HIST 2111 17 –  Early American Republic – Constitution
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HIST 2111 17 – Early American Republic – Constitution

October 19, 2019


Welcome back to the series of lectures on
History 2111. This is lecture 17, and the next few lectures are going to have the same
general historical context. Let’s call it the early republic, the early American republic. The last time we met, we talked about the
Revolutionary War, and I want to just recapitulate a couple of things here about the War itself.
We didn’t spend much time talking about the fighting, and I’m not going to, but
I did talk about some decisive campaigns. And I want you to remember the Delaware Campaign,
Christmas of 1776, when Washington crosses the Delaware and launches a surprise attack
against mercenaries, Hessians, hired by the British. This is important because it restores
morale to the Army and to the Congress and to the American people. The other campaign I talked about last time
was the Yorktown Campaign. Here, of course, the American and French troops surround General
Cornwallis at Yorktown and the key, of course, is the presence of the French Navy on the
York River, and here the British garrison is surrounded and they will surrender. This,
of course, is the last major campaign of the War. But I neglected to mention Saratoga. The Saratoga
Campaign takes place on the Hudson River in upstate New York. Here, the British are trying
to implement part of their grand strategy, which is to capture the Hudson and isolate
New England from the rest of the colonies. It is after all New England where the trouble
is; Boston being the center of things. And at Saratoga, the British is defeated. This
is decisive because it foils the British strategy to separate New England. The American Army
captures a lot of British artillery, which they can then use against the enemy. And most
importantly, it convinces the French to come in on the American side, providing the American
Army not only with extra troops but supplies; money; and most importantly, a Navy. Now with the War won, the final treaty is
signed in 1783, we need to talk about the first government, or forming a government
in this early republic. The first American government is called the Articles of Confederation.
For a variety of reasons, which we’ll see, this first government will be replaced by
the government that we have today, the United States Constitution. The Articles of Confederation, let me briefly
characterize them. They’re generally viewed as a very weak government, which is not surprising.
The strain of republicanism in the founding fathers is very strong, this notion of spreading
power very thinly. You need to remember we just fought a War against King George the
Third, who was regarded as a tyrant; a man that has way too much power in his hands.
So the Americans are seeking to form a government in opposition to that of the British government,
and the Articles of Confederation conform to these ideas. The Articles have a number of weaknesses though.
The primary weakness is the inability to raise taxes. In the Articles, the central government
has to request revenue from the states, hoping to receive it. But a government without taxing
authority doesn’t have any bite to it, and this government will be rapidly demonstrated
to be too weak, too decentralized. The other problems that emerge that are going to cause
the founders to scrap the articles and to create the Constitution include continued
British settlements in North America; British fortifications in the Great Lakes area, and
in other places on the Western frontier; continued trouble with the Indian tribes especially
in the Northwest; and the inability to properly adjudicate the conflict, especially commercial
conflicts between the various states. Finally, the proverbial straw – I guess
– that broke the camel’s back would be Shays’ Rebellion. This small uprising in
Western Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays is really a group of farmers who are fearing
that they’re going to lose their farms. They don’t have access to credit and their
mortgages are being threated and they begin to organize and march on local courthouses,
causing quite a stir. This rebellion, although it’s put down quite quickly – It demonstrates
to the founders that perhaps the government that they have, the Articles, are not sufficient,
are not strong enough to manage the affairs of this young republic. So we see now movement towards a constitutional
convention. Alexander Hamilton is one of the key figures here, so is James Madison from
Virginia. They begin to organize a convention in Annapolis, Maryland – there on the Chesapeake.
George Washington is asked to preside over this convention. Again, Washington, the indispensable
man, the one man that everybody can trust – North and South – a figure of authority
and impartiality. So Washington presides over this rather remarkable gathering of American
intellectuals; lawyers; land owners; merchants; who are trying to hammer out a new type of
government. The question, of course, is – Where is the
power going to lie? Is it going to lie in a strong central government? Is the power
going to be distributed among the states? How is representation going to be devised
for the various states? How many congressmen? How many senators? The general idea here was to base representation
on state population. So states like New York and Massachusetts, who having large populations,
would have more representations than states like Georgia, for instance. To balance this,
each state was going to be awarded 2 senators. The senators would serve longer terms, 6-year
terms; for congressmen, these representatives would only serve 2-year terms. So representatives,
or congressmen, are closest to the people, having to answer to them every 2 years. Senators
only have to answer to the people every 6 years. So in theory, the senate can take the
longer view on questions of public policy, and not have to respond to the passions of
the mob the way the congressmen have to. So the senate is put in place to sort of check
the excesses of the mob and of the congress. Now there are a lot of ideas being thrown
around here, and we can thank James Madison for taking detailed notes on the consultations
that take place, or the deliberations, to create this new government. So when you want
to go back and look at exactly how this Constitution came about, we do have detailed records to
demonstrate it. Now another question is how to distribute
this power. It’s decided that if we needed a stronger central government than is afforded
by the Articles, where is the power going to lie? A system of checks and balances is
created whereby a legislature creates laws; an executive or president enforces the laws;
and a judiciary, a court, will interpret the laws and determine whether they are Constitutional
or not. Now no one knows how this is going to work. I think one of the reasons that we
have to give Washington a good deal of credit, as the first President of the United States,
is that he acted in such a way, in such a prudent manner, and in such a way as to allow
these institutions to sort of grow organically in the new republic. Some of the early ideas
on the Constitution were quite radical. I believe the Pennsylvania Constitution had
no executive and no judiciary, simply a legislature, a sort of mob rule. And I want you to remember, too, and we hear
this quite often today, people arguing about what the United States is, a republic or a
democracy. And of course, the founders would have been frightened of a democracy. Indeed
this is why they moved from the Articles to the Constitution, was to create a more powerful
centralized government. The founders regarded democracy – and you can break the word down
into its Latin prefix and suffix, rule by the people – they would have regarded this
as abhorrent; this is not something that they would have promoted. They believed that men
of some standing, whether it’s political standing or standing within the community,
matters of wealth and property, learning – that these men should control the fate of the country
and that we can’t leave it in the hands of the people, quote/unquote, to have that
kind of power. Indeed you’ll recall, even today, a popular vote does not elect the President.
The President is elected by an electoral college. Of course, originally senators were not chosen
on the direct ballot; they were chose by legislatures or by state governors. So this government
that’s created with these checks and balances and separation of powers, this is a republican-style
government, where power is spread very thinly and it’s designed to keep any one branch
of the government from abusing your liberties or taking them from you. So let me see if I can sum this up a bit for
you. The new Constitution is essentially a compromise
on representation, on where the power lies. The new Constitution is promoted by a series
of newspaper articles. These, of course, are the Federalist Papers. They’re written by
James Madison, John Jay, and primarily by Alexander Hamilton. This is really high-level
propaganda produced by these men, and then disseminated throughout the early republic
to encourage the state legislators to confirm the new Constitution, and indeed this is a
successful effort. I’m just going to mention one of these Federalist
Papers, one of the most famous of them – James Madison, Federalist number 10. One objection
to this growing republic in the United States was if it grew to too great a size, the government
would not be able to comprehend it, would not be able to create order. And Madison argued
differently; he said that the bigger the republic the more factions and more interests you would
have. You’d have agricultural interests; moneyed interests; you’d have industrial
interests; and so on and so forth. And he said the larger the republic the more interests
would compete for power and that this competition among these varying interests would prevent
any one of them from becoming dominant. So the sheer size of the republic, which in history
had been depicted as quite small – city states – whether in renaissance Italy or
ancient Greece. So the size, the increasing size, of the American republic was not to
be seen as a danger by Madison and this is a terribly influential idea. I want to end this lecture by mentioning that
the founders did not envision the creation of political parties. Indeed they believed
competing political parties to be dangerous to the republic, that political parties would
have narrow interests to pursue, instead of national interests, looking after the welfare
of the entire republic. So it’s important to realize that these founders did not anticipate
the emergence of political parties. They DID anticipate the emergence of powerful interests
within the republic, but again, the competition among these interests would tend to neutralize
any sort of attempt by any of them to become dominant. So in our next lecture, we’ll talk about
the emergence of political parties. Thank you.

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  1. Can a person reserve there rights threw and under the republic of America while speaking to a judge to assert there common law rights?

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