Why Was the Constitution Written
The United States Constitution is the oldest and the shortest written constitution in the world. Its 4,400 words have played a crucial role in limiting government and creating freedom for over 200 years. The answers to this question seem contradictory: (1) The immediate reason for the Constitution was to replace the Articles of Confederation, which granted too little power to the federal government; (2) The purpose of the Constitution was to limit the power of the federal government; (3) The purpose of the Constitution is to protect (not grant) the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as contained in the Declaration of Independence and the right to property as espoused by John Locke (The pursuit of happiness replaced property in the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers, most of whom opposed slavery, feared slave owners, who considered slaves property, would use the phrase to perpetuate slavery).
Reasons for the Constitution: The Weakness of the Articles of Confederation
[caption id="attachment_130585” align="aligncenter” width="512”] The Articles of Confederation - 1777[/caption]
The immediate reason for creating the Constitution was to replace the Articles of Confederation, which contained the following weaknesses:
- The Articles created a unicameral legislature with no executive or judicial branch, hence, no separation of powers.
- The Articles granted very little power to the central government. The central government had no authority to tax, raise money for the common defense, or to regulate interstate trade.
- A unanimous vote among the 13 states was required to amend the Articles, a nearly impossible feat.
- Nine out of thirteen votes were required to pass laws, not impossible, but very difficult.
All these weaknesses are addressed in the United States Constitution.
Building Checks and Balances
[caption id="attachment_130586” align="aligncenter” width="512”] The United States Constitution - 1787[/caption] The United States Constitution is deliberately inefficient. Framers of the Constitution recognized the tendency for human beings in power to abuse that power. They desired to establish a framework for government that takes into account human nature. It seems paradoxical, therefore, that the Founding Fathers would create a document strengthening the central government that was also intended to limit government. A look at the intent of James Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” settles this point. According to historian Pauline Meier in her introduction to The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, “James Madison was more concerned with the wrongful acts of the states than with the weaknesses of the Confederation…Worse yet, many of the new laws passed by triumphant state majorities violated the rights of minorities.” Meier adds, “Madison also concluded that the rights of the people would be more reliably protected in a national government than by a state government.” (20). In other words, state constitutions had proved ineffective in securing the rights of citizens; a national Constitution, therefore, with strict limitations on government, could better protect individual rights.
Maier, Pauline. The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States. New York: Bantam, 1998. Images in the public domain. U.S. Constitution and Articles of Confederation.
This post is part of the series: Background to the United States Constitution
Get the background on our nation’s most important document.