U.S. Constitution: Context and Content

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1 U.S. Constitution: Context and Content Teaching American History Institute: Leadership in America Chad Montrie, University of Massachusetts Lowell

2 From Colonies to States Following declarations of independence and rights, colonies wrote state constitutions Expressed commitment to Lockean natural rights, including right of revolution Retained basic forms of colonial government, usually provided for governor and legislature Raised questions of who will rule, and capacity for common people to govern themselves

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4 John Locke ( ) Published Two Treatises on Government ( ), during Glorious Revolution Philosophical response to refutation of natural freedom and defense of natural subjection by Sir Robert Filmer People inherently free, equal, and self-governing, could reappopriate power, make revolution, and erect new form of government Recognized limitations on redress of grievances but emphasized justice of resistance to tyranny

5 Essay Concerning Civil Government (1689) Liberty The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it...

6 Essay Concerning Civil Government (1689) Tyranny As usurpation is the exercise of power which another hath a right to, so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to; and this is making use of the power of anyone has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage. When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule, and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion...

7 Essay Concerning Civil Government (1689) Revolution But if they have set limits on their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person or assembly only temporary; or else when by the miscarriages of those in authority it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture, or at the determination of the time set, [power] reverts to the society, and the people have the right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves; or place it in a new form, or new hands as they think good

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9 Virginia Provincial Convention, Draft of a Declaration of Rights (May 1776) That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community and that whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such a manner as shall be judged most conductive to the public weal

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11 Declaration of Independence (July 1776) We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness... When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

12 Pennsylvania Constitution (September 1776) Written by provincial assembly of farmers and artisans, followed Thomas Paine s advice on direct representation Unicameral legislature with no governor, elected by universal free male suffrage Term limits and annual elections to prevent accumulation of power, Council of Censors for constitutional review 1777, Vermont separated from New York and copied PA Constitution, but PA Constitution revised in 1790

13 John Adams, Thoughts on Government (April 1776) I think a people cannot be long free, nor every happy, whose government is in one assembly. My reasons for this opinion are as follow A single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual Because a single assembly, possessed of all the powers of government, would make arbitrary laws for their own interest, execute all laws arbitrarily for their own interest, and adjudge all controversies in their own favor Most of the foregoing reasons apply equally to prove that the legislative power ought to be more complex

14 Massachusetts Constitution (1780) Reflected influence of Adams response to Paine Bicameral legislature with strong executive (veto power over legislature) Monetary qualifications for office holding, property qualifications for voting, forbade all but Protestants from office & suffrage Similar to constitutions adopted by Maryland and New York

15 Articles of Confederation Continental Congress adopted Articles of Confederation November 1777, ratified by 1781 Established loose confederation of 13 independent states, each with single vote Nearly powerless national government, no president or executive branch, no power to regulate trade or tax Power to engage in diplomacy, borrow money from foreign powers, engage in negotiations with Indians, and raise an army

16 Shay s Rebellion Massachusetts government abolished stay laws, refused to issue paper money, established poll taxes, and raised property qualifications on voting Aug 1786 Feb 1787, farmers organized, closed down courthouses to debtor trials, marched on federal armory Governor sent out state militia to stop courthouse actions, federal soldiers stopped march on arsenal and captured leaders, sentenced to death but pardoned

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18 Governor James Bowdoin, Proclamation (1786) And whereas this high-handed offence is fraught with the most fatal and pernicious consequences, it must tend to subvert all law and government; to dissolve our excellent Constitution, and introduce universal riot, anarchy, and confusion, which would probably terminate in absolute despotism, and consequently destroy the fairest prospects of political happiness, that any people was ever favored with: I have therefore thought fit, by and with the advice of the Council, to issue this Proclamation, calling upon all Judges, Justices, Sheriffs, Constables, and other officers, civil and military within this Commonwealth, to prevent and suppress all such violent and riotous proceedings.

19 Alexander Hamilton, On Democracy (June 1788) All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy

20 Post-Revolutionary Union Constitutional Convention May 1787, Constitution ratified by 1789 Established federalist system with relatively strong central government Bicameral legislature, popular elections only in House, Senators chosen by state legislatures President chosen by electors selected by state legislatures Supreme Court appointed by president, justices to serve for life

21 Whiskey Rebellion ( ) 1791, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton convinced Congress to establish levy on distilled spirits Cash-poor, small western farmers unfairly burdened Harassment against federal tax collectors, culminated in western Pennsylvania with martial law and military campaign led by Washington and Hamilton

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