The Constitution Chapter Summary

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Chapter 2

The Constitution

Chapter Summary

The story of the creation of the Constitution is told in each generation and is the key to understanding American Government and Politics.

The Colonial Background

The first British settlement in North American was Roanoke Island, which mysteriously disappeared. Recent research has indicated that a severe drought must have wiped out the colony. Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1607 and 1620, respectively, were the first successful settlements. Additional settlements followed in Massachusetts and Connecticut. See the Milestones in Early U.S. Political History.

British Restrictions and Colonial Grievances

The British government decided to tax the colonists to pay for the enormous expenses associated with the French and Indian War. The Sugar Act in 1764 and Stamp Act in 1765 led to the Boston Tea Party, which caused the British Parliament to pass The Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts in 1774.

The Colonial Response: The Continental Congresses

The colonists responded to the British by the First Continental Congress held in 1774, which issued a petition of grievances and attempted to create committees to bring the colonists together. The Second Continental Congress met in 1775 as fighting began between the colonists and the British. The Second Congress established an army, with George Washington as commander in chief.

Declaring Independence

In early 1776, the Second Continental Congress approved the Resolution of Independence to establish legitimacy and to seek foreign military aid. The Second Congress assigned Thomas Jefferson the task of writing a formal declaration of independence. This Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776, and contained three major principles, based on the ideas of English political philosopher John Locke. These concepts were natural rights, consent of the governed, and the right to change the government.

The Articles of Confederation: Our First Form of Government

In 1781, the Articles of Confederation, a voluntary association of independent states, was created. See Figure 2-1 and Table 2-1 for information on the structure and powers of this form of government. The lack of taxing authority made the Articles too weak to survive. Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 spurred political leaders to take action to change the Articles.

Drafting the Constitution

The Annapolis Convention was called in 1786 to discuss the weaknesses of the national government. At this meeting, a call was sent out for all of the states to attend a general convention in Philadelphia, to be held in May of 1787. Fifty-five delegates from every state except Rhode Island attended the Philadelphia convention. The delegates were mostly nationalists, but included monarchists, democratic nationalists, non-democratic nationalists, and some strong state government advocates.

Two significantly different visions of government were presented at the convention. The Virginia Plan proposed an entirely new national government favoring big states. The New Jersey Plan resembled an altered form of the Articles of Confederation, with all states having an equal role in governing the nation. The “Great Compromise” offered by the Connecticut delegation broke the deadlock between these two factions. This compromise called for a bicameral legislature and a new form of national government. Slavery and other issues between the agrarian South and the mercantile North were resolved by additional compromises, including the Three-Fifths Compromise. The final agreement included the separation of powers, sometimes known as the Madisonian model, a system of checks and balances and an electoral college to select the president. See Figure 2-2 for a description of how the system of checks and balances works.

The Final Document

Thirty-nine delegates approved the Constitution on September 17, 1787. The document established five fundamental principles: 1. popular sovereignty, 2. a republican form of government, 3. limited government, 4. separation of powers, and 5. a federal system.

The Difficult Road to Ratification

The opposing forces in the battle for ratification were the Federalists, who favored ratification, and the Anti-Federalists, who were opposed to ratifying the Constitution as it was drafted. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalists Papers, which explained and urged support for the Constitution and were influential in the success of the ratification effort.

In 1788, the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified the Constitution, which provided the necessary final vote to formally ratify the Constitution. However, the battle was hardly finished, since New York and Virginia still had to approve. See Table 2-2 for the ratification vote in each of the states. Charles Beard put forth a theory that wealthy property owners were behind the Constitution and a majority of Americans did not actually support it.

The Bill of Rights

Some states conditioned their ratification of the Constitution on the Federalists promise to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, in order to protect individual liberties from this new central government. James Madison culled through state convention recommendations to produce what became the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.

Altering the Constitution: The Formal Amendment Process

The Framers of the Constitution wanted it to be possible to amend the Constitution but by no stretch of the imagination did they want it to be easy. Thus they created a two-step process. The first step is the proposal of an amendment. This can be done by either a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress or by a national convention called by Congress at the request of two-thirds of the states. The second step in amending the Constitution is ratification of the amendment. Ratification can be accomplished by either support of three-fourths of all state legislatures or by three-fourths of state conventions called to debate and consider the amendment. See Figure 2-3 for a depiction of this process. Congress has considered more than 11,000 amendments, of which 33 have been submitted for ratification. Only 27 have been ratified and become part of the Constitution. See Table 2-3 for a listing of the amendments.

Informal Methods of Constitutional Change

While there have been few formal amendments to the Constitution over the centuries, informal change has occurred on a more frequent basis. These informal changes have been brought about through a number of different avenues, including legislation enacted by Congress acting under the commerce clause. The Constitution has also been changed through the practices of the President of the United States, including the use of executive agreements to conduct foreign policy as an alternative to the constitutional treaty process. The Supreme Court claimed the power of judicial review in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) and has been making pronouncements on what the Constitution means in the centuries since. Finally, day-to-day governmental activities, interpretations, customs and traditions have influenced the meaning of the Constitution.

Key Terms


bicameral legislature

checks and balances


electoral college

executive agreement


Great Compromise

judicial review

Madisonian model

natural rights


representative assembly

separation of powers


supremacy doctrine

unicameral legislature

Other Resources

A number of valuable supplements are available to students using the Schmidt, Shelley, and Bardes text. The full list of the supplements is in the preface to this study guide. Ask your instructor how to obtain these resources. One supplement is highlighted here, the INFOTRAC Online Library.


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Frail Precedents

“Three-Judge Panels”

This article discusses the pro-First Amendment rights decisions by three-judge Court of Appeals judges, whose decisions are usually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Among the cases listed are topless dancers and performance artists claiming their nude bodies are freedom of speech.
Study Questions

  1. What is your understanding of First Amendment Rights?

  2. Do you believe artistic expression is protected by the First Amendment?

  3. Why do you think Court of Appeals decisions are often overturned by the Supreme Court?

Practice Exam

(Answers appear at the end of this chapter.)

Fill-in-the-Blank Supply the missing word(s) or term(s) to complete the sentence.

  1. The passage of the Coercive Acts by the British Parliament was in response to the __________________.

  2. The rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are referred to as __________________________.

  3. A voluntary association of independent states is referred to as a ___________________________________.

  4. The plan of government that introduced the idea of a bicameral legislature was the __________________.

  5. The agreement that resolved the differences between the large and small states over representation in the new government was the _______________________________________.

  6. Nowhere in the ______________________ are the words slavery or slaves used.

  7. ____________________ was the name given to those who favored the adoption of the new Constitution.

  8. The _________________________________ , arguing in favor of the new Constitution, are considered by many to be the best example of political theorizing ever produced in the United States.

  9. The ________________________ was one of the two “lost” amendments of the twelve Bill of Rights amendments that originally went to the states in 1789.

  10. President Wilson described the ____________________ as a “constitutional convention in continuous session.”

True/False Circle the appropriate letter to indicate if the statement is true or false.

T F 1. The Mayflower Compact embodied the idea of majority rule as a theory of government.

T F 2. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, popularized the idea of independence from Great Britain.

T F 3. According to the Declaration of Independence, these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.

T F 4. The most fundamental weakness of the Articles of Confederation was the inability of the Congress to raise money for the militia.

T F 5. A majority of delegates to the Constitutional Convention were in favor of a stronger central government.

T F 6. The Virginia plan called for each state to have equal representation in the new government.

T F 7. The Anti-Federalists believed that the central government should be strengthened over the states, because the states were apt to abuse personal liberties.

T F 8. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention represented a good cross-section of eighteenth-century American society.

T F 9. The only way to formally amend the Constitution is by a 4/5 vote of all of the state legislatures.

T F 10. An informal way to amend the Constitution is by judicial review.

Multiple Choice Circle the correct response.

  1. The “starving time in Virginia” refers to which colony?

a. Roanoke

b. Richmond

c. Jamestown

  1. Portsmouth

  2. Plymouth

  1. The last of the thirteen colonies to be established was

  1. Rhode Island.

  2. Connecticut.

  3. New Hampshire.

  4. New York.

  5. Georgia.

  1. The British government imposed taxes on the American colonies to pay for

  1. the war with Spain.

  2. the costs of westward expansion of colonies.

  3. the costs of the French and Indian War.

  4. the costs of exploring India.

  5. the costs of the “Tea War.”

4. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense,

  1. called for a cessation of hostilities against the British.

  2. pointed out in “common sense” terms why America should break with Britain.

  3. pointed out in “common sense” terms why America should not break with Britain.

  4. was a propaganda tool used by the British to gain popular consent for their governing of the colonies.

  5. apparently had very little effect on popular opinion about the revolution.

      1. One of the revolutionary ideas of John Locke was the idea that people have

  1. a right to a secure job.

  2. a right to welfare if they need it.

  3. natural rights.

  4. a right to checks and balances in government.

  5. a right to vote.

      1. Those who argued that states should not be dominated by strong central government were the

  1. Federalists.

  2. Democrats.

  3. Republicans.

  4. Monarchists.

  5. Royalists

      1. The government under the Articles of Confederation included a

a. president, but no Congress.

b. Congress and a president.

c. unicameral legislature.

  1. strong central government.

  2. Supreme Court.

      1. Under the Articles of Confederation,

a. each state had an equal role in the national government.

b. the national courts were the supreme authority.

c. the Congress imposed heavy taxes.

  1. the president ultimately controlled the government.

  2. a two-third majority was required on all laws.

9. An important accomplishment of the Articles of Confederation was

    1. the creation of a common currency.

    2. settling states’ claims to western lands.

    3. the creation of national tax collections.

    4. the creation of a strong national army.

    5. the Louisiana Purchase.

10. Under the Article of Confederation, the Congress had the power to

a. declare war and make peace.

b. draft soldiers into military service.

c. compel states to pay their share of national government costs.

  1. regulate interstate and foreign commerce.

  2. collect taxes directly from the people.

11. Shay’s rebellion demonstrated that the central government

a. had the capability to protect citizens from riots and civil unrest.

b. could not protect the citizenry from armed rebellion.

c. dared not confront state militias.

  1. could easily incite citizens to riot.

  2. could use the Supreme Court to resolve disputes.

12. The only state that refused to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention was

a. New Hampshire.

b. Rhode Island.

c. New York.

  1. Virginia.

  2. Georgia.

13. The proceedings in the Constitutional Convention were kept secret because

a. the delegates were doing something illegal.

b. the public would not understand the issues involved and would create confusion.

c. all meetings of this nature must be secret.

  1. if the proceeding were public, the delegates might have a more difficult time compromising on issues.

  2. the Monarchists were very strong in the convention.

14. The Great Compromise

a. resulted in the Bill of Rights being added to the Constitution.

b. broke the deadlock between the large and small states over the nature of representation in the new national government.

c. established the Electoral College as the vehicle for electing the president.

  1. allowed George Washington to be nominated and elected the first president.

  2. created the federal court system.

15. The Madisonian Model of a government scheme refers to

a. direct democracy.

b. judicial review.

c. a separation of powers.

  1. the supremacy of national laws over state laws.

  2. a plural executive.

16. The power of judicial review comes from

a. the Constitution.

b. the Bill of Rights.

c. the case of Marbury v. Madison.

  1. executive agreements.

  2. a vote of Congress.

17. Which of the following is a way of proposing an amendment to the Constitution?

a. a majority vote of citizens

b. a majority vote of Congress

c. a majority vote of state legislatures

  1. a two-thirds vote of Congress

  2. a three-fourths vote of state legislatures

18. The Federalists Papers were

a. largely written by Thomas Jefferson.

b. so brilliant that the Anti-Federalists could not respond.

c. not very significant as political theory.

  1. suppressed by the censors of the King.

  2. written by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.

19. The leading political figure responsible for drafting the Bill of Rights was

a. Jefferson.

b. Madison.

c. Washington.

  1. Franklin.

  2. Hamilton.

20. Which of the following was not mentioned in the Constitution?

a. the electoral college

b. the Supreme Court

c. national laws taking priority over conflicting state laws

  1. a national convention to propose constitutional amendments

  2. English as the national language of the United States

Short Essay Questions Briefly address the major concepts raised by the following questions.

  1. Identify the milestone political documents that moved the colonies from the Mayflower Compact to the Constitutional Convention.

  2. Trace the events and circumstances that led to the Revolutionary War.

  3. Summarize the events leading to the call for a Constitutional Convention.

  4. Explain the compromises over the organization of the government designed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

Answers to the Practice Exam


1. Boston Tea Party

2. natural rights

3. confederation

4. Virginia plan

5. Great Compromise

6. Constitution

7. Federalists

8. Federalists Papers

9. 27th Amendment

10. Supreme Court


1. T 3. F 5. T 7. F 9. F

2. T 4. T 6. F 8. F 10. T

Multiple Choice

1. c 6. c 11. b 16. c

2. e 7. c 12. b 17. d

3. c 8. a 13. d 18. e

4. b 9. b 14. b 19. b

5. c 10. a 15. c 20. e

Short Essay.

An adequate short answer consists of several paragraphs that relate to concepts addressed by the question. Always demonstrate your knowledge of the ideas by giving examples. The following represent major ideas that should be included in the short essay answer.

  1. Identify the milestone political documents that moved the colonies from the Mayflower Compact to the Constitutional Convention.

  • Refer to the time line on page 30 to give you a good overview of the question.

  • The Mayflower Compact of 1620 was a political agreement derived from the consent of the people.

  • The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, 1639, was the first written constitution.

  • The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, 1641, was the first constitution to include protection of individual rights.

  • The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, 1701, contained a constitution and bill of rights and offered a precedent and rationale for our national Constitution.

  • The Declaration of Independence, 1776, advocated independence from Great Britain.

  • The Articles of Confederation, 1781, described the first attempt at an independent national government based on a confederation.

  1. Trace the events and circumstances that led to the Revolutionary War.

  • Address this question in chronological/historical order.

  • Explain the reasons for British restrictions represented by the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Coercive Act.

  • Describe the colonial response as seen in the First and Second Continental Congresses and Paine’s Common Sense.

  • Describe the Resolution of Independence and Declaration of Independence.

3. Explain the compromises that evolved at the Constitutional Convention that pertained to the organization of the government.

  • Discuss the various proposed structures for the new government as seen in the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan

  • Describe the Great Compromise.

  • Discuss the distribution of governmental power as represented by Madison’s theories of a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.

    4. Discuss both the formal and informal process of amending the Constitution.

  • The formal process is based on two steps, proposing and ratifying amendments. See Figure 2-3.

  • The informal process can be demonstrated in many ways:

    • congressional legislation.

    • presidential actions.

    • judicial review.

    • interpretation, custom, and usage.

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