Today in history, on March 4th, 1789, the general government under the United States Constitution went into effect. The occasion represented the end of a bitter ratification struggle that involved every corner of the fledgling states, and the beginning of a new constitutional order.
In lieu of the Confederation system, Congress now consisted of two houses, one of which was apportioned by state population, with the other comprised of two delegates from each state.
For the first time, a federal judiciary was instituted to adjudicate several types of cases, all of which were strictly defined.
In addition, the new Constitution established an executive department headed by a president of the United States, armed with the ability to enforce the law, establish foreign relations, and execute wars once declared.
Although ratification was an uphill battle, various conditions created an environment allowing a new constitutional order to come to fruition.
Throughout the 1780s, domestic troubles consumed the republican system under the Articles of Confederation. First, the lack of a true taxing power caused acute financial instability. The requisition system, which Congress utilized instead, quickly became untenable as states underpaid their requested sums, or failed to pay at all.
In addition, the lack of any law enforcement apparatus meant the states had to carry out Congressional resolutions – an inconsistent prospect at best. Congress – the general agent of the states under the Articles – was largely impotent to carry out policy, even though such policies were formulated and aligned upon by the delegates of the states comprising it.
Some believed the young states would be unable to effectively deal with insurrections that threatened their republican governments, and for many, the outbreak of Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 solidified such a position.
Lastly, the inability to amend the framework of the Articles, short of rallying all 13 states to agreement, was a cumbersome barrier that prevented substantive reforms and constitutional improvements. By 1787, even those could never be considered nationalists began to identify and articulate defects in the Articles.
Nonetheless, not everyone was ready for radical political centralization. Several previous attempts at political reform, including Alexander Hamilton’s Annapolis Convention of 1786, had failed to enact tangible alterations of the framework. The next year, however, 12 states agreed to send delegates to Philadelphia in May to discuss amendments to the Articles.
That summer, several government models were proposed at Independence Hall. The New Jersey Plan, primarily the masterwork of William Paterson, emulated many aspects of the current system with slight alterations, such as an executive branch where power would be split between multiple individuals.
Hamilton – ever the arch-nationalist – proposed a quasi-monarchial system where the executive would be an elected monarch that served for life, where the states would be consolidated into a singular political entity, giving an absolute veto power for the executive over any law, and where state governors would be appointed by the central government.
The most famous of all plans proposed was the Virginia Plan, concocted in earnest by James Madison and Edmund Randolph. Their scheme called for a bicameral legislature with two houses based on state population, a general legislative authority rather than power to legislative on specific objects only, an executive to be appointed by the national legislature, a judiciary with the power to take up any case of perceived importance, and Madison’s most prized recommendation – a federal veto over state laws.
However, the Philadelphia Convention disposed of almost every nationalist element of the Virginia Plan. Instead of two houses based on state population apportionment, the upper house would be equally appointed by each state and have more power over appointments and treaties.
Rather than general legislative authority, much like that which existed in Great Britain, the Philadelphia Convention arrived upon the enumerated powers doctrine – where all powers not expressly listed in the document would be retained by the states.
Instead of a powerful central judiciary, the resultant framework provided for a less powerful judicial system where courts only had authority to rule on certain specified cases, and where Congress could even eliminate all inferior courts. Madison’s cherished veto power was deliberately voted down, much to his chagrin.
By the end of the convention, Hamilton confessed that “no man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his,” signing the document with reluctance. Madison adopted a similar temperament, admitting to Thomas Jefferson that the new constitutional plan would likely be too weak to survive the doldrums befalling the newly independent republic, its superiority to the old system notwithstanding.
Despite their tepid outlooks, both men devoted themselves to the campaign for ratification nonetheless.
At the state ratification conventions, those that advocated for the new constitutional framework guaranteed that the document was one of enumerated powers, where the omission of an explicit power to do something meant doing it would be a legally impermissible usurpation. This principle was unambiguously reiterated through the ratification of the Tenth Amendment in 1791.
While most narratives articulate that the Constitution represented a marked shift to political centralization, in reality, the decentralized orientation of the union – where states held most political power – was wholly retained.
Although some new powers were added, such as the ability to levy taxes, suppression insurrections and rebellions, and the power regulate trade between states and foreign nations, other powers were curtailed or taken away.
For instance, the printing of paper bills of credit – inflationary currencies embraced both by the states and Congress in the 1770s and 1780s – was strictly prohibited under the new system, but existed under the Articles.
Above all else, the federal orientation of the union – and its underlying emphasis on federalism – should remain the most defining element of the existing constitutional order.
This maxim is reflected in the ratification mechanism found in Article VII – where the consent of nine states, as the creators of the new system, was necessary to bring life to the creation, the Constitution and the general government by extension. Despite the erosion of this maxim, the states retain their primacy in the annals of historical truth.
While the federal government has assumed much additional authority and embarked upon many constitutional transgressions since this day in 1789, the Constitution intended to produce a “more perfect union” of states rather than christen a central, homogenized American nation.
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