Articles of Confederation were the first set of national laws that were signed shortly after the Declaration of Independence



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Study Guide for the “US Constitution” and the “Articles of Confederation”

The Articles of Confederation were the first set of national laws that were signed shortly after the Declaration of Independence. They were a set of weak laws that gave most of the power to the states. Remember, the colonists thought King George III had too much power and they were afraid of government with too much power.


Although the states were happy with the Articles of Confederation it had a lot of problems:

Congress could not levy (charge) taxes

Congress needed states’ permission to start an army

Each state had one vote in congress…the states with more people didn’t think that was fair

Congress had no way to enforce the new laws they made
Even though the states were happy, the Articles of Confederation were not the best thing for the new country. The Articles of Confederation failed because it did not give enough power to the national government and some really smart Americans knew this. One of these people was James Madison. He sent word to all the states that there was going to be a meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to revise (change) the Articles of Confederation. James Madison worked so hard at this meeting that he is now known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Another person at the meeting was Benjamin Franklin. At the age of 81 he was the oldest delegate. George Washington was also there as a delegate from the state of Virginia. He was elected President of the convention (not of the country...at least not yet).
During a scalding hot summer, the delegates sat in the secret meetings in stuffy, hot, wool clothing and argued back and forth over what to do about creating a new government. Remember, this was a whole new idea. No country had ever before tried to create a new government that was run by the people. The best idea presented was the Virginia plan. Under the Virginia plan the government would be split into three branches:

Executive: enforces the laws

Judicial: interprets or decide if the laws are fair

Legislative: creates the laws
Most of the delegates liked this plan and there were few arguments about the executive and judicial branch. However, heated arguments broke out when decisions were to be made about how many representatives each state would have in Congress (the legislative branch). The larger states with more people wanted proportionate representation. That means each state would get representatives based on the number of people in that state. The more people the more representatives. Well, the small states didn’t like that at all. They were afraid the larger states would push them around. The smaller states wanted equal representation. That means each state would have the same number of representatives. As you may guess, the larger states didn’t like that at all. The convention almost ended until someone came up with a great idea. They decided to have both. This idea was known as the Great Compromise and it saved the Constitution. The legislative branch was split into two houses the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the Senate each state would have 2 representatives which means 2 votes (equal representation). In the House of Representatives, each state would have one representative for every 40,000 people living in that state (proportionate representation).

Whew, that was close. At least the Constitution was saved and now it is easy sailing from here….WRONG! Remember there were many slaves on plantations in the southern states and those states wanted the slaves counted when deciding the number of delegates in the House of Representatives. “But they are not citizens!!!” argued the delegates from northern states. Well, the southern states weren’t having any of this nonsense and they almost walked out of the convention. It was time for another compromise to save the day. It was agreed that each slave would be counted as 3/5 (three-fifths) of a person. That means every 100 slaves would be counted as 60 people.


Now that we are done with compromises, let’s review exactly what the Constitution set up:
There were 3 branches of government that all had different powers. This idea is called “separation of power.”

Each branch of government had powers that would “check” the powers of the other branches. This is called “checks and balances.” Examples of checks and balances are:

The President (executive) can veto, or reject a law passed by Congress.

Congress (legislative) can override the president’s veto if 2/3 of the members vote “yes” to the new law.

The President appoints judges to the Supreme Court for life. But, Congress needs to approve those appointments.

Congress can “impeach” the President (kick him out) if he breaks the law.

If Congress and the President pass a law that does not follow the Constitution the Supreme Court can declare it unconstitutional.

Now that this was all ironed out it was time to write that final copy to send to the states for “ratification.” Not radical like skateboarding. Ratification means to approve. The Preamble (introduction) starts with “We the People.” This was important because now the governed (the people) were giving permission to the government. The people were the new bosses of the government. If a Representative or President wasn’t doing a good job they could be voted out. It was agreed that 2/3 of the states needed to ratify the Constitution to make it the new law of the new country. This means 9 of the 13 states needed to vote yes. But guess what? Yep, another problem. There was no mention of what basic rights the people would have. It was promised that if the states ratified the Constitution the first job of the new Congress would be to amend (add to) the Constitution to include a list of basic rights. These first ten amendments are known as the “Bill of Rights.”


After this was agreed the Constitution was sent to the states to be ratified. People who supported the Constitution were called Federalists. Those people against the Constitution were called Anti-Federalists. Three Federalists, James Madison was one of them wrote a bunch of newspaper articles explaining why the Constitution needed to be ratified. Those articles are now known as the Federalist papers. Apparently they were written very well. In 1788 the ninth state ratified the Constitution and it officially became the new national law.


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