Founding the Republic

James Madison
There is ample record to help citizens understand how the Republic was founded and the intent of the founders. The Federalist Papers and other accounts provide a wealth of information. However, if they are not used, or even worse, ignored, then they are of little value.
The Declaration of Independence is the starting point to understand the Republic and how it was founded. As discussed in the Declaration of Independence page, the Declaration is essentially a summary of key Enlightenment thought and humanistic values of liberty. While it does not mention a specific form of government, the document is clear that power flows from the people and government has no rights or powers that are not given to it by the people.

Washington Resigning His CommissionTherefore, even after fighting a long war of Independence, some though George Washington would make a fine constitutional monarch--as long as he ruled under the precepts in the Declaration. Washington, however, knew better and, in one of the seminal moments of American and world history, he resigned his commission at war's end and went back to his home at Mt. Vernon. With this singular action, he set the stage for a republic rather than a monarchy. His officers followed suite and they formed the Society of the Cincinnati to in memory of Cincinnatus, the Roman general who retired back to his estates.

The Articles of Confederation


After the Treaty of Paris settled the war, the former colonies remained more or less united under the Articles of Confederation, a loose agreement with a weak central government that could not direct the various states to take actions or compell behaviour. The states were soveriegn in just about every measure and the weak Confederated government was related to essentially a place to discuss ideas and potentially coordinate some actions.

The Articles of Confederation were passed by the Continental Congress in 1777, but were not adopted until March 1, 1781.

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were readily apparant during the war for independence, but were not modified after independence to address any of the shortcommings. Broadly speaking, the Articles had three crtical weaknesses:
  • No ability to compel the behavior of sovereign states
  • No ability to centrally finance the government
  • No ability to coordinate central policy for diplomacy and security

These defects were a design feature in the Articles as the framers were both concerned about centralized power and maintaining the sovereignty of their individual states. Key soveriegnty issues were at the heart of the debate on the Declaration of Independence. The government under the articles had no exexecutive branch-there was only the Congress, which often had difficulty reaching any meaningful consensus. Perhaps not suprisingly, given the conditions under which the Articles were formed, much of the document details defense and diplomacy. There is virtually no real governance included in the Articles and the emphais is on states. For example, Article X states:

The Committee of the States, or any nine of them, shall be authorized to execute, in the recess of Congress, such of the powers of Congress as the United States in Congress assembled, by the consent of the nine States, shall from time to time think expedient to vest them with; provided that no power be delegated to the said Committee, for the exercise of which, by the Articles of Confederation, the voice of nine States in the Congress of the United States assembled be requisite.

The weaknesses of the Articles were readily apparent and many of the founders, such Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, lobbied for a stronger government that could actually govern. Four years after the war ended, the states convened a Constitutional Convention from May 25 to September 17, 1787 to "form a more perfect union". While convention was formed ostensibly to improve the Articles, some like Madison and Hamilton wanted to form a new government and the convention quickly went in that direction.

After much debate and compromise the convention finally drafted a Constitution that was then sent to the states for ratification. Madison and Hamilton then began a campaign to overcome objections to the Constitution. They did this through a series of letters, now known as the Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 letters written in late 1787 through spring of 1788 to explain the Constitution and why it was needed as well as to counter objections. The prinicple authors were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. John Jay wrote some of the initial papers. They provide an excellent background to understand both the time period and the Constitution. link==>|Show|

Key Issues

Since the founders were all white males, many social historians try to show these men built a government designed to protect their monied interests and often focus on the dichotomy of "all men are created equal" in a government that legalized and condoned slavery. While all of these alternative views have a degree of merit, they neglect the salient point that these men created a government that has preserved liberty for over 200 years. In spite of their flaws, they did something right. We forget that at the peril of our hard won liberty.

When the Republic was first formed, it condoned slavery and only white males could vote. The first issue was surely a terrible flaw. The second was more a function of the mores of the times and reflected who could hold land and earn money--hence the taxpayers.

Slavery was an issue even during the debates in the Continental Congress to declare independence. Jefferson's original draft condemned the slave trade:

he [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

This clause was deleted at the objection of South Carolina. Those who fervently suppported the text and opposed slavery were convinced to delete it achieve the broader aim of independence. The musical 1776 covers this issue extremely well.

Likewise, slavery was an issue during the framing of the Constitution and its ratification. Again, the southern slave holding states held ratification hostage to the slavery issue.

The documents clearly provide for liberty for all, but, at least in the case of the Constitution, at least indirectly condones slavery. The Declaration is silent on the matter. Article I section 2 states:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The word "slave" or "slavery" is not used in the document, but the meaning is clear. Some use the "three fifths" reference to show slaves were under valued as people. That is actually not the case. The three fifths was designed to actually limit the clout of slave holding states by reducing their potential representatives in Congress.

The other oblique reference is Article 1 Section 9:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

With these two sections, the founders turned a "blind eye" to slavery and allowed it to exist and at least explicitly condoned it. However, the overall message of the Constitution is still valid.

The key question is whether the hypocricy invalidates the philosphy?

If we turn to the second issue on voting, the issue is far less clear then some critics maintain. Article 1 Section 2 states:
Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

This is in direct reference to the House of Representative because they were the only popularly elected office. The senators were chosen by the state legislatures and the president by the electoral college. States could select senators and electoral college representatives as they saw fit.

The Constitution does not specifically set voting requirements. The section leaves it to each state to set. Conceivably if one state allowed a group to vote and another did, that was the state's affair as long as the state was consistent with thier rules.

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