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3.5: A New Form of Federalism

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    Figure 3.5.1: Could the Founding Fathers create a new form of Federalism?

    Influences and Impact

    The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Its importance to American government lies in the expression and advancement of the political ideals of Enlightenment philosophers (particularly John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau). The Declaration proclaimed as “self-evident” the “truths”—bitterly opposed by the rulers of the day—that “all men are created equal” and endowed with “inalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    The Declaration did not end there. It proclaimed that “[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

    To the British government in London, the Declaration was illegal and treasonous. If King George III had been able to capture the signers of the Declaration, they would have been transported back to England and hanged. However, the revolution succeeded, and history honors those who inspired, led, and fought for it.

    When it was drafted on July 4, 1776, this document publically announced that the 13 colonies were independent of Britain. It was designed to be read aloud in public and to be sent to international audiences. Its point-by-point charges against British rule give equal weight to how the king damaged America’s economic interests, and how he ignored principles of self-government.

    Enlightened Ideals

    Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
    Figure 3.5.2: Benjamin Franklin--Many of our Founding Fathers exemplified Enlightenment ideals.

    The Declaration is a deeply democratic document. It is democratic in what it did—asserting the right of the people in American colonies to separate from Britain. In addition, it is democratic in what it said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and have inviolable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration concludes that the people are free to “alter or abolish” repressive forms of government. Indeed, it assumes that the people are the best judges of the quality of government and can act wisely on their own behalf.

    This document was also a radical and public statement of Enlightenment ideals that flew in the face of the political philosophy that allowed absolute monarchs in Europe to have unquestioned authority over their subjects. This theory of the Divine Right of Kings was directly attacked by the document as it listed 27 "grievances" against the King and his government. At least 12 of these directly attacked the King and his establishment of a tyrannical authority over his people. In this case, the use of the word tyrant isspecifically intended to criticize the king's use of absolute authority. Even though Great Britain had a tradition of parliamentary democratic rule, the colonists took the opportunity to chip away at the last vestiges of absolute monarchy as a governmental practice.

    Reaction to Absolute Rule

    Portrait of King George III
    Figure 3.5.3: Many of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence were a criticism of King George III and his use of "tyrannical power."

    The basic premise upon which the Declaration of Independence was founded revolves around the idea that colonists, as British citizens, were entitled to all of the rights and privileges that were granted by the Magna Carta and the British Bill of Rights of 1689. These founding documents of British government established a principle of popular sovereignty, meaning that the King was not above the law and that the people, in the form of parliament, had a right to a say in whether or not they were taxed by parliament, and that citizens were entitled to a trial by jury of their peers.

    In addition, the Declaration relied on the legal principal of salutary neglect, meaning that for over a century, most British colonies had enjoyed a tradition of self-rule and had been governed through their own legislative bodies since their founding. By 1774, most of the colonists that had once complained about "no taxation without representation" found themselves without any formal representation in Parliament or in any of the colonial representative bodies they had worked so hard to establish and maintain since arriving in America.

    At the end of the list of abuses, the Declaration focuses attention on a few specific incidents demonstrating the King's disregard for colonial life and liberty and went on to explain the danger inherent if colonists remained divided on the issue of independence, as well as the preparations that Great Britain was making for an all-out violent attempt to control the call for independence in the colonies. These statements were designed to convince moderates in the Second Continental Congress that reconciliation was not a possibility and to convince members of the need to cast their vote in favor of independence.

    Interactive Links for the Declaration of Independence

    For links to the full text of The Declaration of Independence and a discussion of its historical foundations, click on the following:

    The Articles of Confederation

    Drafted in 1777, the Articles of Confederation were the first political constitution for the government of the United States. They codified the Continental Congress’s practices and powers. The United States of America was a confederation of states. Although the confederation was superior to the individual states, it had no powers without their consent.

    Interactive Links:

    For an interactive explanation of the Articles of Confederation and a full-text copy of the Articles of Confederation, click here:

    Under the Articles, the Continental Congress took over the king’s powers to make war and peace, send and receive ambassadors, enter treaties and alliances, coin money, regulate Indian affairs, and to run a post office. The confederation could not raise taxes and relied on revenues from each state. There was no president to enforce the laws and no judiciary to hear disputes between and among the states.

    Each state delegation cast a single vote in the Continental Congress. Nine state's votes were needed to enact legislation, so few laws were passed. States usually refused to fund policies that hampered their own interests. Changes in the Articles required an all-but-impossible unanimous vote of all 13 delegations. The weakness of the Articles was no accident. The fights with Britain created widespread distrust of central authority. By restricting the national government, Americans could rule themselves in towns and states. Like many political thinkers dating back to ancient Greece, they assumed that self-government worked best in small, face-to-face communities.


    Coin and Borrow money

    No president or executive branch

    Admit new states and divide western lands

    No national court system

    Request money from states

    No power to directly tax or raise national funds
    without requesting from the states

    Raise an Army

    No power to regulate trade or currency within
    or among the states

    Appoint military officers

    No power to prohibit states from conducting their own
    foreign affairs including making their own treaties with
    other nations.

    Establish a postal system

    Major laws required the approval of nine states
    to pass

    Conduct foreign affairs

    The Need for A Stronger Government

    After gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1783, the United States was presented with a new set of challenges that the new national government was, to say the least, ill-equipped to face. These shortcomings were made even more difficult by the Articles of Confederation which greatly limited the power of the new national government.

    One of the new Congress's greatest success stories was the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. This law established a plan for the settlement of the Northwest Territory which included new lands in what are now Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The Northwest Ordinance created a system for the admission of new states into the Union, banned slavery in these new territories, and established a Bill of Rights that guaranteed representative government, religious freedom, trial by jury and other basic freedoms for settlers in these new lands.

    Congress experienced many more challenges than successes. The new nation was faced with war debt, a weak economy, rivalries and disagreements among the states, and an overall lack of cooperation between the states and the national government. Additionally, the rising threat of civil unrest loomed. Of these problems, the most pressing and threatening to the new nation was the war debt. Congress had borrowed heavily from foreign nations (such as France) to finance the army during the Revolutionary War. It also owed many Americans who lent money to the new nation during the Revolutionary period. Also, it owed back wages and pensions that had been promised to veterans of the Revolutionary War.

    To meet its obligations, Congress called on the states to approve a tax on imports in 1783. It needed the unanimous consent of all the states for this to pass. Many states had their own foreign trade interests, so they did not want to place a tax on imports because this might cause a trade war. Only nine states voted to allow the new import tax. Without a way to raise revenue, the government was, in a word, broke.

    At the same time, each of the states pursued their own interests. Some ignored laws passed by Congress as well as foreign treaties that the new Congress had established. Others started making their own treaties with foreign powers and raising their own army and navy. This left Congress with a large pile of debt and no effective way to govern. George Washington described this period as, "Thirteen Sovereignties pulling against each other and all tugging at the federal head."

    Shays' Rebellion

    By September 1786, a small group of farmers in Massachusetts was faced with the prospect of losing their property to rich land-owning creditors, so they grouped together and rebelled. Their leader was a former Revolutionary War captain named Daniel Shays. Under Shays' leadership, they attacked courthouses in order to prevent judges from foreclosing on their farms. By 1787, Shays' Rebellion had swelled to nearly 2,500 angry men.

    All of these pressures resulted in a request to a group of representatives from Virginia and Maryland for a meeting in March 1785 at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. The success of this meeting convinced James Madison that a second, larger meeting should be organized at Annapolis, Maryland in order to discuss the regulation of commerce between the states. At Madison's insistence, the Virginia General Assembly issued meeting invitations to all states. Nine of them accepted, but delegates from only five states actually attended.

    In February 1787, Madison was able to persuade the "Confederation Congress" to endorse a meeting in Philadelphia for the "sole purpose of revisiting the Articles of Confederation." While those who met in Philadelphia came to make changes to the Articles of Confederation, they would leave with an entirely new document--a Constitution.

    Figure 3.5.4

    Study/Discussion Questions

    For each of the following terms, write a sentence which uses or describes the term in your own words.

    inalienable rights



    popular sovereignty

    Shays’ Rebellion

    1. Why was the idea of “no taxation without representation” the cry of the Revolution?
    2. Why was the idea of self-government so important to the framers of the Constitution?
    3. Create a graphic organizer that illustrates the powers of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
    4. What in your opinion was the great strength of the Articles? Its greatest weakness? Justify your answer.
    5. What was Shays' Rebellion? How did it spur on the Revolution?

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