A User’s Guide to the US Constitution
What’s that you say? You didn’t know there was a user’s guide to the Constitution?
Well, obviously SOMEBODY wasn’t paying attention in Civics class. Either that, or you’re one of the unfortunate millions who never had the opportunity to study civics – but that’s a different post for a different day.
Let’s begin with a little history. Our Constitution didn’t just materialize out of thin air. Neither did it arrive at the National Archives in the same manner that Moses received the Ten Commandments. (I’m only half being tongue-in-cheek about that; one of my younger acquaintances honestly thought that God himself gave the Constitution to George Washington in a burning ring of fire. And we wonder why the country is heading off the rails?) In fact, our current Constitution wasn’t even the first one The United States used. That honor belongs to the Articles of Confederation. It’s in there that some of the quirkier aspects of our national government can be found: the idea of state representation, as opposed to popular representation for instance. It went into effect in 1781 and was quickly realized that it made the federal government too weak to be effective. The principle reason we scrapped it is as old as the fight for American Independence: taxes.
The USA incurred serious debts while fighting off the British Empire, primarily owed to the French. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the US officially became an independent nation, the French – who were near broke themselves (this was the time of “Let them eat cake”, after all) – came looking for their money. The French King was quite accommodating: the new United States could pay up in gold and silver, or could hand over land from the former British Colonies. Not willing to give up the territory we had just fought over for the past 8 years, the Continental Congress passed excise duties in order to pay the debt. Great idea, except under the Articles of Confederation, any state could opt out – and 11 of them did. Just to compound matters, most of the states had individual liabilities resulting from the war, mostly due to the French crown as well. So, they passed taxes and tariffs on each other to pay off those debts. By 1787, the entire country was readying for civil war as each state asserted its rights under the Articles and a hapless Congress could only look on in despair.
Enter the Constitutional Convention. In February of 1787, rather than go to war with one another (thankfully), the states agreed to a redo on how the federal government should operate. Originally, 70 people were selected to attend. Only 55 actually did and of those, only 39 signed on to the new Constitution. It was understandable: most had shown up expecting a sort of massive peace negotiation, not a negotiation about scrapping the current government and replacing it with something entirely different. Rhode Island was so upset by the idea that they recalled all of their representatives. The new Constitution, even after weeks of negotiating, was hardly a hit: as mentioned, 16 representatives refused to sign, including some fairly big names of the day. Imagine if we decided to reboot under a new Constitution today and the current Speaker and Vice-President refused to lend their support to the document. That was the same effect that George Wythe (Virginia) and John Lansing (NY) not signing had in 1787. And that was just the beginning of the trouble getting the Constitution ratified: popular support was anything but forthcoming. Just like today, a document that is amazingly short proved to be incredibly difficult for the populace to comprehend.
That’s where our user guide comes in play. The two principle architects of the Constitution, James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York engaged in a series of letters that sought to explain how the Constitution affected everyone: from vagabond to Senator; scullery maid to Governor. Today, we know these letters as the Federalist Papers. These 85 letters, most commonly published as essays on what equates to our modern op-ed pages of the popular newspapers of the time, provided the Founding Father’s actual vision for how the Federal government is supposed to act.
It is the quintessential user’s guide. Like any good instruction manual, it lays out – in detail – how each branch of government should interact, not only with one another but also with the states and the general population. So next time you have a question about why something is set up the way it is, hit that link and review the reasons before going off half-cocked.