Lecture 6: The Constitution


After reviewing the situation of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, this lecture goes on to relate the movement for a Constitution; the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention; and the process of ratification.


Outline of Lecture


During the Revolution the government of the United States was the Continental Congress. In 1781 a new congress assumed authority under the Articles of Confederation. This confederation is generally considered to have been weak and unsatisfactory, leading to the movement for a more satisfactory constitution.

Important Acts of the Confederation Congress

People say the government under the Articles of Confederation was ineffective, but that government was responsible for two landmark, far-reaching acts: the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

A Compromise Convention

In the Constitutional Convention, the Framers disagreed strongly on the organization of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The large states and the small states squared off according to their interests, but they managed to make those interests matters of principle. Then, more remarkably, they managed to compromise their differences and agree on a plan of government.

Debating the Constitution—Again

Historians disagree as to the motivations of the Founding Fathers—whether they were acting from self-interest or from noble principles. Perhaps the disagreement comes because American values, even at this early stage, were a complex of ideas that may seem incompatible, but which ordinary Americans found happily consistent.

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7. Aspects of the Federal Constitution


One popular historian of the Constitutional Convention has called that event the "Miracle at Philadelphia." Many Americans, then and now, believe in the doctrine of American exceptionalism, the idea that Americans have been chosen and blessed by God to accomplish a certain mission to the rest of the world. Tocqueville admires the American federal system, but he has a more clear-eyed view of it.


·         There are advantages to living in small nations, and advantages to living in large nations. What are these? And how does this relate to the American federal system?

·         Separation of powers, federal and state, is an important principle of the Constitution. What logic provides this separation? Which government entity should be responsible for what sort of powers?

·         Tocqueville thinks that American federalism is a wonderful thing for Americans. Would he advise bringing it home to France? (Another way of asking, Is it God or the Atlantic Ocean that has blessed America?)


Separation of powers is a fundamentally American doctrine written into the Constitution. Read the explanation of this in James Madison's (or was it Alexander Hamilton's?) Federalist Paper No. 51. To find it, go to the Federalist Papers website.

Lecture makes reference to three of Prof. Isern’s web pages, the first explaining the rectangular survey system, the second detailing compromises at the Constitutional Convention, and third providing the text of "The Grand Constitution."

Film Review

Jefferson in Paris

While the Constitution was being written and debated, Jefferson was in France as ambassador. The exploration of the interaction of public ideals and personal life in this film provides plenty of grist for discussion.

Book Review

MacDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum


Dougherty, Collective Action Under the Articles of Confederation


Barrow, The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard


Harper, American Machiavelli


Goldwin, From Parchment to Power