The Origins of the Constitution
Gordon S. Wood, Brown University
When did the story of the Constitution begin? Some might say it ABOUT THE began over 2500 years ago in the city-states of ancient Greece. AUTHOR Others might place its beginnings nearly three-quarters of a millennium back in the fields of Runnymede. Still others might say Gordon S. Wood, is professor of history at the Constitution had its origins three centuries or so ago during Brown University, and the the tumultuous years of the seventeenth-century English author of The Creation of revolutions. Or others, more patriotic perhaps, might date the the American Republic, beginnings of the Constitution from events in the Western 1776-1787 (University of Hemisphere, from the Mayflower Compact, the Massachusetts North Carolina Press, Charter of 1629, or from any number of charters and 1969). constitutional documents that the colonists resorted to during the first century and a half of American history. More likely, the story of the Constitution might begin with the imperial crisis and debate of the 1760s. It is just possible that the forty year between 1763 and 1803 in America were the greatest era in constitutionalism in modem Western history. Not only did Americans establish the modem conception of a constitution as a written document defining and delimiting the powers of government, but they also made a number of other significant constitutional contributions to the world, including the device of a convention for creating and amending constitutions, the process of popular ratification of constitutions, and the practice of judicial review by which judges measure ordinary legislation against the fundamental law of the constitution. During these brief forty years of great constitutional achievements between 1763 and 1803 the story of the Constitution of 1787 is only a chapter. But it is a crucial and significant chapter. It is hard for us today to appreciate what an extraordinary, unforeseen achievement the Constitution of 1787 was. We take a strong national government so much for granted that we can scarcely understand why the American Revolutionaries of 1776 did not create the Constitution at once. But in 1776 virtually no American contemplated something like the Constitution of 1787. No one in 1776 even imagined for Americans a powerful continentalwide national government operating directly on individuals. The colonists in the British empire had experienced enough abuses from far-removed governmental power to make them leery of creating another distant government. And besides, the best minds of the eighteenth century, including Montesquieu, said that a large continental-sized republic was a theoretical impossibility. In 1776 it was obvious to all Americans that their central government would have to be a confederation of some sort, some sort of league or alliance of the thirteen independent states. The Articles of Confederation created such a central government.
Confederation The Articles of Confederation were our first national constitution. Proposed by the Continental Congress in 1777, they were not ratified by all the states until 1781. Although we today pay very little attention to the Articles and can hardly take them seriously, at the time they were a remarkable achievement. The Articles created a much stronger federal government than many Americans expected; it was in fact as strong as any similar republican confederation in history. Not only were substantial powers concerning diplomacy, the requisitioning of soldiers, and the borrowing of money granted to the Confederation Congress, but the Articles specifically forbade the separate states to conduct foreign affairs, make treaties, and declare war. All travel restrictions and discriminatory trade barriers between the states were eliminated, and the citizens of each state were entitled to the "privileges and immunities" of the citizens of all states. When we compare these achievements with what the...
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