American Government and the Constitution Lecture One

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American Government and the Constitution Lectures: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12

Hold on my friends, to the Constitution and to the Republic for which it stands. Miracles do not cluster and what happened once in 6,000 years may not happen again. Hold on to the Constitution!

Those were the words of one of the greatest statesmen of the 1800s, Daniel Webster, who represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives in the 1820s, and in the U.S. Senate until 1850, and was Secretary of State after that.

Daniel Webster was not the first to call the U.S. Constitution a "miracle". George Washington was. He presided over the Constitutional Convention that created the Constitution in Philadelphia during the hot summer of 1787. The following winter he said this about it:[1]

It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the Delegates from so many different States (which States you know are also different from each other in their manners, circumstances and prejudices) should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections.

There was no single author of the Constitution, and no single person (not even George Washington) had an enormous influence over it. It was the product of a few dozen men, most of whom had fought alongside each other in the successful American Revolution, and virtually all of whom where devout Christians inspired by their faith. They opposed a monarchy, which was the system of government in England and all of Europe.

The men were "delegates" sent from 12 of 13 colonies (every colony except Rhode Island). The total number of delegates who attended was 55, but only 39 of them signed the final document, as others gave up during the process or disagreed with the final result. The eldest was Benjamin Franklin, who was too weak at age 81 to walk up the stairs to the room, and the youngest was 26 years old.[2]

The Constitutional Convention was conducted in total secrecy, so that the media could not report on and influence the decisions. Participants were ordered to destroy the notes that they took. At the conclusion, a woman noticed Benjamin Franklin outside and asked him, "What have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?" Benjamin Franklin responded, "A Republic, if you can keep it."[3] Franklin's quote explains that the Constitution neither creates a monarchy (rule by a king or queen, as in Europe at that time) nor a democracy (rule directly by the people, as in ancient Athens), but a "Republic" (rule by representatives of the people, in accordance with the law). By saying "if you can keep it," Franklin emphasized that it requires constant work and education to maintain a Republic against pressures to convert it to a less favorable system of government, such as a monarchy or democracy.

The United States Constitution has been successful longer than any other written legal document in the history of the world - nearly 230 years. This Constitution is relatively short, less than 5,000 words, and can be read easily in less than hour. It contains only seven separate Articles (entitled Article I, Article II, Article III, etc.) Subsequent to the adoption (ratification) of the Constitution, 27 Amendments have been added to it, pursuant to Article V which sets the rules for amendments. The Constitution is the greatest legal document ever written, and this course will enable you to understand and use it beneficially.

The most valuable thing in the world?

What is the most valuable thing in the world? The Bible would rank first. But what is second? Some might say the "Mona Lisa" painting by the Christian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci; others might say the Hope Diamond, which is in the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. The patents on the iPhone might rank high in value today, but they will expire.

The answer is the U.S. Constitution. It has created far more wealth and prosperity than all other human works combined.

Yet few people today have even read the Constitution. Less than 1% of the public understands it. In this course you will acquire knowledge and appreciation of the Constitution that will assist you throughout your life. The Constitution is there to help us, and the more we can understood, the more useful it becomes. You can successful by using the Constitution nearly every day.

What makes the Constitution so great? First, it is concise. Its original length is only slightly longer than this lecture. The United States Constitution is the shortest constitution of any nation in the world. It says what needs to be said, and no more. Concise works are often the greatest, like the small painting of the Mona Lisa, or a beautiful diamond.

Second, the Constitution recognizes and protects against tyranny, or the tendency for some men or groups of men to try to take control of a people. Throughout all of history evil has attempted to triumph over good. The Constitution was developed as a safeguard against that. It divides power into three branches of government, and limits the power of each branch. It establishes a "limited government," not an unlimited one.

As James Madison, one of the participants in the drafting of the Constitution said, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."[4] Power-hungry men are not angels, so limits on government are essential; James Madison added, "All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."[5]

Before the Constitution: The Articles of Confederation

The "United States of America" existed before the Constitution was written and approved. The Articles of Confederation had already established the "United States of America." Written in 1777 (a year after the Declaration of Independence) and adopted by all 13 colonies by 1781, the Articles of Confederation brought together the 13 colonies while they were still fighting in the American Revolution to win independence from the King of England. The Articles of Confederation had 13 Articles, but did not establish a federal executive branch (now led by the president) or a federal judiciary. Instead, nearly all the power remained in the hands of the States, the former colonies. Each State had equal power in the Continental Congress established by the Articles of Confederation.[6] A major defect to the Articles of Confederation is that unanimous approval was required to amend it - unanimity is almost impossible to attain for any good law.

Only a few good things were achieved after the Articles of Confederation were adopted, most notably the passage by Congress of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 to set rules for the settlement and eventual creation of what became the new states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, which were "northwest" of the original 13 colonies.[7]

By the summer of 1787, many people (including George Washington) recognized that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate for the young United States of America. Rebellions occurred which the national government was unable to quell. At one point congressmen themselves had to flee Philadelphia, where they were meeting, because the Pennsylvania governor would not use his militia to protect them from rioters. The national government depended on voluntary contributions from the States to raise money, and as a result the national government was broke. Amendments to the Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of all 13 States, and which was virtually impossible to achieve. The tax burdens on the States were in proportion to their land values, but the national government had no power to collect the taxes and support its operations. Britain continued to occupy forts in territory west of the States, but there was nothing the new United States of America could do about it. The national government was simply too weak under the Articles of Confederation. A stronger national government was needed.

The Constitutional Convention

In early 1787, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison pushed for a new convention to fix the problems in the Articles of Confederation. They persuaded George Washington, who was the recognized leader of the young nation by virtue of his victory in the American Revolution, to ask the States to send representatives ("delegates") to this new convention. Many people refused to participate, while others were unable to attend due to other responsibilities. The Founders who did not attend included John Adams, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson (American minister to France at the time), John Hancock, and Richard Henry Lee.[8]

But an even greater group of men did attend and participate in the new convention, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Elbridge Gerry, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Roger Sherman, William Paterson, Charles Pinckney, and Edmund Randolph.[2]

The delegates met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia during the hot summer months of 1787, debating and writing the new Constitution over a period of about four months (from May to September, with breaks in between). There were three basic rules for the convention:

  1. All proceedings were secret and communications with the outside media were strictly prohibited;
  2. Each state had one vote, based on the majority opinion of the delegates from that State; and
  3. Respectful decorum must be maintained at all times during the proceedings.

George Washington was elected by unanimous vote to preside over the convention, giving him the power to keep order and rule on issues of procedure.

All told, 55 delegates participated in some way in the Constitutional Convention (known as the "Framers"), but some left early and others (including Elbridge Gerry and George Mason) refused to sign it. When the Constitution was fully written, only 39 delegates signed it on September 17, 1787, which is honored annually as "Constitution Day."

Limited Powers, and Separation of Powers

George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention that created the new Constitution, explained that it had two great features:[1]

1st That the general Government is not invested with more Powers than are indispensably necessary to perform [the] functions of a good Government; and, consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of Power delegated to it.

2ly That these Powers (as the appointment of all Rulers will forever arise from, and, at short stated intervals, recur to the free suffrage of the People) are so distributed among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, into which the general Government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form; so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People.

In other words, the Constitution divides government into three separate branches that check and balance each other. If one branch grabs too much power, then the other two can work to stop it. This is what preserves the continuing liberty of the people, by safeguarding against tyranny.

Notice the condition that George Washington included at the end: "so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the People." The Founders knew that the Constitution would not last unless the people continued to be moral and virtuous. John Adams, another Founder and the second President after Washington, said that "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."[9]

The Committees that Wrote the Constitution

The delegates divided up the work of writing the Constitution by establishing several committees:[10]

Rules Committee, appointed May 25 in order to set rules for the convention, including Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinkney
First Committee of Eleven (delegates), appointed July 2 in order to resolve the issue of equal representation in the Senate, including George Mason and William Paterson
Committee of Detail, appointed July 24 in order to draft the Constitution on terms agreed to by the Convention, including Edmund Randolph and James Wilson
Second Committee of Eleven, appointed August 25 in order to consider issues of uniform duties and fees, including George Mason and Roger Sherman
Third Committee of Eleven, appointed August 31 in order to address "tabled" and unresolved issues, including James Madison and Roger Sherman
Committee of Style and Arrangement, appointed September 8 in order to revise the style and arrangement of the Constitution, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison

The Compromises

Early in the convention, Edmund Randolph proposed the Virginia Plan for national government, or the "Large States Plan," because it was favored by the larger states. Our three branches of government -- legislative, executive, and judicial -- originated in the Virginia Plan. Unlike the Articles of Confederation, this plan gave government the power to directly enforce laws. The Virginia Plan assigned delegates to both houses of Congress (a "bicameral" legislature) based on a state's population, and the legislature selected the chief executive (president) and the judges under this Plan. The Virginia Plan contributed much to the finished Constitution, although Edmund Randolph himself refused to sign it in the end.

In June 1787, William Paterson next proposed the New Jersey Plan, which was more favorable to the small states and which departed less from the Articles of Confederation. This plan was favored by small states because each state was represented equally in Congress. This allowed small states to have an equal amount of power. The Virginia plan, in contrast, would have allowed large states much more power than small ones because representation in Congress would be based on population.

This conflict between the big and small states was the most difficult to resolve in the entire Convention. For weeks there was no progress. Then Benjamin Franklin proposed that each day be opened by prayer. He said, "In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. - Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered.... And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probably that an empire can rise without His aid?" In response to Benjamin Franklin's suggestion, the delegates felt a minister was needed to say a proper prayer, but they could not afford to hire one!

After many weeks of arguments, a compromise between the big and small states was reached. In July 1787, Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman proposed the Connecticut Plan, in which representation in the House would be proportional to population, and representation in the Senate would be 1 vote per state. This became the Great Compromise or the Connecticut Compromise, and it resolved that Congress would have one chamber with equal representation and one chamber with representation based on population. This compromise became part of the Constitution (with the change that there would be two votes per state), and today we have both the House of Representatives and the Senate to comprise the legislature - the Congress.

This compromise also reflected the spirit of the Constitutional Convention. Disagreements arose on a myriad of issues. Again and again, the delegates compromised, gradually formulating the Constitution that we still use today.

Another dispute occurred between the North and the South over whether slaves should be counted in determining how many congressmen a State could have in the House of Representatives. Representation was in proportion to population, but the North opposed counting slaves because that would give the South more power than if slaves were not counted. The "Three-Fifths Compromise" counted slaves as three-fifths of a free man for the purpose of determining how many representatives a State would have in the House of Representatives (Art. I, Section 2, Paragraph 3):

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Notice how artful the writing is in the Constitution: it is not easy to realize that the end of the above provision is referring to slaves.

There was one additional compromise required for slavery: the new Congress could not ban the importation of slavery for 20 years, until 1808.

The Articles

There are seven Articles in the Constitution:

Article I: Congress (the legislative branch) holds certain enumerated (listed) powers.
Article II: the Executive Branch (led by the President) carries out the laws.
Article III: the Judicial Branch (including the Supreme Court) interprets the laws.
Article IV: outlines the relationship between the national government and the states.
Article V: outlines the procedures for amending the Constitution. Contrary to the Articles of Confederation, unanimous consent of the states is not required to amend the Constitution.
Article VI: declares the Constitution (and all federal laws enacted under the Constitution) to be the supreme Law of the Land.
Article VII: establishes the procedure for ratifying the Constitution.

The Preamble

The Constitution has a Preamble, which was added at the last minute by Gouverneur Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania who wrote the final text of the Constitution as part of his duties on the Committee of Style.

"Gouverneur" was the French (Huguenot) maiden last name of his mother, and is not to be confused with "governor". Gouverneur Morris was never a governor, but he was homeschooled by tutors and entered college (Columbia University, then called King's College) at the age of 12. He was brilliant and is sometimes called the "Penman of the Constitution." He gave more speeches than anyone else at the Constitutional Convention, a total of 173. He favored a stronger national government. On the personal side, Gouverneur Morris lost one of his legs as a young man, due to a freak carriage accident (there were no cars then). He frequently attended social events and had a terrific sense of humor, but did not marry until he was 57 years old. He and his wife had a son, before Gouverneur Morris passed away at age 64.

Gouverneur Morris wrote the Preamble to the Constitution, which introduces the document like a fine ornament:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble was incorporated into a song which schoolchildren sang in the 1970s.[11] Notice the artful phrase "to form a more perfect union," which became one of the most famous phrases in all of the founding documents of the United States.

Records of the Constitutional Convention

Although the rules of the Constitutional Convention required that everyone destroy their notes, such that only the Constitution itself was supposed to survive, some of the notes kept by participants were not destroyed and are used today to interpret the Constitution. Most notably, James Madison preserved his very detailed notes which he took during the proceeding, and they were published after his death decades later. Because of James Madison's detailed notes about the proceeding at the Constitutional Convention and his participation in writing some of the Federalist Papers (see below), he is sometimes called the "Father of the Constitution," but Madison's influence over the Constitution was no greater than that of many other Framers. Many of Madison's suggestions at the Convention were actually rejected by the group, rather than accepted.

The surviving records of the debates and internal proceedings of the Constitutional Convention are freely available today on the internet.[12] They should be used and even bookmarked.

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers were a series of articles published anonymously under the pen name "Publius" in an influential New York City newspaper in order to urge New York to ratify the U.S. Constitution, during the period of late 1787 through early April 1788. Today we know that 51 of these articles were written by Alexander Hamilton and 29 were written by James Madison, two of the most important delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and 5 were written by John Jay, a future Supreme Court Justice.

Today the Federalist Papers are the leading resource for interpreting what the Constitution means. They are cited by their article number, as in "Federalist No. 83," in order to reference a particular article. Usually the person who authored the particular article is included in parentheses, as in "Federalist No. 83 (A. Hamilton)."

The most famous of the Federalist Papers is Federalist No. 10 by James Madison, in he which he makes a brilliant argument that a strong union of the States will overcome harmful factions better than an individual State is able to. Today, California and New York are somewhat protected against extreme liberal factions there, due to the more conservative influence of states like Texas.

The full text of the Federalist Papers are available online for free, at many websites.[13]

There were also so-called "Anti-Federalist Papers," which opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The most prominent among the Founders who opposed the U.S. Constitution were Patrick Henry, George Mason, and George Clinton.[14]


Answer the first three questions, and then either question 4 or 5:

1. Read the original Constitution (stopping at Amendment I) taking no more an hour, in order to see the "big picture" of the document. An online copy is here.[15] Do not worry if you do not understand every term or concept in it. The entire original Constitution can be read aloud in only about 40 minutes. Is there anything that found surprising about it? If you are not surprised by any part of it, then what impression did you have of the original Constitution which was confirmed by your reading the entire document now?

2. Write a brief outline for the Articles in the Constitution (do not include the Amendments, which were added later). For example, "Article I - establishes Congress and defines its legislative power. Article II - ...."

3. Which Article specifies how the Constitution may be amended? Which Article requires each State to give full faith and credit to the laws of other States? Which Article explains how many States must approve the Constitution in order for it to become "ratified" and the new law of the land for those States?

4. Identify two major resources for learning more about the Constitution and what it means, such as documents written at the time which are now available on the internet.

5. Using the University of Chicago resource for founding documents, who wanted to add "common defence, security of liberty and general welfare" to the Preamble? Which State did he represent as a delegate?


6. Find something in the original Constitution (i.e., not including the amendments) which you find to be particularly important. Discuss it in a short essay (a few hundred words would be fine).


  1. 1.0 1.1 -Letter from George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, dated Feb. 7, 1788 (modern spelling used in the quotation)
  2. 2.0 2.1
  9. John Adams, October 11, 1798.