Historical Context of the U.S. Constitution
“A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.” – Thomas Jefferson
In 1783 American colonists, defying incredible odds, had just beaten the United Kingdom, the western hemisphere’s preeminent power, in the American War for Independence. (NPS.gov, n.d.) Those thirteen colonies, saddled with a new governmental charter, the Articles of Confederation, sought to chart their own, independent path. (Gilderlehrman, n.d.) As a result, in 1787 disgruntled colonists sent delegates to Philadelphia with the task of revising the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation. In a radical departure, most delegates opted against amending the existing constitution, and instead, created a new Constitution. (OConnor & Sabato, 2019)
During the four-month Constitutional Convention, the delegates readily agreed upon James Madison’s basic premise of a new United States government delineated along three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. That said, most delegates envisioned a strong legislative body and a weak executive office. Real disagreements arose regarding the composition of the legislative body, in particular the election and responsibilities of senators. Slavery proved a vexing issue to which a compromise allowed slaves to be partially counted for Congressional representation. (Maier, 2011)
One of the last arguments of the convention involved the question of whether to include a “Bill of Rights” within the U.S. Constitution. Many delegates did not believe that a Bill of Rights was a necessary component. After the Constitutional Convention and during the Constitution’s ratification, James Madison consented to Thomas Jefferson’s concerns regarding individual liberty and thus pledged to add additional amendments that would codify an individual’s rights within the federal government. During the first session of Congress in 1789, Madison composed a series of Amendments designed to safeguard a citizen’s individual liberties from a potentially powerful federal government, which are now collectively known as the Bill of Rights. (Maier, 2011)
The debate over the Bill of Rights, among other significant concerns, later split the Founding Fathers into two political camps: the Federalists and Antifederalists. These groups later became this country’s first set of political parties, and notably, established a dominant, two-party system.
More information about the Constitutional Convention can be found with the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian.
Although a living document, the original writing of the U.S. Constitution reflected the political, social, and economic factors particular to late Eighteenth-century America. During the Constitutional Convention, the delegates included and/or excluded content within the Constitution that reflected the historical and/or philosophical concerns from their own perspectives: steeped in the philosophies of the European Enlightenment, formed by memories of a war of independence against Imperial Great Britain, cognizant of the current failures of the current constitution, and alarmed by the post-independence civil unrest. (Lumens, 2019)
*You may pick an example that was proposed during the Constitutional Convention but did not survive the final writing of the U.S. Constitution.
Article Articles of Confederation. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/T-04759.pdf.
Maier, P. (2011). Ratification: the people debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Learning, L. (n.d.). US History I (AY Collection). Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory1ay/chapter/shays-rebellion/.
McLean, J. (n.d.). History of Western Civilization II. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory2/chapter/the-age-of-enlightenment/.
National Constitution Center. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/.
OConnor, K., & Sabato, L. (2019). American government: roots and reform. Columbus: Pearson.
Constitutional Convention and Ratification, 1787–1789 (n.d.). Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/convention-and-ratification.
The Bill of Rights: A Transcription. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights-transcript.
The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript.
Timeline of the War for Independence. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/waro/learn/historyculture/timeline-of-the-war-for-independence.htm.
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