(Posted July 2004)
|Delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1787 sign the newly written Constitution in this 1940 painting by Howard Chandler Christy. These men are often referred to as the "Founding Fathers." (Painting by Howard Chandler Christy, ctsy. U.S. House of Representatives)|
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES sets forth the nation's fundamental laws.
It establishes the form of the national government and defines the rights and liberties of the American people. It also lists the aims of the national government and the methods of achieving them. Previously, the nation's leaders had established an alliance among the states under the Articles of Confederation. But the Congress created by the Articles lacked the authority to make the states work together to solve national problems.
|Top, Benjamin Franklin's 1754 drawing of a severed snake calls for unity among the colonies who, with the British, confronted France in the French and Indian War. (The Library of Congress)
Above, a later call for unity appears in this July 1776 illustration of 13 hands -- symbolizing the colonies' declaration of independence from Britain. (Henry Francis Dupont, The Winterthur Museum)|
After the states won independence in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), they faced all the problems of peacetime government. The states had to enforce law and order, collect taxes, pay a large public debt, and regulate trade among themselves. They also had to deal with Indian tribes and negotiate with other governments. Leading statesmen, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, began to discuss the need to create a strong national government under a new constitution.
Hamilton helped bring about a constitutional convention that met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. But a majority of the delegates at the convention decided instead to write a new plan of government -- the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution established not merely a league of states, but a government that exercised its authority directly over all citizens. The Constitution defines the powers delegated to the national government. In addition, it protects the powers reserved to the states and the rights of every individual.
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