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Creating the US Constitution

Primary Source Set

The creation of the US Constitution begins with the Articles of Confederation, drafted during the Revolutionary War. Their ratification in 1781 formed a weak federal authority that operated as a collective of individual, highly autonomous states. However, within a few short years the limitations of the Articles of Confederation became evident. Insufficient central control over currency led to astronomical inflation. Insufficient taxes to pay for a standing military made the newly independent nation vulnerable to foreign attack. Domestic turmoil, most notably Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, highlighted the need both for economic management that would allow the government to fulfill its debt obligations and governmental authority capable of quelling insurrections. Additionally, even founders who feared strong central government were frustrated by trade barriers that some states had erected against other states. Prior to the Constitutional Convention, the Mount Vernon Conference paved the way for interstate commerce agreements related to use of rivers and waterways, and the Annapolis Convention objected to state-issued tariffs and called for a national convention to strengthen federal regulation of trade. Together, these two events provided an economic impetus for the creation of the Constitution and a stronger federal government capable of regulating currency and interstate trade.

In 1787, a convention of representatives from each state was formed in Philadelphia. Although it was convened for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, the attendees at the Constitutional Convention instead chose to draft a plan for a new government of the United States, one that would feature strong federal power, divided into branches, but preserve some authority to be held by the thirteen states. The convention featured a series of compromises about the method of counting slaves for purpose of determining state population and the balance of interests of large and small states when determining representation in Congress. Lastly, the ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights were added to address the concerns of delegates who sought protections of individual liberties.

Additional resources for research

  1. Constitution of the United States: A History, National Archives and Records Administration.
  2. Primary Documents in American History: United States Constitution, Library of Congress.
  3. Drafting, Debating, and Ratifying the Constitution, City University of New York.

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