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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: American Democracy Takes Shape

As called for at the end of the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress gathered in the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House on May 10, 1775. The purpose of this meeting was to further discuss the colonies' deteriorating relationship with Great Britain. The delegates quickly named John Hancock from Massachusetts as president of the Congress and George Washington as commanding general of the Continental Army. In April, colonial militia already had begun fighting British soldiers at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. In August, the delegates sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George III in which they claimed that the King's ministers in the colonies were corrupt and had forced the colonists to fight. The colonists urged the King to put an end to the fighting and return to peace. Rather than agree with the colonists, King George instead declared that the colonies were in rebellion.

Despite the King's refusal of the Olive Branch Petition and increased fighting between colonists and British soldiers, by the following spring colonists still did not agree on whether they should separate from Great Britain. Many still considered themselves loyal British subjects who were trying to show the government that they deserved the same rights as any man living in Great Britain. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia put forth a resolution urging the Congress to declare independence once and for all. When the delegates still could not agree, they postponed further discussion of the resolution for a few weeks.

In the meantime, Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration stating why the American colonies were entitled to form an independent nation. The committee consisted of five delegates: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the document included three parts: reasons why America should sever ties with Great Britain, a list of wrongdoings the King had committed against America, and the statement that America was hereafter an independent nation. Jefferson's eloquent words turned the colonies' complaints over issues such as taxes and trade restrictions into a struggle for universal human rights. Jefferson's draft included a harsh condemnation of the slave trade and of the King for supporting it, but the final version omitted that language. On July 2, 12 colonies voted to adopt Lee's resolution for independence (New York did not vote until weeks later). On July 4, the delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence knowing that it was an act of treason punishable by death.

After making the decision to formally separate from Great Britain, the Second Continental Congress continued to meet in the State House, but now focused on fighting the war and building a new nation. Congress spent a lot of time trying to find ways to pay for the new Continental Army, which was in desperate need of basic supplies, uniforms, and even shoes. Ambassadors went to France, Spain, Holland, and other nations seeking help. At home, Congress worked on creating a formal agreement among the colonies that would bind them together into one nation. Delegates adopted the resulting Articles of Confederation at the State House in 1777, although it was not ratified by all 13 states until 1781. They carefully crafted the Articles to make sure that a central government did not have too much power. After the experiences with Great Britain, those shaping the new nation wanted to establish a government that was powerful enough to accomplish tasks, but did not take away the liberties of the individual colonies. The first article gave the colonies their new collective name: the United States of America.

Although fighting essentially ceased in late October 1781, the Revolutionary War did not officially end until April 15, 1783, when Congress ratified the peace treaty. Great Britain had at last agreed to withdraw British troops and recognize America as an independent nation. Soon after, Congress left Philadelphia and convened first in New Jersey and then New York. Although the Articles of Confederation had served its purpose of binding the states together, its many weaknesses soon became apparent. Congress had so little authority that the decisions they made could be easily ignored by individuals and the states. The Articles essentially treated each state as an individual nation, so the new central government had no power to collect taxes, control trade, or oversee the general affairs of the country. Once it became clear that a stronger national government with power to act on behalf of all the states was necessary, congressional delegates called for a special meeting or convention to discuss ways to revise the Articles.

In May 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island declined to participate) met at the Pennsylvania State House to revise the Articles of Confederation. Many of the delegates to what became known as the Constitutional Convention were lawyers and doctors, some were merchants, and a few were farmers. The group included many of the most talented and well respected men in America. Twenty-nine of the delegates had college degrees at a time when few Americans were well-educated. Three-fourths of the men had served in the Continental Congress. As the first order of business, the delegates selected George Washington as president of the convention. They established that each state would have one vote and a majority would rule. All discussions and actions were to be kept secret until finalized, so doors and windows were closed tight despite the stifling summer heat. For the next four months, delegates argued long and hard over how to reshape the government.

Edmund Randolph of Virginia presented a plan that called for the national government to have three parts, or branches: an executive branch with a president to lead the government; a legislative branch with a Congress to make laws; and a judicial branch with a court system to enforce laws. After serious debate, the delegates decided to use this Virginia Plan as the foundation for creating a new government rather than merely revising the Articles of Confederation. There remained, however, many details to iron out.

One particularly contentious issue centered on how many congressional representatives each state would be allowed. Should Rhode Island, the smallest state with the least population, have the same voting power as a large, more populated state like Virginia? In mid-July, delegates agreed to a solution presented by Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Under the Great Compromise, the legislative branch would include two houses: the Senate would consist of two members per state, and the House of Representatives would elect members based on each state's population. More conflict arose, however, when southern states wanted to include slaves in their population totals. Northern states argued that if slaves were considered legal property, they should be counted for taxation purposes, but not representation. Under the resulting Three-fifths Compromise, delegates determined that every slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person for both representation in the House of Representatives and for taxation.

Tensions continued to run high between large and small states and northern and southern ones. The slave trade sparked heated debate. Although several states had abolished the slave trade and slavery, southern states maintained that slavery was integral to their economic survival. In the end, delegates agreed that Congress could not make any laws regarding the importation of slaves until 1808. This compromise also stipulated that runaway slaves would have to be returned to their owners. While the compromises regarding slavery allowed delegates to move forward with drafting the Constitution, they would lead to serious consequences for future generations.

The delegates then set to work defining the powers of the three branches of government and establishing checks and balances to make sure no branch could ever have complete power over the other two. Presidential elections and terms soon proved to be another stumbling block. Delegates argued over whether the president should be elected directly by the people or by the legislature. After many proposals, they decided that electors, chosen from each state in a manner directed by the state legislatures, would vote by ballot for presidential candidates. The man with the most votes would become president for a term of four years, and the man with the second highest votes would be vice-president.

Finally, after months of intense arguments and numerous compromises, enough delegates agreed on a final draft on September 17, 1787. They had decided that at least nine of the 13 states would have to approve or ratify the Constitution in order for it to become valid. Each state held conventions and voted on whether or not to accept it. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it, and the Constitution became official. The nation at last had a framework that would allow individual states with different interests and needs to cooperate and function together as one united nation. George Washington wrote in a letter that the creation of the Constitution was "little short of a miracle."1 Once the Constitution was ratified, Congress arranged for the first national election and set March 4, 1789 as the date that the new government would officially begin.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What was the Olive Branch Petition? Why do you think it received its name? What was the result?

2. What are the three parts of the Declaration of Independence?

3. What are the Articles of Confederation? What were some of its weaknesses?

4. Why did delegates originally convene in Philadelphia in May 1787? What was the result of the Constitutional Convention?

5. How did the delegates deal with the issue of slavery? What were some of the other issues that caused heated debates among the delegates? How were the delegates able to move past these issues? What might have happened if they had not been willing to compromise?

Reading 1 was compiled from David and Patricia Armentrout, The Constitution (Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke Publishing LLC, 2005); Joy Hakim, From Colonies to Country: 1710-1791 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Edward M. Riley, The Story of Independence Hall (Gettysburg, Penn: Thomas Publications, rep. 1990); Jay Schleifer, Our Declaration of Independence (Brookfield, Conn.: The Millbrook Press, 1992); and Sandra Steen and Susan Steen, Independence Hall (New York: Dillon Press, 1994).

1Joy Hakim, From Colonies to Country: 1710-1791 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 184.

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