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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

After the American Revolution the project of building the new nation was underway. Debates over institutional structure and how to arrange state and national governments were as vicious as they were significant. What is the proper scope of governmental power, what should be the relation among the states, and what is the role of the citizenry in decision making?

  Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940 (Wikimedia Commons) Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940 (Wikimedia Commons) In 1777 the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation.  The first national government of the United States was legislative in nature and, as critics later charged, impotent when it came to resolving interstate disputes and enforcing laws. The Confederation lasted 1781 to 1789.  Under the Articles, there was no separate executive branch and forging the compromises necessary between larger and smaller states for the Articles’ ratification, along with squaring how votes were to be counted in the congress was no easy task.  These problems were revisited at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, held in 1787.

In the 1780’s most Americans maintained that religion should have some role in government, but generally did not want special privileges to extend to any particular group or sect.  Not all Americans were hospitable to the intermingling of politics and religion.  Jefferson argued in 1786 in his "Statute of Religious Liberty" for a separation of church and state. In 1785, James Madison wrote in his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” against a plan to institute a tax to pay for “teachers of the Christian Religion.”

The debts from the war for independence, the postwar depression (1784-1787), and the lack of national tax and fiscal policy hobbled the fledgling national government.  The summer of 1786 saw mobs of farmers rioting in New England over increased taxes, resisting the crushing level of debt plied on their backs as the nascent states increased taxes to repay the costs of the Revolutionary War.  Daniel Shays and his supporters prevented the collection of private and public debts, called for a moratorium on debts and for ending the practice of jailing debtors who failed to pay.  Shay and his group were frustrated by Massachusetts militiamen in their attempt to obtain weapons from a Springfield armory.  Shay’s Rebellion cast a long shadow that led American political leaders to wonder if the “people” were dangerous, as countless political texts ancient and modern maintained. Shay’s Rebellion is one of the principal causes for  the inclusion of the Electoral College system in the Constitution.

In the 1780’s many, especially the wealthy, saw that the Confederation was unable to address crises such as Shay’s Rebellion, worried about the extent of popular rule, and thought the Articles of Confederation was anemic in addressing interstate issues regarding commerce and taxation. The Articles of Confederation authorized no national revenue system.  States contributed to the costs of the national government as a measure of support, but few actually did.  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison called for a national convention on commercial questions, with only five states attending in 1786.  They agreed to meet in Philadelphia the next year. 

An enduring legacy of the American Revolution is the suspicion of a powerful executive and a commitment to republican government.  This legacy generated questions, such as the extent of popular rule, how political officials were to be elected, and how disputes between the states and new branches of the federal government would be resolved.  The delegation from Virginia, led by a 36-year-old James Madison opened the convention with a plan for a bi-cameral legislature along with an executive and judicial branch.  The representatives from New Jersey and other smaller states openly worried about the dilution of power of smaller states and advanced a different proposal.  The Virginia plan was adopted.   

The “great compromise” resolved some of the disputes regarding political power and organization but postponed other issues. In calculating a state’s population for the purposes of representation, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person.  The convention barred the federal government from ending the slave trade for twenty years and left the question of the place of Native Americans unanswered. The lack of a list of individual rights worried many.  Madison opposed the idea at the outset and thought that specifying rights, or codifying rights was tantamount to a limitation of liberty. In September of 1787 delegates signed the Constitution.   The issue of "states’ rights" continues to serve as grounds for resistance to Federal authority, evident in reactions to the Civil Rights Movement and the Affordable Care Act.  


Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, 6th Edition