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Principles of the Constitution

Take a quick trip back to the founding era to learn about the roots of representative government, limited government, separation of powers, and the many compromises that led to our Constitution. What is the distinction between a republic and a democracy? This exploration lays the groundwork for rich dialogues on government power, the ongoing tension between state and national power, and American democratic values in action, both now and over time.

Podcasts & Videos

Beyond the Legacy: Principles of the Constitution

  1. Watch and listen to the 60-Second Civics video below. If you'd like, you can also read along using the script that appears below the quiz. Or you can turn on the video's subtitles and read while watching the video.
  2. Take the Daily Civics Quiz. If you get the question wrong, watch the video again or read the script and try again.
Episode Description
Dr. Donna Phillips: Welcome to Beyond the Legacy, an extension of our 60-Second Civics podcast series for our Civil Discourse: An American Legacy project. I'm Donna Phillips. We are joined again by Dr. Lester Brooks, American history professor emeritus from Anne Arundel Community College who is going to continue the conversation about how our new government was formed. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Sure. So, Dr. Brooks, I'd like to give you some more time to expand on the ideas we shared in our earlier podcast series. So what was going on at the Philadelphia Convention and why did we need a new government in the 1780s?

Dr. Lester Brooks: The Articles of Confederation that went into effect in 1781 certainly outline a problem that we're still wrestling with today. What how much power would the states have? How much power would the central government have? It's understandable what the founding fathers were thinking at the time. They had just completed a hadn't even completed the revolution or Revolutionary War with Britain, which was a strong central government.

Dr. Lester Brooks: What they did not want to do is reproduce a government that was strong in the center. So under the articles we have the states that essentially gain the lion's share of power. But as we go through the 1780s, when people began to realize and the leaders began to realize, is that perhaps they overdid it, the central government was too weak.

Dr. Lester Brooks: There was a unicameral legislature. There was no separate executive branch. There was no separate judicial branch. One of the best places to look at the problems, it was produced by James Madison. He wrote what was called the vices of the government of president, government of the United States. And he points out a number of weaknesses, such as the lack of the power to tax.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So here the government could not tax. How were they supposed to get money to run the government? Because they lacked the power to tax. They could declare war, but they couldn't raise an army. They would have to go to the states to raise an army. Essentially, that unicameral legislature, Congress still operated under the requisition system that they were using during the revolutionary War, where they were requisitioning the states.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And if the states didn't come through, then there was nothing Congress could do. Another problem, states were violating treaties. So here Congress could make a treaty with another country. But a state didn't have to recognize that treaty. States were trespassing on each other and causing conflicts with each other. So as the 1780s progressed, these weaknesses began to loom and many began to see that revisions were necessary.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So in 1786, a convention was called. They were supposed to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, and talk about revising the Articles of Confederation. What could they do to make it better? The problem in Annapolis is that not enough delegates showed up and so they couldn't hold the convention. Alexander Hamilton wrote a message saying, Let's hold another convention beginning in May of 1787 in Philadelphia.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And so they were going to try it again. And fortunately, on that occasion, they did get enough delegates to hold the Philadelphia convention in 1787.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Great. And so at that convention, there was a lot of compromises on the major issues of the time that you you elaborated on just now. So what were some of those major issues and the compromises that came out of it.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Early on at the Philadelphia convention? They were introduced to two plans. James Madison primarily drafted what became known as the Virginia plan. William Patterson drafted what became known as the New Jersey plan. What Madison essentially wanted was to strengthen the central government. He saw during the 1780s a real problem of the states that the states were encroaching upon the central government.

Dr. Lester Brooks: The states. There was a problem with creditors, creditors who had loan money. Now, do you pass a currency laws that produce cheap money that debtors can get their hands on? Creditors don't want that cheap money. They want hard money. So he recognized these problems. So in the Virginia plan, what he attempted to do is strengthen the central government.

Dr. Lester Brooks: In addition, he laid out literally a plan of government, a bicameral legislature, a executive branch, legislative branch, judicial branch of government. Again, the feeling was you don't put all the power in one branch because it will be abused. So he recognized a stronger central government was needed. Conversely, Patterson's New Jersey plan looked at this and they said, Wait a minute, we don't need a strong central government.

Dr. Lester Brooks: If we produce the strong central government. We're right back where we were fighting the British. We need to maintain the strong states. But let's amend the articles. We don't need an entirely new government. We can just amend the articles. If they don't have the power to tax, give them the power to tax. Now, certainly Patterson laid out a separation of powers as well.

Dr. Lester Brooks: But the idea was merely to amend the articles not to create an entirely new government, which actually is what the instructions that were given from the States to the delegates of Philadelphia. It was not to create an entirely new document. What they were supposed to do is revise the articles. Ultimately, the delegates chose the Virginia plan and for the rest of that summer, that's what was debated.

Dr. Lester Brooks: The Virginia plan. And that's why James Madison is sometimes called the father of the Constitution because he was primarily the one to draft the Virginia plan. It was adopted by the delegates and it was debated and it ultimately becomes the U.S. Constitution.

Dr. Donna Phillips: And what are some of those constitutional principles that we've been living out for the last 250 years that came out of those compromises.

Dr. Lester Brooks: At the convention, there was a huge problem between the large states and the small states. A large states wanted their population taken into consideration. Small states wanted equality. So we get the great compromise, great compromise, or sometimes called the Connecticut compromise by Roger Sherman of Connecticut. And the result was in the lower body, the House of Representatives. The states would be represented based on their population.

Dr. Lester Brooks: In the upper chamber, the Senate. All states would be equal. They would all have two senators. And so this pleased both the large states and the small states. The idea of separation of powers, they clearly delineated the separation of powers. Rather than have a unicameral legislature as they as existed under the articles. They established a separate executive branch, a separate, separate legislative branch that was bicameral and a separate judicial branch of government.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So they separated again, concerned about that abuse of power. A third issue was slavery. And with slavery. First, they said that the slave trade would not end for 20 years. Many people believe that slavery would die out, and certainly it was very contentious at the time, and they essentially could not abolish slavery at that time. That was not going to happen because it was too important to many individuals.

Dr. Lester Brooks: But they did say in 20 years the slave trade would end as far as the representation was concerned. They came up with the 3/5 compromise. And so in counting individuals in the state for the House of Representatives, they would count 3/5 of a slave. And that way, the South is going to get more power in the House. But at the same time, the North reminded, well, we're not going to count each and every slave or wall.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So do that for taxation purposes. So there was that 3/5 compromise. A third instance of slavery was the Fugitive Slave Act, where the Constitution says if you run from one state and you're a slave into another state, your status doesn't change. You remain a slave. So these were some of the key issues, and they were debated throughout that summer.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Finally, they ended the they had completed the Constitution in September of 1787. And at that point, it was time to send it to the states for ratification.

Dr. Donna Phillips: And so. So you mentioned the separation of powers. The main compromises that came about, in particular because of slavery and then the size of the states and the differences between the North and the south. Before we talk about the fights over ratification, because any time you have compromises, people are unhappy, even if you've reached a compromise. Right. But what type of government did did we get out of that out of this?

Dr. Lester Brooks: Essentially, the Constitution does produce an entirely an entirely new government, which they really went against their instructions. They were merely supposed to amend the Articles of Confederation. What they came up with was an entirely new government and some people had problems with that because they preferred the stronger states. And that will be an ongoing issue of those who prefer a strong state for whatever reason it may be.

Dr. Lester Brooks: If they're a state leader, they lose a little bit of their power. If the central government is stronger. So it does produce a government that is stronger. One incident that occurred the winter before the Philadelphia convention gets going was Shays Rebellion. And this was in western Massachusetts. And it was farmers who were rebelling against the heavy debt and the heavy taxes that they had to pay.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Well, George Washington's response to the to Shays Rebellion was chaos is occurring in western Massachusetts. We are fast, verging to anarchy and confusion. He said the only alternative is to strengthen the central government. And so that's that issue. To what extent do you have a strong central government? And to some extent, we're entering into that that issue of federalism, federalism, that the balance between states and the federal government.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And where are the draw? How do you draw the boundaries of the powers of the central government and the powers of the state? And so here, in this instance, after Shays Rebellion, many individuals believe that there had to be a stronger central government. How do you put down a Shays Rebellion if the state can't do it? The federal government must be strong enough to put that type of rebellion down.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So there is that issue of calling for a stronger central government. And certainly there are others like Alexander Hamilton, who saw that if you are going to be a power on the world stage, you needed an energetic government that can compete on that type of stage. Whereas others believe that A, the states is the perfect place to to establish a Republican form of government.

Dr. Donna Phillips: And piggybacking off of that, can you go deeper into what we mean by a Republican form of government versus a democracy? And what was the thinking at that time about those two?

Dr. Lester Brooks: It's a good a good place to look as federalist number ten, written by James Madison. And the inference number ten, Madison explains to us that a Republican form of government is where the people rule through their representatives. In a pure democracy, the people rule directly and in an extensive republic that existed in the United States, there was no way that they could have a pure democracy where people could rule directly.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So Madison and others agreed that a Republican form of government and they say it in the Constitution to secure and protect a Republican form of government for all the states. We, the people, rule through our representatives.

Dr. Donna Phillips: I think that that's something that gets lost on the American public about how our Constitution was established to provide that representation. And so there is a protection for the states, even those who are upset about the strengthening of the national government through the Constitution. So what were some of those ongoing debates during ratification about those two things?

Dr. Lester Brooks: The ratification now in the ratification process. In each state, you get these two groups, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists and the Federalist Party wanted to ratify the Constitution, but then they also had to strategize how do you get the people to support the Constitution? Well, for example, in Virginia, it's nice when you have George Washington on your side.

Dr. Lester Brooks: He was a Federalist. So a lot of people are going to agree with George Washington, even though the opposition had Patrick Henry on its side. But Patrick Henry and George Washington, people are going to lean toward George Washington. So there was some strategizing going on in each state. Do you quickly have a vote to ratify or reject if you think that you can, if you're a federalist and you think you can get that vote, you want a quick vote.

Dr. Lester Brooks: But if you don't think you're going to get that vote to ratify, you may want to drag things out. So, for example, in New York, Hamilton said, let's look at the Constitution article by article, clause by clause, which means that's going to draw things out. And in Hamilton's thinking, it would draw it out so long that maybe nine states, nine states had to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Well, if if you drag things out in New York long enough for that nine state, then he figured that New York would have to go along because now the Constitution is going into effect and New York doesn't want to be on the outs. So there was strategizing. Others were concerned with, as I said, a quick vote. So depending on the anti-federalists did the same thing.

Dr. Lester Brooks: One of the benefits the Federalist had is they controlled most of the newspapers in the country and since they controlled most of the newspapers, they controlled what was said in those newspapers. So, for example, I believe it was in Pennsylvania, reporters could report what federalist delegates at the state ratifying convention said. They didn't have to report what the anti families said.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So, again, there was that politicking, the strategizing going on. Now, the anti-federalists, their argument, their number one argument is there was not a Bill of rights and they were crystal clear, many of them. If we look at George Mason from Virginia, if we look at Mercy Otis Warren and her observations on the new Constitution, you can see individuals saying there was no bill of rights.

Dr. Lester Brooks: They wanted specific rights of the people spelled out in the Constitution so that they wouldn't be trampled upon. As Britain had done during the revolution. So, for example, a Bill of Rights, we get no illegal searches and seizures, as the British had done. They were concerned with trial by juries rather than admiralty courts that existed with the British.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And certainly freedom of speech, freedom of religion. These were some of the rights of the people that the anti fellows wanted protected. And so that's what they were fighting. Let's have a Bill of Rights. Some even call for a second convention that maybe we need a second constitutional convention to make sure that those rights aren't included. So these are the two groups that we have during that ratification period.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And one in New York. We get Alexander Hamilton, who was a federalist, deciding that perhaps if he could get several others, he recruits James Madison and John J. To write various articles about the Constitution and publish in a New York newspaper. And so they would write these articles. They got about 86 of them, and they put them together and called it the Federalist or the Federalist Papers.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And what they did is they went essentially article by article, section by section of the Constitution, and they were explaining why people should ratify the Constitution, why they should support this new government that was produced at Philadelphia. And Hamilton wrote most of them, Madison wrote a significant number. Jay wrote about five of them, but he became ill and so couldn't write any more.

Dr. Lester Brooks: But the Federalist Papers, they were designed to convince people to support this new government that was produced at Philadelphia. And several of them have become famous. One of the most famous is by James Madison, Federalist number ten, where he does point out the problem with factions that all governments are faced with factions, that is, groups that are out for themselves.

Dr. Lester Brooks: They have their own interests. And he says you can't get rid of factions. But he says the government that was produced in Philadelphia, a Republican form of government, is the best form of government that can reduce the harmful effects of factions. And he says, because we have an extensive republic, we have all these states. What the factions will do is basically cancel each other out.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And if they cancel each out each other, the only thing that will rise to the top is what's good for the general welfare. And so that's his explanation and false number ten. And so each of the the Federalist Papers. I like federalist number 51 because he talks about the separation of powers there and the need for government. I think instead of number 51, he asks a very important question Why is government necessary?

Dr. Lester Brooks: And his answer is because of human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary, he said. And so we need a government. And he says that this way. He says we need a government that not only governs the people but governs itself. And so when we look at what the Founding Fathers did with the Constitution to govern themselves, they put these checks and balances into the framework of the Constitution.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And I go back to the Whigs again. This fear of abuse of power, those who get into power will abuse it. So what the founding fathers it they built checks and balances into the Constitution itself, the bicameral legislature, the executive, legislative, judicial branches, the veto power and the override power. The the term limits that they place. So these were checks and balances that they put in.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And this was brilliant because, again, it was that fear of an abuse of power. And certainly the Federalists understood that. The anti fellows understood that, but the anti fellows wanted even more guarantees that the rights of the people would be protected. And so therefore, the Bill of Rights, some states wanted the Bill of Rights first. And there are others like Mercy.

Dr. Lester Brooks: Mercy Otis Warren said, Wait a minute, you can't ask me to approve of something with the expectation or have faith that you're going to change it after I've given approval for it. But ultimately, Madison was somewhat convincing that Bill of Rights would be taken care of, and it is in the very first Congress we will get the Bill of Rights.

Dr. Donna Phillips: So you mentioned a lot of the strategizing and the arguments that the Federalists made to get the Constitution ratified. We know that they ultimately won, but that doesn't mean that the Anti-Federalists didn't have equally good arguments. So what were some of those that and that probably still have resonance today?

Dr. Lester Brooks: As we mentioned before, the Bill of Rights was the crucial issue to protect certain rights of the people. One thing that George Mason talks about, George Mason of Virginia, the fear of a standing army, the idea that of the Britain had a standing army, well, that army might serve the king, not the people. So there was concern for their concern over trial by jury.

Dr. Lester Brooks: And the British had admiralty courts where there was just one judge, no jury. So there were the anti fellows were concerned about that. Another concern expressed by Patrick Henry, for example, who said the Constitution talks about We the people. What about we, the state? And Patrick Henry, Mercy, Otis Warren were their question was what's going to happen to the states if we have this strong central government?

Dr. Lester Brooks: Do the states disappear? What powers will the states have if there's a Supreme Court? What powers to the state courts have? The idea of representation came up. George Mason said, Will a representative really know the people? Who's going to serve the representatives? Only the wealthy who can afford it. Will they be able to express the views of those on the lower end.

Dr. Lester Brooks: So there was the Anti-Federalists for calling that into question. Mason also talked about the link between the Senate and the president, such as on appointments, on treaties, and he. Question Isn't that a mixing of the separation of powers? So the Anti-Federalists did have some legitimate concerns that they expressed that were not always addressed in the in the various states, but certainly they did have some legitimate concerns.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Thank you. Thank you so much. We could continue diving into this period of our history, but this is a great start laying out the groundwork for the constitutional principles that we live by today and see in action. So thank you, Dr. Brooks. Thank you. This has been beyond the legacy as part of our Civil Discourse and American Legacy Project.

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