Pro Constitution Essay Question

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions

1.

How effective was the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation? Why were the Articles replaced by the Constitution? How was the federal government different under the Constitution?

Afraid of strong centralized government after the Revolutionary War, the drafters of the Articles of Confederation made certain that the federal government would never be able to strip power from the individual states. As a result, the national Congress was so weak and politically ineffective that it was unable to maintain national unity and went virtually bankrupt. The specter of rebellion and collapse forced American elites to create a stronger, more centralized government under the Constitution.

In 1777, America’s leading politicians were well aware that powerful governments could become stifling and oppressive. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had outlined King George III’s “long train of abuses” against the colonies: unfair and unpopular taxes, quartering acts, and other punishments. With these abuses fresh in mind, the framers of the Articles decided that the United States should be only a loose confederation of thirteen nearly independent members. They believed that this structure would bind the states for common defense but would allow republicanism to flourish in smaller communities. The Articles therefore created a national Congress with the power to maintain armies, declare war and peace, govern western lands, and resolve interstate disputes, but lacking the power to levy direct taxes. Each state was given one vote, and most decisions were to be made by majority rule.

Although the confederation looked good on paper, it proved to be wholly ineffective. First, Congress had virtually no power to control the states. Commerce and territorial disputes erupted throughout the decade during which the Articles were in effect. Second, Congress, unable to levy taxes of its own, could only request money from the individual states. Many states, however, refused to pay. Finally, growing domestic unrest among the working classes, which reached a peak in Shays’s Rebellion, convinced wealthier Americans that the Articles had to be amended, if not replaced.

Under the new Constitution, the United States was a more tightly bound federation than the loose confederation that had existed under the Articles. The new federal government was divided into three separate but equal branches, each with distinct powers and authority. The new bicameral Congress was given the power to levy taxes, while the president was given the authority to execute and enforce congressional laws. The Supreme Court assumed the task of judicial review to determine whether Congress’s laws were constitutional. Thus, though the Constitution gave the new government greater power and authority, it also instituted safeguards to keep federal power in check, as the framers of the Articles of Confederation had originally intended.

2.

Which political group do you believe had a more profound effect on the formation of the United States, the Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans?

Even though Democratic-Republican presidents held the White House for twenty-four of the United States’ first thirty-six years, the Federalists had a much greater effect on the formation of the new nation. The Federalists pushed for the ratification of the Constitution and then bolstered the federal government by providing solid economic and legal infrastructure. Their influence put in place the systems that have kept the United States stable and unified throughout its history.

Had the Anti-Federalists had their way, the Constitution might never have been ratified. Patriots like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams believed that the new federal government would be too powerful and too constricting. They feared that the new office of president was too much like a monarch and did not think that Congress should have the right to tax all Americans. Like many political philosophers of their day, they thought that republicanism would never survive in a large country because the government would be too distant from the hearts and minds of the people it represented.

Federalists, however, disagreed. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison argued that republicanism would work for the United States. The republic would be so large, with so many conflicting constituencies, that no single faction would ever be able to dominate the others. Moreover, safeguards inserted into the Constitution, such as the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, would prevent the government from ever becoming too powerful. These Federalist arguments helped convince the states to ratify the Constitution.

Other major Federalist contributions came through Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s economic policies, which bolstered the federal government and put the nation on sound financial footing. Despite protests from Thomas Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans, Hamilton urged President Washington and Congress to support the development of American manufacturing, pass an excise tax to fund the government, assume all state and federal debts, fund those debts at par, and create a Bank of the United States. The assumption of debt and funding at par gave the country credibility and encouraged speculators to invest in American enterprises. The excise tax filled the federal treasury, and the Bank of the United States helped stabilize the economy. Perhaps most important, the Federalists’ loose interpretation of the Constitution justified strong centralized government.

The Federalists also influenced the U.S. legal infrastructure through the decisions of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall. Most of Marshall’s rulings during his years as chief justice bolstered the federal government’s power vis-à-vis the individual states. In Marbury v. Madison, for example, he secured the power of judicial review for the Supreme Court. In subsequent cases, he also defended the Court’s superior position to state courts. In doing so, Marshall legitimized the federal government and gave it strong legal precedents.

3.

Which nation was responsible for the War of 1812, Britain or the United States? What caused the war?

Despite the fact that the United States was the first to declare war, Britain clearly initiated the conflict, as British troops continued to occupy U.S. territory in the Ohio Valley and the Royal Navy seized American merchant ships and impressed their crews. The United States tried to resolve the disputes diplomatically, and then, when diplomatic attempts failed, imposed trade sanctions on Britain in an attempt to gain London’s attention. However, these measures failed, leaving President James Madison and Congress little choice but to defend American sovereignty.

The war stemmed from the fact that Britain had continued to treat the United States as one of its colonies even after the Revolutionary War and the establishment of a new U.S government. Under the Treaty of Paris, Britain had agreed to withdraw its troops from the Ohio Valley and to respect American shipping. In practice, though, neither promise was ever honored: British troops remained stationed in British forts on U.S. territory, and Royal Navy captains continued to seize American merchant ships. The British made the same concessions again in Jay’s Treaty in 1794 but never honored those commitments either. In fact, seizures of American merchant ships increased in the first decade of the 1800s, and Royal Navy officers began to impress an increasing number of American sailors to serve on British warships. Impressment outraged Americans and thus forced the U.S. government to act.

When diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the crisis peacefully, Jefferson encouraged Congress to pass the Embargo Act in 1807 to ban trade with all foreign countries. Jefferson hoped the sanctions would convince the British government to change its ways. Unfortunately, the implementation of the Embargo Act failed miserably and only hurt American merchants. Congress repealed the law in 1809 and tried to use the new Non-Intercourse Act to ban trade only with Britain and France. This act, however, likewise failed to produce any response, leaving Congress effectively out of diplomatic options.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How did the Anti-Federalists help shape the United States?

2. Did the “elastic clause” justify acts such as Hamilton’s excise tax and Bank of the United States or Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase?

3. How would you characterize Anglo-British relations in the years after independence?

4. Describe how three of the following affected the formation of the federal government:a) Marbury v. Madisonb) the Louisiana Purchasec) the Bank of the United Statesd) the Alien and Sedition Acts

5. Was the Constitution written to be a self-consciously landmark document or was it simply a compilation of compromises? Support your argument.

  • 1

    According to the authors of the Federalist Papers, what was the key failure of the Articles of Confederation?

    The fundamental weakness of the Articles, according to the authors of the Federalist Papers, was that they did not give the national government the power to enforce its decrees on the member states. The national government could levy taxes on the states or require them to contribute a certain number of soldiers to the national force, but the government had no way of punishing states that did not comply. As a result, the decrees of the national government were authoritative orders on paper, but in fact were mere requests. Essentially, the state governments were stronger than the national government, making it impossible for the latter to govern effectively.

  • 2

    Why were the provisions in the Constitution regarding the American military so controversial?

    There is a long Anglo-American tradition of fear of standing armies, professional forces that serve during peacetime. It was widely believed that standing armies gave the government the ability to forcefully usurp power and violate the rights and liberties of the people. Standing armies stood in sharp contrast to militias, which were military forces made up of local volunteers who only served during times of war. Militias fit into the republican ideal of citizens defending their own land and freedom. Militias were thought to inspire and nurture republican virtues of independence and liberty, whereas standing armies were thought to make citizens overly dependent on professional soldiers.

    The Constitution enabled Congress to raise and maintain a professional military force to be commanded by the President. Anti-Federalists feared that these provisions would enable the executive and legislative branches of government to conspire against the people and establish a tyrannical government.

  • 3

    What branch of government was accused of being aristocratic? Why?

    Many anti-federalists argued that the Senate would become an American aristocracy. In the original, unamended Constitution, Senators were to be elected by the state legislatures rather than directly by the people. This, combined with senatorial powers over presidential appointments to the executive and judiciary branch and treaties with foreign powers, led many to fear that the relatively small Senate would have excessive powers. Having just fought a war for independence from aristocratic England, Americans were keen to avoid recreating an aristocracy of their own.

  • 4

    What branch of government was accused of being monarchical? Why?

    The executive branch, and the President specifically, was often derided by anti-federalists as an American king. Anti-federalists argued that, as commander-in-chief, the President would have sufficient power at his disposal to usurp power from the other branches of government and become a tyrant. Furthermore, the president’s power to appoint public officials and judges was seen as a potential source of corruption. Anti-federalists also disliked the President’s ability to veto legislation passed by Congress, since this was seen as undermining the authority of the direct representatives of the people.

  • 5

    According to the Federalist Papers, what is wrong with direct democracy?

    In a direct democracy, citizens gather together in a public place and vote on public policy. They do not elect representatives to decide matters on their behalf, but make all political decisions themselves as one collective political entity. As Madison argues in paper 10, direct democracies are often swayed by temporary passions and frenzies. This leads to instability as the democratic society rapidly shifts policy one way or the other when a new idea becomes popular. It also leads to a violation of the rights of minorities since there is nothing to check the power of the majority. If even just 50.001% of the country, for example, supports going to war, the nation goes to war no matter how disastrous that decision might be.

  • 6

    According to the Federalist papers, what is the difference between a democracy and a republic?

    In a democracy, all members of society gather together and administer the government in person. In a republic, citizens elect representatives to decide public matters on their behalf. According to Madison in paper 10, republican government is far superior to democracy for two reasons. First, by delegating authority to representatives, republican government ensures that “the public views” are reined and enlarged. It was thought that the elected representatives would be wiser and more virtuous than the great body of citizens and thus capable of making better decisions. Second, a republic allows for the government to extend over a large swath of territory. In a democracy, all citizens need to gather in one place to make decisions. It would clearly be impossible for all the citizens of the US to meet in Washington, D.C., and vote on public policy. However, it is very practical for a few representatives from each state to meet and make decisions. Having a larger republic means that the representatives will be chosen from a larger number of people, thus increasing the likelihood that the elected representatives will be good, virtuous people. Also, having many representatives in government helps guard against, as Madison writes, “the cabals of a few.”

  • 7

    Define Federalism and explain its role in the American system of government.

    Federalism is the sharing of power between the state governments and the national (or “Federal”) government. In the American system of government, certain powers are exercised by only state governments or the federal government, while other powers are exercised by both. For example, only the federal government can make treaties with foreign powers or declare war, and only state governments can appoint officers in the militia. However, both the state and federal governments can levy taxes.

  • 8

    According to the Federalist papers, what advantages did state governments have over the national government?

    The authors of the Federalist papers believed that the state governments would enjoy more support from the public than the federal government would. State officials would be closer to the people and have a more direct and obvious impact on their lives. In contrast, the federal government would be relatively distant and alien and thus less in-tune with the people. In any hypothetical conflict between the state and federal governments, the former would have a significant advantage due to the support of the people.

  • 9

    How does the principle of checks and balances influence the constitutional process for appointing public officials?

    The founders were deeply concerned about one branch of government becoming significantly more powerful than the others. To prevent this, they created checks and balances that would enable each branch to the limit the powers of the others. In the case of official appointments, the President has the power to nominate officials, but the Senate must vote to approve these appointments. Thus, power over the appointment of public officials is shared between the executive and legislative branches of government. The clause requiring senatorial consent for presidential appointees serves as a check on the power of the president.

  • 10

    Why did the authors of the Federalist Papers fear the influence of factions?

    The authors of the Federalist Papers believed that in any democratic or republican system of government, there was always a significant risk of certain segments of the population forming distinct interest groups. It was feared that these groups, or factions, would prioritize their own particular goals over the good of the nation. Due in part to the natural disinclination among people to admit their own mistakes or sacrifice their own interests, it was feared that factions would hinder the public policy-making process and hamstring the workings of government. The authors of the Federalist papers longed for virtuous political leaders who would act wisely and in the best interest of the country. However, they knew from experience and from their study of history that people tend to form factions and prioritize the faction’s interest over the greater good.

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