There are two constitutions under which the US has operated namely The Articles of Confederation and the 1787 Constitution. The two constitutions do share a number of similarities, the most prominent one being that they were drafted by the same people. However, there are a lot of differences between the two, and the drafting of the new constitution that is still in use today was as a result of the many weaknesses of the Articles (Keene, Cornell and O’Donnell, 2011). The Articles were written to serve as the guiding framework for the functioning of the national government. The Continental Congress was responsible for its drafting, and in 1777, it was sent to the 13 original states that made up the US for the purpose of ratification. But it was not until March 1, 1781, that Congress ratified the Articles. However, the Founding Fathers of the nation had some concerns about the Articles. The Articles received a considerable amount of criticism just a few years after its ratification. The key concern was that the Articles gave the states more power compared to the national government (Keene et al., 2011). Such and many more concerns led to delegates from the 13 original states converging in Philadelphia in May 1787. Here, they resolved to come up with an entirely new constitution which was promulgated on 21st June 1788. The Articles of Confederation and the New Constitutions share very few similarities, but the differences are many, ranging from separation of powers to the treatment of the state and federal governments.
The New Constitution, unlike the Articles, placed more emphasis on the creation of a strong central government. Under the Articles, individual states had been awarded sovereign power, but this changed with the New Constitution where power became vested in the people making up the entire nation (Keene et al., 2011). Another important change that came with the new constitution is the division of exercise of sovereignty between the state governments and the central government. This was absent in the Articles. The Articles did not also acknowledge an independent executive, but this changed with the new constitution which established an independent executive and also awarded the powers of choosing the executives to the Electoral College (Keene et al., 2011). Under the Articles of Confederation, the job of enforcing all the laws was left to the state courts. This implies that there were no Federal Courts, something that was later on introduced by the new constitution. The new Constitution gave the federal courts the responsibility of resolving interstate disputes.
Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had limited taxing power. The first constitution also saw Congress being limited to one body, with each state being awarded one vote in the Senate. All these changed with the new Constitution which saw Congress gain a significant say in the collection and laying of taxes, imposts, excises as well as duties. Through the new Constitution, the bicameral system was introduced. Here, the Congress was split into two houses namely the House of Representatives and the Senate. The size of the population would determine the number of representatives in Congress under the new Constitution, with each state being allowed to have two representatives in the Senate. The Articles and the new Constitution also differed in the way they treated defence issues and foreign affairs. Under the Articles, each state was responsible for its own foreign affairs and defence. This implies that individual states could sign agreements and treaties with other states and other countries. This changed with the new Constitution in which the central government was given the responsibility of running the country’s defence and managing foreign affairs. As a result, the sovereign power that states yielded was significantly reduced.
The First Constitution of the US also had its fair share of strengths and weaknesses. Its greatest strength lay in its ability to bring the country together and facilitate government operations following the Revolutionary War. Through the Articles, the country also managed to sign the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778. The first constitution is also hailed as having placed the people of America in a position where they could strongly oppose the British and attain independence. The Articles formed the basis of various dockets that are still in existence up to today and which have facilitated good governance over the years. These dockets include the department of defence, the treasury and foreign affairs (Belton, 2014).
Even with the remarkable strengths, the Articles had numerous weaknesses which formed the basis for coming up with a new constitution. One of its weaknesses is that it did not award Congress any say in matters related to coining of money. As a result, 0currencies differed from one state to another. The articles also placed limits on Congress as far as matters taxation were concerned. They also did not establish an executive branch and a federal court system, something that made it quite difficult for laws to be enforced and the rights of people to be protected. Some of these weaknesses came to light with the Shays Rebellion. This rebellion involved farmers who were concerned about over-taxation and were calling for reforms that would enable them to meet their tax obligations without having to lose their land (Belton, 2014). As more of these weaknesses became apparent, more people started advocating for a new Constitution. However, the road to achieving the new constitution was not smooth and required many parties to make compromises.
Under the Articles, every other state had a single vote in Congress. The drafting of the new Constitution meant that some states had to compromise as far as representation in Congress was concerned. Taking the example of Virginia, its representation in Congress was based on the population of its citizens. However, states such as New Jersey wanted to have the same level of representation as Virginia. To solution to this was the Great Compromise in which it was agreed that Congress be split into an Upper House and a Lower House. Members of the lower house would be drawn based on the population they represent while members of the upper house would be drawn based on the equal representation. The issue of slaves also came into question, with Northern states showing concern that the huge slave population in the Southern states would give the said states an upper hand when it came to representation. The states came to an agreement that every five slaves would be taken as three individuals (Beeman, 2010).
Another compromise that arose between the Northern states and the Southern states was the commerce comprise. The North had largely embraced industrialization while the South had embraced agriculture during the time of the convention. Most finished goods in the South were sourced from Britain. However, the Northern states called for placement of tariffs on imported goods and raw materials being exported. The Southern states opined that such tariffs would be bad for their economies, and this led to a convention where import tariffs were allowed (Beeman, 2010). The North and South states had to also reach a compromise with regard to the slave trade. While the Southern states saw no reason of stopping the slave trade, Northern states opined that it had to stop. States in the North had to compromise, remaining patient up to 1808 when the trade was abolished.
Under the Articles, the Electoral College was solely responsible for the election of the President. This led to disagreements among Americans, leading to negotiations in which some delegates proposed that a president should be elected through a popular vote by individual citizens. However, some factions were against this idea, pointing out that the electorate may fail to make the right choice as a result of being under-informed. The two factions arrived at an agreement in which the people will vote for representatives to the Electoral College, and these representatives would then vote to choose the president.
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Factions opposed to each other continued to emerge even after the drafting of the new Constitution. The most prominent ones were the anti-Federalists and the Federalists. The anti-Federalists were opposed to the new constitution and argued that it limited the powers of local and state governments, and instead favoured the central government. They opined that the central government was too far away from the people to be able to address pertinent problems the people face (Maier, 2010). The anti-federalists also paid particular attention to the bill of rights, calling for the protection of basic rights such as freedom of speech (Ball, 2005). On the other hand, the federalists strongly believed that the new constitution was necessary if the US as a country was to remain stable. They were quick to point out the failures of the Articles, stating that a new constitution was a necessity. The Federalists also argued that there were adequate checks and balances to ensure that the federal government, with its increased power, will work more effectively (Maier, 2010).
In conclusion, the two Constitutions in the history of the US namely the Articles and the new Constitution are similar in certain ways but greatly differ in how they address many issues. The main similarity is that it is the same people who drafted both the two constitutions. The need to come up with a new constitution was informed by the weaknesses of the Articles such as failure to award Congress any say in matters related to coining of money as well as failure to establish an executive branch and a federal court system. Under the Articles, the system of governance was unicameral, while the new constitution brought about the bicameral system. While the articles lacked the executive, the new constitution established the executive. The drafting and ratifying of the new constitution was not a smooth process, and several compromises had to be arrived at.
- Ball, L. (2005). The Federalist–Anti-Federalist debate over states’ rights: A primary source investigation. New York, NY: Rosen Central Primary Source.
- Beeman, R. R. (2010). Plain, honest men: The making of the American Constitution. New York: Random House.
- Belton, B. (2014). The Articles of Confederation. New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group
- Keene, J.D., Cornell, S.T., O’Donnell, E.T. (2011). Visions of America: A History of the United States. 2nd Ed. NY: Prentice Hall
- Maier, P. (2010). Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788. Simon and Schuster.