During the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies became independent states. Believing they would be stronger together, the 13 states joined to form the United States of America, which would operate as a republic. During this time, Congress asked the states to set up their own governments. By 1780, all of the 13 states had drafted their own constitutions.
Meanwhile the Second Continental Congress finished a plan for a national government, called the Articles of Confederation, on November 15, 1777. Ratified into law in March of 1781, the Articles of Confederation set up a system of government in which power was divided between the new national government and the state governments. The articles granted most of the power to the states, giving Congress little power.
Unfortunately, once the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the United States was struggling as a joined entity. The US was in severe debt and trade among the states was difficult. Some feared that the states might break into 13 separate countries. Many believed that the Articles of Confederation was partly responsible for these problems and they argued that the national government it outlined was too weak.
In response to such concerns, the Continental Congress organized a Constitutional Convention to take place in Philadelphia in May, 1787. The purpose of this meeting would be to discuss how to make the national government stronger. So that delegates could “debate their ideas freely,” the discussions were kept secret. After three long, hot months debating and compromising, the delegates were finished in September and ready to send their new Constitution to the 13 states for approval. However, debate ensued about the powers the new Constitution outlined, and whether or not the required 9 of 13 states would ratify the Constitution was questionable.
Federalists supported the new Constitution and favored the strong central government it created. They felt the new Constitution was a great improvement over the Articles of Confederation, since it would provide a better balance between the national government and the state governments. In an attempt to sway others to support the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton wrote an essay defending the Constitution in October of 1787. Other essays soon followed, written by fellow Federalists such as James Madison and John Jay. This series of 85 essays became known as the Federalist Papers. Today, these essays serve as a look into the minds of the Framers who drafted the Constitution, as the document details many of the issues addressed in the Constitution.
The Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers serve as a primary source for interpretation of the Constitution, as they outline the philosophy and motivation of the proposed system of government. The authors of the Federalist Papers wanted to both influence the vote in favor of ratification and shape future interpretations of the Constitution.
The main goal of the Federalist Papers was to set up a national government. As James Madison commented, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But, since men were not angels, he felt a strong government was needed. Federalists felt the national government should:
Provide for the “common defense” (protecting law and order at home, as well as protecting the country from foreign attacks)
The Federalist Papers outlined how the Constitution should be set up. Federalists believed that the powers of the national government should be separated (the Congress makes laws - the president carries them out - and the courts interpret the laws). They also believed these separate powers should be able to “check” and thus “balance” one another. No one branch should have too much power.
Federalists also felt that the government should be organized with a system of federalism, a duel system of state and national governments. Under a federal system, the Constitution lists the powers of the national government, and all other powers are reserved for states. Finally, the Federalist Papers emphasized the need for the Constitution to organize America as a republic. A republic is a representative democracy in which citizens elect their governing officials. The Constitution set the process for elections and the terms of officials.
Opponents of the Federalists, know as Anti-Federalists, feared that the new Constitution created too powerful a central government. They felt that Congress, the president, and the courts would have too much control over states. Having just rebelled against and defeated the British for crushing American freedoms, the Anti-Federalists were nervous that the Constitution would do the same.
Anti-Federalists believed that only small governments, close to the people, could ensure rights and freedoms. They thus believed that states should keep their power.
Perhaps their most pressing point was that the Constitution did not have a Bill of Rights to protect the liberty of individual citizens. Federalists, however, felt a Bill of Rights was unnecessary.
By the end of July 1788, the Federalists were winning. Eleven out of the thirteen states had approved the Constitution. North Carolina, however, was not one of them. On July 21, 1788, North Carolina’s state convention met in Hillsborough, NC to debate ratification of the Constitution. Federalist James Iredell and Anti-Federalist Willie Jones led the debate. When the convention ended on August 4, the Anti-Federalists had won. North Carolina would not approve the Constitution and would remain totally independent of the United States.
To get North Carolina and Rhode Island to approve the Constitution, James Madison drafted a Bill of Rights which Congress approved. Based on this listing of the freedoms and rights granted to individuals (i.e., freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to trial by jury, etc.), the Anti-Federalists finally agreed to ratify the Constitution.
While the new US Constitution was not perfect, and has since undergone 27 amendments, it created a democratic government that has lasted more than 200 years.