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November 14, 2018

The U.S. Constitution – The Bumpy Road Towards Democracy

George Washington

America’s first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was ratified in 1781. The national government of a single legislature, the Congress of the Confederation, could govern foreign affairs, conduct war, and regulate currency, but had no authority to force the states for money or troops. Victory over the British in 1783 proved that a stronger central government was going to be necessary to create a stable nation. In 1786, Alexander Hamilton called for a constitutional convention to discuss the matter. Congress invited all 13 states to meet in Philadelphia. All but Rhode Island arrived in May 1787. Not everyone favored a stronger central government.

After intense discussions, the framers agreed on three branches of government with the corresponding checks and balances. But it took much debate and negotiations to sort out many key parts of the government. The Connecticut Compromise, for example, resolved the issue of equal and proportionate representation with a bicameral legislature – a House and a Senate. The Constitution still had to be ratified by nine out of 13 states. It was going to take some convincing. So Alexander Hamilton, with James Madison and John Jay, wrote a series of 85 essays known as the Federalist Papers to persuade people to ratify the Constitution. Detailing how the new government would work, the essays (published under the pseudonym Publius – Latin for “public”), started to appear in newspapers across the country in the fall of 1787.

The Federalist

In December 1787 and January 1788, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut quickly ratified the Constitution. Massachusetts, wanting more protection of basic political rights, including speech, religion, and press, ratified the Constitution in February once it was assured that amendments would be immediately introduced. In 1788, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire ratified. With nine states ratifying, the Constitution became legal on June 21, 1788, allowing a new government to start the following year when George Washington was inaugurated as President on April 30, 1789. The remaining states ratified over the next two years (Rhode Island was the last in May 1790). The Founding Fathers are celebrated for their vision, but few may have seen the Constitution being the oldest written and codified national constitution still in effect.

Did You Know …

That George Washington was the first to sign the Constitution, but he initially didn’t even want to attend the Constitutional Convention? He was busy managing Mount Vernon, suffered from rheumatism and worried that the convention wouldn’t be successful.

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