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9: Articles of Confederation and the Constitution

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    Learning Outcomes

    After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

    • Explain the formation of the individual state governments and assess how ideas about republicanism and democracy influenced the deliberations over state constitutions.
    • Explain the need for an overarching political framework for the newly independent American states and analyze the first attempts to provide structure for the American states, including the Second Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation.
    • Identify the accomplishments and weaknesses of the central government under the Articles of Confederation and explain the need for a central government stronger than that created by the Articles.
    • Analyze the provisions and nature of the United States Constitution, including such concepts as nationalism, federalism, constitutionalism, and democracy.
    • Explain the differences between the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, and the Connecticut Compromise, and analyze why the smaller states did not like the Virginia Plan.
    • Understand the conflict between the rights of the individual states and the rights of the national government and assess the importance in this conflict of such clauses as the “necessary and proper” clause and the Tenth Amendment.
    • Discuss the issues that arose at the time of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and differentiate between the two factions that debated the Constitution in the states: Federalists and Antifederalists.
    • Explain the powers given to each branch of government by the Constitution.

    During the Revolutionary War, American colonists papered over many of their regional differences in order to fight the British. However, much still separated the Revolution’s participants. Nationalism grew during the war, but the states still saw themselves as separate entities. Moreover, many residents initially did not see much need for a central government. American leaders thus relied on virtue or patriotism to help form bonds between the people. According to historian John Murrin, patriotism “would inspire the settlers to sacrifice their private interests, even their lives, for the general welfare.” To win the war and maintain the peace, however, American leaders recognized the need for a political framework; patriotism alone would not suffice. So from 1776 to 1789, they worked to lay out government structures for the states and the nation. The war gave Americans an opportunity to put the ideas of the Declaration of Independence into practice. Furthermore, it allowed them to address many of the political and economic problems that had emerged under the British system.

    Americans debated how to structure their state and national governments. Most colonists agreed that the consent of the governed was necessary, but they did not always agree on how this consent was to be given. Ultimately in both the state and national systems, they settled on a republican framework in which elected representatives mediated the will of the people. When it came to this national system, though, Americans debated how much power should be given to the central government. Most framers initially favored a weak central government that would defer to the rights of the states, an approach they adopted in the Articles of Confederation. Political, social, and economic problems during the 1780s, however, prompted them to reconsider their initial ideas. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates met to revise the Articles of Confederation; this document was quickly set aside as they developed a new framework, which became the United States Constitution. Enough states ratified the document for the new government to be put in place in 1789.

    Thumbnail: Constitution of the United States. (Public Domain; US National Archives).

    This page titled 9: Articles of Confederation and the Constitution is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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