SS7 Chapter 07 Notes: A More Perfect Union

Section 1: The Articles of Confederation (p. 176-183)

The Making of a Republic

In 1776, the Continental Congress asked each state to set up its government. Each state wrote a constitution. A constitution is a plan of government.

Americans did not want to give too much power to one ruler or one branch of government. State constitutions solved that problem. They split the power between the governor and legislature (law-makers). Most states set up two-house, or bicameral, legislatures. This divided the power even more.

Americans had to set up a national government, too. Americans wanted their country to be a republic where the citizens would elect people to represent them and make decisions based on what they want. People could not agree on what powers the national government should have.

The Second Continental Congress had a group of people make a plan for a central government and created the Articles of Confederation. The Articles called for a weak central government and allowed states keep most of their powers.

The Articles of Confederation gave Congress certain limited powers. For example, if Congress needed to raise money or an army, it had to ask the states. The states did not have to say yes.

The central government did not have a chief executive, such as a president or a governor. A chief executive is the leader of the government and has the job of carrying out the laws. All states had to approve the Articles of Confederation. The Articles could not be changed unless all states agreed to change it.

In 1781, the Articles of Confederation became the first government of the United States of America. The new national government was weak. This made it difficult for the government to handle the nation’s problems.

Even so, America’s government did some important things. America made a peace treaty with Britain. It expanded foreign trade and set up plans for people to settle lands to the west.

Policies for Western Lands

The Articles of Confederation did not tell how to add new states. Settlers were already living west of the Appalachian Mountains which was outside the United States. These western settlers wanted to form new states and join the Union. Congress needed to give people a way to settle the Western lands and form new states.

The Confederation Congress passed an ordinance, or law, about western lands which established laws to divide and then sell the western lands. Land was divided into townships. Land in the township was divided into smaller sections and were sold to settlers.

The Northwest Ordinance created the Northwest Territory which included lands north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. A territory could apply to become a state when 60,000 people lived there and new states would have the same rights as the original 13 states. There was no slavery in the Northwest Territory at this point.

Problems at Home and Abroad

The national government had problems paying its bills. The American dollar, called Continentals, had depreciated, or lost value, and were worth almost nothing. The American Revolution left the new country with a large debt and Congress did not have the power to raise taxes to pay these debts. Congress tried to get approval from the states to create a new tax but a single state voted no and the plan failed.

The new government faced other problems. The British still occupied certain area that were now considered America. The American government had problems with Spain, too. It controlled Florida and lands west of the Mississippi River and wanted to stop America’s growth in Spanish territory. Spain even denied America access to the Mississippi River.

It became clear that the Confederation was not able to deal with major problems. Americans came to agree that their new country needed a stronger government.


Section 2: Forging a New Constitution (p. 184-191)

The Need for Change

The Articles of Confederation created a weak national government. The United States went through a depression after the American Revolution. A depression is a period of time when business slows down and many people lose their jobs.

The government had little money. The money it had was used to pay debts, or money owed, to foreign countries. There was not enough money in the United States.

The slow economy meant farmers sold less of their goods and could not pay taxes and other debts. As a result, state officials took over their land and put many of them in jail. Farmers grew angry over this treatment.

Daniel Shays led a group of angry farmers to a weapons storehouse in Massachusetts. The farmers wanted to take guns and bullets. The state militia ordered the farmers to stop. They fired their guns into the air but the farmers did not stop. So the militia fired again and killed four farmers resulting in Shays and his followers running away. Americans were worried that the government could not prevent violence.

The American Revolution was based on freedom and caused some Americans to believe that slavery should be outlawed. Several northern states began passing laws to end slavery. Free African Americans faced discrimination even in states that did not have slavery. They were not allowed to go to many public places, could not vote, or even attend school with white children.

Slavery was still a key part of life in Southern states. Southern plantations depended on slave labor. Many white Southerners were afraid that their economic system would die without slavery. The issue of slavery began to divide Northerners and Southerners.

The Constitutional Convention

The American Revolution had not created a united country. Some leaders liked strong, independent state governments while other leaders wanted a strong national government. They wanted to change the Articles of Confederation to make the national government stronger and included James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton called for a convention in Philadelphia to talk about how to change the Articles of Confederation. The convention began in May 1787 and included George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. This helped people trust the convention’s work. Trust was important because the convention’s purpose was to create an entirely new constitution. The delegates chose George Washington to lead the meetings.

Edmund Randolph proposed a plan created by James Madison, called the Virginia Plan. The Virginia plan would set up a strong national government. It would create a government with three branches. There would be:

  • a two-house legislature (today this is Congress)
  • a chief executive chosen by the legislature (today this is the President)
  • a court system (today this is the Supreme Court)

The number of members  in each house of legislature would be based on each state’s population. States with more people would have more representatives than states with fewer people.

Delegates from small states were against the Virginia Plan. They wanted all states to have equal representation so they supported the New Jersey Plan. Under the New Jersey Plan, the legislature would be a one-house legislature and each state would have one vote in the legislature.

Agreeing to Compromise

The delegates agreed to create a new constitution based on the Virginia Plan. However, the delegates still needed to deal with the issue of representation.

An agreement called the Great Compromise was established. A compromise is an agreement between two or more sides where each side gives up some of what it wants. The Great Compromise called for a two- house legislature. Each state would have two members in the Senate (a fixed number). The number of members in the House of Representatives would be based on the size of each state’s population (a variable number).

Southern states wanted to count enslaved people as part of their population which would raise their population. It would give them more seats in Congress. Northern states did not want the South to count its enslaved people. The delegates agreed to the Three-Fifths Compromise. Each enslaved person would count as three-fifths of a free person.

George Mason wanted more protection for citizens’ rights. He asked for a bill of rights to part of the Constitution. Many delegates (political leaders) felt that the Constitution already protected people’s rights.

In 1787, the delegates gathered to sign the new Constitution. The Constitution was then sent to the states for approval. The new Constitution would take effect when 9 of the 13 states approved it.


Section 3: A New Plan of Government (p. 194-199)

The Constitution’s Sources

The delegates in Philadelphia created a new constitution. The delegates liked ideas from European political groups and writers. Some of these ideas are in the Constitution.

Even though Americans broke away from Britain, they still respected many British traditions. Traditions are cultural ideas and practices. Individual rights are part of the British system. The Framers of the Constitution felt it was important to have individual rights.

The Framers of the Constitution believed in the ideas of some European writers. Two of these writers were John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu.

The English writer, Locke, believed that all people have natural rights. These rights include the rights to life, liberty, and property. Locke wrote that government is based on an agreement, or contract. This agreement is between the people and the ruler. The Constitution would also be a contract. It would limit the government’s power. This would help protect people’s natural rights.

Montesquieu was a French writer who believed that the government’s power should be divided and balanced. This would make it difficult for one person or group to have too much power. This is where the idea of having three separate branches came from.

The Articles of Confederation had given most power to the states. The Constitution changed this. States had to give up some of their powers to the federal, or national, government. The Constitution was set up so federal and state governments share power. This is called Federalism.

The Constitution gave new powers to the federal government. It could tax, manage trade, control the supply of money, form an army, and declare war. The federal government could pass laws it decided were “necessary and proper.”

The Constitution let states keep some important powers. The states could still control trade inside their borders. They had the power to set up local governments and schools. States also made laws about marriage and divorce.

The Constitution allows some powers to be shared by the federal and state governments (this is called concurrent powers). Both the federal and state governments may tax their citizens. Both governments may arrest and punish criminals.

The Constitution is the supreme, or highest, law of the land. Any disagreement between the federal government and the states was to be settled by the federal courts. They make decisions based on what the Constitution says.

Government Structure

The Framers of the Constitution divided the federal government into three branches. These are the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The first three articles, or sections, of the Constitution explain the powers and tasks of these branches of the federal government:

  • Article I says the legislative branch, or lawmaking branch of the federal government is Congress. Congress has two parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Congress’s powers include such tasks as deciding how much taxes will be, minting coins, and controlling trade.
  • Article II describes the executive branch. The president is in charge of this branch. The president’s job is to carry out the nation’s laws. A group called the Electoral College elects the president and vice president. Its members are called electors. Electors are chosen by the voters of each state.
  • Article III describes the judicial branch, or the court system. The Supreme Court is the top court in the nation. Congress sets up federal courts under the Supreme Court. Federal courts make decisions on cases that have to do with the Constitution, with federal laws, and with problems between states.

The Framers built in a system of checks and balances. Each branch of government has ways to check, or limit, the power of the others. This way, no branch can have too much control in the government.

Debate and Adoption

The Constitution could take effect after nine states ratified, or approved, it. People who supported the Constitution were called Federalists. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay were among the Federalists. They wrote a set of essays, called the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers explained and defended the Constitution.

People who did not like the new Constitution were called Anti-Federalists. They were afraid that a strong national government would take away freedoms. Anti-Federalists wanted local governments to have more power.

In 1788, the ninth state ratified the Constitution. That meant the new government could go into effect. New York and Virginia, the two largest states, still had not approved the Constitution.

Virginia ratified after it was promised that there would be a bill of rights amendment. The Bill of Rights was added in 1791.