Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
History 420

Debate and Compromise: Understanding the Constitutional Foundations of Government

Cartoon of US Capitol building with question marks

 

Introduction: Now that we understand the ideological beginnings of the nation - its founding upon the ideas of freedom and equality - as well as the events leading up to and the myths surrounding the Revolutionary War, it is time to enter the world of policymakers - of the Founding Fathers as they struggled with the conflict, compromise, and debate that shaped the third and final of our founding documents - the U.S. Constitution. What were the other two founding documents?

Methods Discussion: An interesting way to peak students' interest at the beginning of a new unit is to actually discover what they do and do not know about a certain topic. The Introductory Quiz is a good way to do this.

If you didn't do too well on this quiz, you are joined by way too many other Americans. Polls conducted in the past decade do not bode well for American understanding of our nation's political origins or documents. So, as we begin our discussion of the Constitution, please keep in mind that most Americans know very little about our Constitution. This, then, becomes our responsibility as educators - to help our students understand the Constitution, as well as the relevance and importance of the Constitution to their 21st Century lives.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To understand the origins of the Constitution.
  2. To examine "The Preamble" to the Constitution
  3. To understand the controversies and compromises that accompanied the creation of the governmental structures under the Constitution.

Discussion Goal #1: To understand the origins of the Constitution

Painting of Founders signing the Constitution

For almost 4 months, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention worked 6 days a week, five hours a day, from May 25 to September 17 in miserable summer heat and humidity - not to amend the Articles, as had been the original goal of the Convention - but to create an entirely new framework for government that has lasted to this day and was like nothing ever seen before. Indeed, it was what one historian has called "the most remarkable example of sustained intellectual discourse in American history."

Chart of differences between Articles of Confederation and the ConstitutionAt the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates voted to adopt the new Constitution which created a new structure for a federal government with three independent branches - legislative, executive, and judicial.

The adoption of the Constitution represented a great power shift:

Under the Articles, the central government was decentralized and real power remained with the state governments.  The central government consisted of a unicameral legislature (Congress) that had few powers.

Under the Constitution, the central government was centralized  and real power was vested in its three independent branches.  The central government consisted of the legislative  (a bicameral Congress), executive, and judicial branches that shared many powers.  All power not specifically vested in the central government under the Constitution was left to the state governments.

As a whole, the Constitution establishes a system of separation of powers through the creation of these three branches, each of which were designed to check and balance each other. For instance, one of the most important functions of the federal government is to make laws. But the process is separated among the powers: Article I gives Congress the power to make laws; Article II gives the executive branch the power either veto or to enforce and laws; and Article III sets up the judicial branch which will eventually have the power to interpret the laws.

 


Goal #2: To Examine "The Preamble" to the Constitution

The preamble to the ConstitutionThe following sentence comprises the beginning - the preamble - to the Constitution:

"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."

Methods Discussion: We begin today with a Think/Pair/Share.

Discussion: What are the 1-2 most important things we have learned about the Constitution so far just by reading the Preamble?


Discussion Goal #3: To understand the controversies and compromises that accompanied the creation of the governmental structures under the Constitution

Chart showing compromise

Because controvery and debate characterized the Revolutionary Era, and because the debate involved two sharply divided sides, it is clear that compromise was required in order to create a new government. Following are some of the most important compromises made during these debates.

1. Congressional Representation.  The controversy generally was over whether representatives to Congress would be based on proportional - or population - basis or on an equal basis.

The compromise - a bicameral Congress.

2. Slavery. The Constitutional debate over slavery included two extreme arguments:

When the Constitution was completed, slavery was sanctioned throughout the document. Five provisions dealt directly with slavery:

Chart of slavery compromiseThese five provisions gave the South a strong claim to special treatment for slave owners. But there are also several other clauses of the Constitution that indirectly protected slavery - and in so doing, made slavery a national rather than a regional issue.

So, how were the above provisions of the Constitution examples of compromise:

The "bottom line" was that neither side got what it wanted.

3. Impeachment. The question of removing the President or another federal official from office was hotly debated. Which branch should be responsible?

The Compromise - Both houses of the Legislature Branch shared the responsibility for impeachment. The Executive Branch also has some authority in regards to pardons. Graph of how impeachment works

4. The Electoral College. Some of the Founders felt that the president should be elected by popular vote; others believed that in a nation as large as the U.S., the citizens would not be able to make an informed choice for president.Electoral college compromise chart

The compromise.  The electoral college which clearly vests the power to select the president in the states, not the people.

5. Basic Freedoms. Bill of RightsThere were no inclusions of basic freedoms in the Constitution, other than two: the right of habeas corpus and the right to a trial by jury. Many of the Founders argued there was no need for "enumerated rights" - a list of rights guaranteed to all. They continued that basic rights were understood and there was no need to list them all. But representatives from the southern states insisted the inclusion of a list of rights.

The Compromise. The Bill of Rights - the topic of our next meeting.