Creating The Constitution Essay

Alexander Hamilton | Article

Creating the U.S. Constitution

As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton found some of his ideas about how to structure a federal government soundly rejected. Yet he liked the resulting Constitution enough to become chief advocate for its approval by the states. Hamilton wrote the bulk of the essays that argued most convincingly for ratification. These essays were first published as a series in New York newspapers, under the title The Federalist.

Advocate for Strong Central Government
Hamilton did not attend the entire four-month Constitutional Convention that began in May 1787 in Philadelphia. He had been one of the strongest advocates for that convention, but he was outvoted by the other two New York delegates, who did not share Hamilton's enthusiasm for a strong federal government to unite the thirteen states. In these early years after the revolution, the former colonists were just beginning to understand how to operate outside the confines of British rule.

An Elite Class of Presidents and Senators
Hamilton's best moment as a delegate came when he outlined his ideas for government in a six-hour speech on June 18. He called for senators who would serve "during good behavior" and a chief executive, or national governor, who would appoint state governors. This "elective monarch" (in the words of note-taker James Madison), would also serve "during good behavior," meaning indefinitely, without a set elective term. Madison's reference to royalty was apt because in the same speech Hamilton declared that Britain's government was "the best in the world." Though some other delegates shared Hamilton's views about electing a long-serving, king-like president and concentrating power in an elite class of elected federal officials, it was a far more centralized plan than most people supported.

The Document
The Constitution that the delegates actually approved was full of compromises. For instance, it allowed federal judges to serve permanently "during good behavior," but limited the chief executive's and senators' elective terms to four and six years, respectively. It also introduced a House of Representatives, whose members would face re-election more frequently, and more directly represent the people. Though different from his vision, Hamilton thought it "better than nothing," particularly when he compared it to the inadequate Articles of Confederation that were then in effect. He urged every delegate to sign the document. When his two co-delegates from New York told Hamilton that ratification by his state would be an uphill battle, Hamilton decided to do something to persuade his fellow citizens.

The Federalist's Authors
In October, just a month after the Convention ended, Hamilton decided to pen a series of essays making the case for ratification, to be published in New York newspapers. He outlined the project that would become known as The Federalist (and much later, called The Federalist Papers), and wrote the first essay while on board a Hudson River boat making its way between Albany and New York City. The Federalist Number 1 was published in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787. Hamilton needed collaborators, and he approached first John Jay, an author of New York's state constitution, and then Madison, Gouverneur Morris, and William Duer. Duer's material did not make the cut, and Morris was too busy to participate, but Madison willingly signed on, which was fortunate, because after penning Federalist Numbers 2-5, Jay's severe rheumatism would limit him to just one more editorial.

Campaigning for the Constitution
Over the next seven months, Hamilton and Madison wrote nearly 80 more essays, a total of close to 175,000 words. Hamilton's personal output was staggering, since he wrote 50 of them. The essays appeared up to four times a week, the printer often pacing the hall outside while Hamilton finished up his latest salvo. Regardless of who composed them, the essays appeared under the pen name Publius, in homage to the man who had led the people of Rome in establishing a republic after they overthrew their king. This output would spawn a political party, the Federalist Party, which existed for several years in opposition to the Jeffersonian Republicans who advocated greater rights for individuals and states.

The Federalist Point of View
The first 22 of the Federalist essays were dominated by criticism of the weak Articles of Confederation. In later pieces, Madison and Hamilton defended the strong government outlined in the Constitution, though the two authors' essays reveal a split in just how strong they wanted this new government to be. Hamilton, who preferred a powerful central administration, wrote all of the essays on the executive and judicial branches. "Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government," he declared. Hamilton's last essay, influenced -- as were others -- by the work of Scottish philosopher David Hume, acknowledged the Constitution's imperfections but still urged its adoption: "A nation without a national government is ... an awful spectacle," he concluded.

A Supreme Explanation
The Federalist, later bound together into a book and sold for the equivalent of 75 cents, did not find universal acclaim. One critic wrote that, even if he could acquire the essays for free, "it is not worth it." Another said the mass of writings would "jade the brains of any poor sinner," and asked Publius to halt after 26 essays "and let the people draw their breath for a little." Even the printer of the bound volume griped that he had hundreds of unsold copies and would be lucky to make five pounds profit. Differences between Federalists and Republicans would persist. But George Washington believed The Federalist would "merit the Notice of Posterity." Despite some claims that Publius turned the tide in New York's battle over ratifying the Constitution, the real influence of The Federalist came after the Constitution's adoption. Hamilton's brainchild would became venerated as the most authoritative explanation of the Constitution's meaning. Since its creation, the Supreme Court has cited or quoted The Federalist about 300 times, more than any other interpretative document.

In 1987, Americans celebrated the bicentennial, or 200th anniversary, of the signing of the Constitution of the United States. This document, which has served as "the Supreme Law of the Land" for more than two centuries, is the world's oldest written constitution still in use.

The United States Constitution is a system of basic laws and principles that defines the rights of American citizens and sets limits on what the government can and cannot do. It provides the framework for the federal (national) government and establishes a system of federalism, by which responsibilities are divided between the national government and the states' governments.

One of the important principles on which the Constitution is based is the separation of powers, which divides power between the three separate branches of the federal government. The legislative branch (represented by Congress) has the power to create laws; the executive branch (represented by the president and his advisers) has the power to enforce laws; and the judicial branch (represented by the Supreme Court and other federal courts) has the power to dismiss or reverse laws that it determines are "unconstitutional."


Why the Constitution Was Written

When the United States won its independence from England in 1781, a majority of Americans felt a stronger allegiance to their individual states than to their new country. Most people did not wish to create a strong national government, far away from their homes, over which they felt they would have little or no control -- they had just fought a long and bitter war to free themselves from such a government. In response to these suspicions, leaders organized the new American government according to a document known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles gave each state a great deal of independence and represented little more than a league of friendship between them.

The main purpose of the Articles was to establish a system by which the states could co-operate if they needed to defend themselves against a foreign enemy. The Articles established a Congress that could raise an army and a navy, but only when the states gave permission. Congress also had the authority to issue and borrow money and to handle foreign and Indian affairs. Congress could also pass laws, yet it did not have the power to make the states obey them. Nor was it able to control citizen uprisings, such as Shays' Rebellion, which occurred from 1786 to 1787. Farmers in western Massachusetts staged violent protests against their state government. As a result of this and other similar revolts, many people began to feel that a stronger national government might be necessary after all.

In 1786 leaders in Virginia passed a resolution calling for delegates from the 13 states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the nation's problems. Their goal was to amend (change) the Articles to make the national government more effective. But only twelve representatives from five states attended this Annapolis Convention, so they resolved to call another meeting the following year.


The Constitutional Convention

On May 14, 1787, delegates from twelve of the states (all except Rhode Island) began to gather in Philadelphia, and the Constitutional Convention opened in Independence Hall on May 25th. In attendance were many remarkably talented scholars, philosophers, war leaders, and politicians. Alexander Hamilton, representing New York, was largely responsible for arranging the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin, representing Pennsylvania, freely offered the incomparable wisdom of his 81 years. Gouverneur Morris, also from Pennsylvania, headed up the committee that actually wrote the Constitution. George Washington, from Virginia, took the chair as president of the convention. And James Madison, also from Virginia, earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution" because time and again his brilliant ideas and tireless energy kept the convention moving toward its goal.

Almost immediately after the convention opened, a struggle developed between the delegates of the large and small states as to what form the new government should take. The more populous states supported the Virginia Plan, which proposed that representation within the government should be based on the size of a state's population. The plan was designed to give states with large populations a proportionately large share of decision-making power. Less populous states, however, supported the New Jersey Plan, by which every state, regardless of size, would have the same representation within the government.

The convention came to a standstill until the delegates from Connecticut devised an ingenious way to settle the dispute. The Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise) called for the creation of a bicameral (two-house) legislature, or Congress. One of the two houses of the new Congress (the House of Representatives) would be elected according to the states' relative populations. The other house (the Senate) would give equal voice to each state no matter what its size. Once this breakthrough had occurred, the delegates agreed more readily on most of the remaining issues.

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed by 39 of the original 55 delegates. Several had left the convention altogether. Three others — Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia — refused to sign because they lacked confidence in the document's ability to rule the nation. But although no one realized it at the time, the document the delegates signed that day not only gave rise to the government of a new nation, but became a symbol of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world.


Ratifying the Constitution

The Constitution was signed by most of the delegates who created it. Yet the task still remained for the states' governments to approve it. The Constitution itself specified that 9 of the 13 states would have to ratify the document before it could become effective.

Delaware had the honor of being the first state to approve the Constitution on December 7, 1787. But the remaining drive for ratification was far from easy. In three of the largest states — Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia — the contest was close. And the founders knew that the new government would have no chance of succeeding without the support of these large states. So they mounted a campaign in defense of the Constitution by publishing a series of essays in New York newspapers. These essays, which came to be known as The Federalist, were written under the name Publius, a pen name adopted by the authors James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.

People who opposed the Constitution, known as anti-federalists, launched a campaign to defeat ratification, believing the Constitution would make the national government too powerful. But mostly they objected that the document did not contain a bill of rights, which would guarantee citizens certain privileges that the government could never take away from them. Anti-federalists published their own series of essays, under such pen names as Brutus, to discourage ratification.

In response to the opposition, John Hancock at the Massachusetts ratifying convention proposed that a bill of rights be added as the first group of amendments to the Constitution. Ratification in Massachusetts and almost all the rest of the uncommitted states depended on the understanding that adopting a bill of rights would be the new government's first order of business.

On June 21, 1788, the Constitution went into effect when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. New York and Virginia followed suit soon thereafter, thus ensuring the new government would have the support it needed to succeed.


Amending the Constitution

The first Congress to conduct business under the authority of the new Constitution met in New York City on March 4, 1789. The issue of a bill of rights was proposed at once, and the new government began following constitutional procedures to change, or amend, the document. According to the Constitution itself, amendments must be approved by at least two thirds of the members of each house of Congress and by three quarters of the states. (There is also an alternate amendment process that has never been used.)

In 1791, the first ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution. These ten amendments define and protect the rights of the American people. Each of the 16 amendments that followed over the course of the next two centuries reflects, in its own way, the needs and desires of the ever-changing American society. The power to amend the Constitution is the primary reason the document has been able to survive the turbulent changes throughout the past two hundred years.

L. Sandy Maisel
Professor of Government
Colby College

Copyright © 2003 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.


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