The Great Britain starts to follow a policy that’s called benign neglect. This is a great SAT term. It’s one that you should pay attention to. If you look at if you know those words benign meaning good. And neglect, of course meaning leaving them alone basically. The colonies were doing so well that Great Britain felt no need to pay attention to them. So they were thriving without any interference. The colonies started to evolve on their own.

So Virginia developed its House of Burgesses. Massachusetts developed its own Colonial Legislature. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut become the Constitution. It’s why the state of Connecticut their license plate says the constitution state, because in 1639 they wrote Fundamental Orders. So there’s all these, not just government, self-government evolving, but colonial economy really without the British paying much attention. That’s why this is an important phrase to understand; the idea of unintended consequences, because Great Britain without realizing it creates a monster.

When the French and Indian war breaks out, they of course say well, you’re colonials of the British Empire; therefore you’re British citizens, you have to fight for us against the French and the Indians from 1756 to 1763. The colonial say, "Okay we’ll do that, but we’ll do it as Virginians, and as New Yorkers and as Rhode Islanders."

They do, they fight, and the French of course are defeated. Of course after the war, the British have enormous bills. So what do they want to do? They need to raise money. They tax the colonies. Well, here is that cause and effect chain that we’ve talked about before. They start to tax the colonies. We know how the colonies react. The next thing you know, you’ve got the American Revolution.

So again the cause and effect chain. The benign neglect leads to the unintended consequence of the colonies saying we really fought for ourselves in that French and Indian war. We don’t need you. Here is a Declaration of Independence. We’re an independent country. Of course we know that goes on from 1776 to 1783. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 establishes the United States of America.

Now the United States of America was organized during the revolution under the Articles of Confederation. What that means is that it’s a loose alliance. The states agreed to work together, but under a very loose alliance. The Articles of Confederation did create a government for the colonies who were now states. But it was a very loose and weak government. It was one that couldn’t tax. It was one that couldn’t raise an army. In fact it couldn’t even coin money. So every state had its own. There was Connecticut money. There was Delaware money, there was Georgian money. If you went from state to state, it was like going to a foreign country, you had to exchange your currency.

So the Articles of Confederation proved to be a weak organizer. After the revolution from 1783 on, what the new United States discovered was we’re not doing so well. In fact, a rebellion by farmers in Massachusetts, Shays’ Rebellion, starts to show in fact that the central government is not very strong. So the need for a Constitution, a stronger government arises.

There’s a call for a convention, in which a new government is going to be created. This is where the next stop really is the creation of the government that we still operate under. It’s one that, of course we know has three branches. We know that there’s an Executive, a Legislative, and Judicial branch. This was all really the brainstorm of James Madison. James Madison based on the Philosophers of the Enlightenment in Europe, the French Philosophers and others came up with this idea of creating a government that separated the power. The separation of power is very important and they could check and balance each others power.

So the Legislature gets to crate laws, but the Executive can veto those laws. That veto can be overwritten by the Legislature, but it takes a two-thirds vote. The Executive can appoint the Judicial, but it has to be approved by the Legislature. There’s a whole series of Checks and Balances built into the Constitution.

This is an entirely new concept for government, and totally unique to the United States, at that point, unique to the world. It’s something that is still existing right around us. It’s something that you should try to understand not just for the AP US History test, but, because this is how our government operates. This system of Checks and Balances with an Executive who’s supposed to carry out the laws. A Legislative branch which makes the laws, and a judicial branch which interprets the laws is still the corner stone of the democracy in the United States today.

So the American Revolution ends in 1783, and we don’t get the Constitutional Convention till 1787, because it takes a while for them to realize that the government, the Articles of Confederation government, relay isn’t working very well.

But what we do get, when get the Constitutional Convention is an amazing document. James Madison is largely responsible for that. He creates this system of Checks and Balances. He really devises this system of Democratic Representation. One of the things you want to look for in the bonus material, there are some detailed stuff about the various compromises. Because as you might guess, there are arguments between the large states and the small states. Should we be represented equally so that every state has two senators? Or should we be represented by populations, so a state like New York has many representatives than little Rhode Island.

Of course, they come up with this really brilliant idea that’s Compromise. Ben Franklin is behind it of a Bicameral Legislature, one with equal representation, one with representation by population. So Ratification looks like is going to happen. But Thomas Jefferson says there’s not a chance we’re going to do that without a Bill of Rights.

We went through this one before; a strong centralized government. We really have to have that Bill of Rights. This is another ground-breaking event. You really need to take note of this for the AP US History test. You need to learn those First 10 Amendments, that Bill of Rights. So there is agreement on that. We get the Constitution with those First 10 Amendments, the Bill of Rights were right there. George Washington gets to start his new government. It’s really crucial.

Somebody you’ve got to know aside form Washington is Alexander Hamilton is really the brains of the outfit. He really pushes for a strong centralized federal power. He wants a National Bank. It’s Hamilton who when the Pennsylvania farmers are up in rebellion about taxation, Hamilton lead the federal forces out to Western Pennsylvania. The federal militia to put down the rebellion, and to make sure that the federal government is seen as a strong central power that’s in control. You combine that with Washington’s presence, his eminence; really, this really is an incredible man. Again, I recommend you go and do some research. Find out more about him.

But by the time we’re in the middle of Washington’s administration, his election, his re-election in 1793, the government is well-established. The one fly on the ointment, the one thing that you really have to pay attention to though, is the beginning of those political parties. Hamilton and his federalists, Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans. And that’s where the political parties that we still see arguing about stricken loose construction of the Constitution, about Liberals and Conservatives, that’s where it all started.

So what we see is that initial struggle between the states rights people, and the strong federal government people. The Jeffersonians and the federalists leads to the creation of two political parties. Even though the federalist papers which was really some propaganda to try to get people to ratify the constitution said let’s have political parties. Even when George Washington leaves office he says, “To avoid those political parties is too late.”By the time the Bill of Rights is written, we’ve already got two political parties. It’s important for us to understand that for us today in the United States. Because the political parties that we still have, the Democrats, the Republicans, Conservatives, Liberals whatever you want to talks about, Libertarians , it all has to do with how you interpret the Constitution.

There are some basic ideas that go into interpreting the Constitution. There are described this way; you’re either a strict or a loose interpreter of the Constitution. What’s in credible to me is that, 200 years later we still look at our politicians and we determine who they are based on this interpretation. If you’re states rights person or nowadays a conservative person one who doesn’t want a big federal government, a strong federal government. A strong centralized power, that’s a federation as compared to that old confederation that we saw earlier. If you’re someone who wants more of that confederation, you’re a Conservative, you’re a states rights, you’re a strict interpreter of the Constitution.

It means you pretty much want a forbade interpretation. If it says that, you do it. If it doesn’t say it, you don’t do it. It’s up to the states to do if.

If you’re a loose interpreter, you believe in a more flexible interpretation of the constitution. You want to make sure that the federal government in fact enforces some of that flexibility by protecting individual citizens for example, and overriding maybe the state’s power. That’s a more liberal interpretation in our day and age. Either way and people can fluctuate on these issues, but either way if you understand the Constitution, if you understand the Bill of Rights in terms of how you interpret it.

So if it says no cruel unusual punishment, do you strictly interpret that? And say okay no cruel and unusual punishment means this or that, and anything different from that the states get to interpret? Or do you say that cruel and unusual punishment means the death penalty even though it doesn’t specifically. Say that? Strict, loose state’s rights, federal power, Conservative, Liberal which are you? There’s going to be some bonus material where you get to take a quiz to determine are you a Liberal, are you a Conservative? Are you a little bit of both? Do you go back and forth on different issues? Look so that in the bonus material and have some fun with history.

So Great Britain’s negligence is our good fortune. Their benign neglect really lead to our self-government and the creation of what had become really the oldest working government in the world right now. We tend not to think of that. People say oh the United States is fairly a young country, but our government actually has been operating from that Constitution and that Bill of Rights, longer than any other government that’s around. It has also been the heart and soul of our political parties. That’s where we ended up at the beginning of that 19th Century.

We’d established those political parties. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights was written, and really we were faced with the challenge. The kind of challenge when the constitution was written, Ben Franklin’s supposedly with walking out of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and somebody said, “What have e got Mr. Franklin?” He said, “You’ve got a Republic if you can keep it.” That’s still the challenge we have.

In our next episode we’re going to look at what happened in terms of trying to keep that republic. Because we know certainly by the middle of 19th Century, it lead to tremendous cataclysmic event; the civil war. In which those states rights people, and those federalists really came to blows in the most of violent manner.

For now we’re going to adjourn this session. We’re going to adjourn it and let you go off to the bonus challenge and find out are a Liberal? Or are you a Conservative? Are you a strict or loose interpreter of the constitution? So get to that bonus material, take that quiz, and have some fun with History.

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