Colonization of the New World began in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. It was not until 1607 that the English gained a permanent foothold in the New World with the establishment of Jamestown. English colonies began to develop a distinct American colonial identity as they developed early forms of representative government and unified against outside European forces.
Anger towards the British taxation policy and increasing control over the colonies led to many events like the Stamp Act Congress, Boston Tea Party, and Boston Massacre. These events coupled with influential writings like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, added to the fervor for independence. The Declaration of Independence in July of 1776 signaled the colonies intent to break from British rule.
As the early nation emerged from the American Revolution, questions arose as to how the new nation would govern itself. America’s first attempt was the Articles of Confederation which was a loose confederation of states with a weak central government. But the failures of this early government led to calls for a convention to develop a new government. After much debate and compromise, a new Constitution was written in 1787, that created a strong central government with three separate branches and a system of checks and balances. This new Constitution faced a battle to be ratified and accepted by the states, but ultimately it was successfully ratified in 1789. This is the same document that still governs our nation today.
Abigail often shared her views with John on political matters. She famously requested of the members of the Continental Congress: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Later, while John was president, she also told him that she believed there was a need for the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution and Declaration of Rights and served in the Continental Congress where he was a leading advocate of independence. He seconded the Lee Resolution and served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence (though the writing was done by Thomas Jefferson). He signed the Treaty of Paris with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, and completed diplomatic missions in Europe. He was serving overseas as the Constitution was being drafted. He and his friend Jefferson wrote to James Madison urging the addition of a bill of rights.
Adams served as the country’s first Vice President under George Washington from 1789-1797. He was elected the second President of the United States in 1796. As President, he kept the United States out of war with France but signed the controversial and probably unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts. He also signed the Judiciary Act of 1801. Six months before he died, Adams’ son John Quincy Adams became the sixth president of the United States. Adams died fifty years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1772 Adams authored The Rights of the Colonists, which appealed to the concepts of the rights of Englishmen and natural rights theory. When Parliament passed the Tea Act, Adams organized the Boston Tea Party. In this nighttime raid, 150 Sons of Liberty members dumped 342 chests of British Tea into Boston Harbor. The governor of Massachusetts pardoned all the members of the Boston resistance except for Adams and Hancock. The shots in Lexington that began the Revolutionary War were fired on British troops with orders to arrest the two men, but they escaped capture.
Adams signed the Declaration of Independence and helped write the Massachusetts Constitution and the Articles of Confederation. Suspicious of strong governmental power, Adams rejected the purpose of the Constitutional Convention—to strengthen the central government—and did not attend. He eventually supported the Constitution after the Bill of Rights was added.
In 1775, Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson wrote Declaration of the Causes of Taking Up Arms. In this document, Dickinson reassured the British King that the colonists were not raising an army with the intent of establishing independence. When Congress debated the Declaration of Independence the next year, Dickinson objected to its strong wording. In what many saw as a sign of integrity, he left Philadelphia when it became clear that Congress would approve the Lee Resolution. Once independence was declared, Dickinson dropped his objections and helped draft the Articles of Confederation. He served as governor of Delaware before being elected governor of Pennsylvania. In 1783, he lent his name to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
In 1786, Dickinson chaired the Annapolis Convention and later headed Delaware’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention. During the ratification debates, Dickinson authored the Letters of Fabius in support of the Constitution. Because of Dickinson’s articulate defense of American liberty, he is known as the “Penman of the Revolution.”
Wishing to work independently, Franklin left Boston and finally settled in Philadelphia where he purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729. In 1732 he published the first edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack.
In 1754 the prospect of war with France led several colonial governors to call a convention to create a plan to unify the colonies. Franklin’s Gazette ran a “Join or Die” political cartoon urging governors to send delegates. Franklin wrote the Albany Plan of Union at the convention.
Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1775 serving as an agent of the colonies. He became famous there as a defender of American rights. The British branded him a traitor, but he escaped imprisonment in 1775 by returning to Philadelphia. He served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. He acted as commissioner to France from 1779-1785, and along with John Adams and John Jay, negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Franklin returned to the United States in 1785. He believed the Articles of Confederation to be too weak and joined the call for a Constitutional Convention. Because of some of his proposals at the Convention, a cabinet was established to advise the president, and Congress was given the power to override presidential vetoes. Franklin called for slaves to be counted as citizens hoping to encourage abolition, but this proposal was rejected.
In 1787, Franklin was elected president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. His last public act was signing a petition to Congress recommending the end of the slave system. He died at age 84. Franklin’s Autobiography was published the year after his death, and covers the years of his life only to the 1760s.
Hancock served as president of the Continental Congress. He signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776, and presided over Congress’s signing of the document on August 2, 1776. Disappointed at being passed over for command of the Continental Army in 1777, he returned to Massachusetts, where he had a hand in writing the state constitution of 1780. He signed the Articles of Confederation. Despite his reservations about centralized government power, Hancock eventually agreed to support ratification of the Constitution.
As a member of the Virginia legislature in the 1760s, Henry opposed the Stamp Act. By the 1770s he had emerged as one of the most radical leaders of the opposition to British tyranny. He served in the Continental Congress and urged his fellow Virginians to take up arms against the British, famously uttering in 1775 as the British militia advanced in Massachusetts, “Gentlemen may cry ‘peace!’ but there is no peace…the war is actually begun!…I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Henry later led 150 colonists to Williamsburg demanding the return of gunpowder seized by the royal governor.
After helping craft the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Henry was elected the first governor of Virginia. He would serve a total of five terms. In later years, he helped found Hampden-Sydney College, and attempted to expand government support of teachers—who were mainly ministers of the state’s official church. His proposal was defeated and two years later Virginia adopted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom bringing an end to the state church.
Wary of federal power and suspicious of the motives of the assembly, Henry declined to attend the Constitutional Convention. He became a leading Anti-Federalist critic of the Constitution. When it was sent to the states for ratification, he engaged in heated debates with James Madison at the Virginia ratifying convention. When the Bill of Rights was sent to the states, Henry believed the amendments were not enough and instead called in vain for a new constitutional convention.
Henry retired from politics in 1791 and resumed his law practice. He turned down offers from President George Washington to serve as Secretary of State and then as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Washington convinced Henry to run for the state legislature. He was elected, but he died before he could take office.
The Founders, including James Madison, accepted Hobbes’s premise that individuals must unite into a society for their own protection. However, they disagreed with Hobbes on many important matters. Hobbes advocated a strong monarch as the enforcer of the law. Hobbes rejected the ideas of freedom of religion and separation of powers in government, which are fundamental parts of the Constitution.
While the Continental Congress debated the Lee Resolution in 1776, Jefferson was selected to draft the Declaration of Independence. He authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. Jefferson did not take part in the Constitutional Convention as he was serving as minister to France at the time, but he wrote to James Madison expressing his view that the document should include a bill of rights.
In 1789 George Washington appointed Jefferson the first Secretary of State. He and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton soon became bitter rivals. The nation’s first political parties formed around the two men. Jefferson resigned his post after three years and ran for president in 1796 but lost to John Adams by three electoral votes. Under the system in place at the time, he became Adams' Vice President. He disagreed sharply with many of Adams' policies. He and James Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1798 in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Two years later, Jefferson was elected president. He purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. His second term as President was beset by foreign and domestic troubles. After two terms as president, he retired to Monticello. In 1819, he founded the University of Virginia, which he noted as one of his proudest achievements. He died fifty years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
In response to British policies, Lee condemned the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts, organized committees, and kept in contact with Samuel Adams, a Patriot leader in Boston. He served in the Continental Congress, and on June 7, 1776, introduced the Lee Resolution calling for independence from England. His resolution led to the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Lee signed the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and served in the Confederation Congress, serving as the body’s first president. He helped guide the Northwest Ordinance through Congress in 1787.
Lee was alarmed at the call for a stronger central government and refused to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He attempted to persuade the delegates not to alter the Articles, and became a leading opponent of ratification of the Constitution in Virginia. In 1787 and 1788, an anonymous series of Anti-Federalist essays called Letters from a Federal Farmer appeared, which closely mirrored Lee’s arguments against the Constitution. Some historians believe that Lee and Mercy Otis Warren were the authors of these essays.
When the Constitution was adopted, Lee accepted a seat in the Senate where he was a leading advocate of laws and amendments limiting the power of the federal government. He was pleased when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.
After William and Mary of Orange assumed the throne and the English Bill of Rights denied freedom of worship to Catholics and Protestants outside the Church of England, Locke wrote “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” This essay argued for a new relationship between civil government and religion. Though Locke asserted that atheists and Catholics could not be tolerated, his ideas formed one basis of the First Amendment, which prevents the establishment of a national religion and protects an absolute freedom of belief.
Morris became a prominent Philadelphia citizen, leading merchants to close the port of Philadelphia to British goods. He served in the state legislature and in the Continental Congress. Initially opposed to independence, he voted against the Lee Resolution, but he changed his mind and signed the Declaration of Independence.
He also signed the Articles of Confederation.
As chairman of Congress' Finance Committee, Morris persuaded reluctant states to contribute to the continental system and army. He obtained war supplies and risked his own ships in bringing these supplies past the British Navy. Morris’ company received a commission on each shipment, though some criticized him for profiting at the country’s expense. Some accused him of stealing money, but a committee of Congress found that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing and acted with “fidelity and integrity.” Robert Morris is known as the “Financier of the American Revolution” in part because he risked and spent so much of his own money for the Patriot cause, putting up more than $1 million to finance the decisive Battle of Yorktown alone.
Morris supported revising the Articles and attended the Constitutional Convention, though he rarely spoke during the proceedings. He was pleased with the Constitution and signed it. He turned down President George Washington‘s offer to be Secretary of the Treasury, instead accepting a Senate seat in the first Congress.
Decisions in Vice Admiralty Courts were rendered by royal judges, not by citizen juries. Many cases involved smuggling, and Otis was troubled by British writs of assistance. (These general warrants gave broad authority to inspectors to search ships, warehouses, and even private homes for evidence of crimes.) In 1761, Otis resigned his post and took the case of Boston merchants who challenged the legality of the writs. In a five-hour long speech, Otis cited the traditional rights of Englishmen to “the freedom of one’s house.” He also based his argument on natural rights theory, asserting that the right to private property was inalienable. John Adams, who observed the speech, would later remark that it marked the start of the American Revolution. Indeed, many of the principles he championed were later enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.
Otis soon became a Patriot leader, joining Samuel Adams and John Hancock in opposing British tyranny. In 1764 he published The Rights of the Colonists Asserted and Proved. This pamphlet criticized British taxation without representation, and denounced slavery: “The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.”
In 1769, Otis was physically attacked in a Boston coffeehouse by a customs official whom Otis had criticized in the newspaper. The official beat Otis’s head with a cane, fracturing his skull and causing permanent brain damage severe enough to force his retirement from public life. In 1783 he died after being struck by lightning.
Paine continued his defense of the American Revolution and natural rights theory in The Rights of Man when he returned to England in 1787. England charged him with seditious libel because of his critique of monarchy. He fled to France, where he became involved in the revolutionary assembly. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death for voting against the King’s execution. While in prison he wrote The Age of Reason, a controversial work criticizing organized religion while insisting on religious freedom for all.
He was freed in 1794 due to the efforts of James Madison, the new American minister to France. Paine had blamed the previous minister, Gouverneur Morris, for what he saw as Morris’ failure to secure his release. In 1796 Paine wrote an insulting open letter to George Washington. This letter won him many enemies. President Thomas Jefferson invited Paine to return to America in 1802, but he soon found he was unwelcome. His New York funeral was attended only by a few. His body was later stolen and taken to England, which denied its entry as Paine was still an outlaw. His remains were later lost.
Rush encouraged Thomas Paine to write on behalf of independence, and even suggested the title for Common Sense. He signed the Declaration of Independence. He served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He was appalled by the dreadful conditions of the military hospitals, and even questioned General George Washington, telling Congress that officers should be chosen annually. He resigned his post when Congress rejected his plea. Rush attended the Constitutional Convention and, along with James Wilson, helped secure ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania.
Rush was also concerned with social reform. He courageously expressed views he knew would be controversial. He supported the new technique of vaccinations against smallpox. He helped establish the first abolitionist society in America. In his view, slavery was inconsistent with the principles of natural rights theory and the Declaration of Independence. His belief in equality also led him to urge public education for all, including women. President John Adams appointed Rush as Treasurer of the US Mint in 1799, a post he held until 1813.
Rush’s influence on the lives of two prominent Founders is also noteworthy. When the divisive political issues of the 1790s took their toll on the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Rush was instrumental in their reconciliation. Rush corresponded with the two men for 20 years. Upon hearing of his death in 1813, John Adams reflected, “I know of no character living or dead who has done more real good for his country.”
She corresponded with many Patriot leaders, exchanging hundreds of letters with Abigail Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Believing in the natural rights theory expressed in the Declaration of Independence, she argued that women should have equal rights under the law.
Warren opposed ratification of the Constitution. She authored an anonymous criticism of the document in 1788 called Observations on the New Constitution … by a Columbian Patriot. Other than the lack of equal rights for women, her chief complaints were later addressed in the Bill of Rights. Some historians believe she was also the author of at least one Anti-Federalist paper attributed to Elbridge Gerry, and that she co-authored Letters from a Federal Farmer with Richard Henry Lee.
In later years she argued for equality in education for girls and boys. She also published a volume of poetry and, in 1805, published a three-volume work, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. She is sometimes called “The Conscience of the American Revolution.”
Washington served as commander of the Virginia militia, the Virginia colonial legislature, and the Continental Congress. In 1775, Congress selected him to be Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He accepted Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in 1781, ending the Revolutionary War. Washington then resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon, intending no return to public life.
However, Washington soon grew concerned that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate for the new nation. Washington was selected to lead the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Once the Constitution was complete, Washington was unanimously elected to be the first president, with John Adams as Vice President. Washington’s First Inaugural Address inspired the nation. Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to his cabinet, and James Madison served as a chief advisor.
He served two terms as president, discouraging political parties and working to keep the new nation out of foreign wars. He refused a third term. In his Farewell Address, Washington urged his fellow citizens to cherish the Constitution. Washington served his country with courage and responsibility, believing that liberty would endure.
At the 1787 Constitution Convention, Hamilton’s nationalist views were not received well by the other delegates. He called for a strong executive branch with a president who would serve for life. Though it did not strengthen the national government as much as he had hoped, Hamilton took the lead in promoting ratification of the Constitution in New York. He teamed with Madison and John Jay to write The Federalist Papers, writing 52 of the 85 essays. In Federalist No. 70, he made the case that “the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.” In Federalist No. 84, he argued that a bill of rights was not needed, because the government had only those powers listed: “why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?”
Hamilton served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington. He pressed for the establishment of a national bank—something not in Congress’ enumerated powers. This plan was opposed by Thomas Jefferson and others who feared growing federal power. The first party system in America formed around these two men. After leaving the Washington administration in 1795, Hamilton acted as the defense lawyer in People v. Croswell (1803), in which he made the argument that truth could be used as a defense for libel. Though he lost the case, his arguments led New York to change its law, protecting freedom of the press.
Fifteen years after Hamilton’s death in a duel with Aaron Burr Chief Justice John Marshall held in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) that the creation of a national bank was an implied power of the federal legislature and was therefore constitutional.
In 1777 Jay helped draft the New York constitution, served as state supreme court Chief Justice, and in the Continental Congress. He was elected President of the Assembly, the highest office under the Articles of Confederation. Together with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, he traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Paris. While he was away, Congress appointed him Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He found the job difficult to execute because under the Articles each state could act alone, and he had no power to negotiate meaningful treaties. This experience strengthened his resolve for a stronger central government. He teamed with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to write five essays of The Federalist Papers encouraging ratification of the Constitution.
President George Washington appointed Jay the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1789. In 1794 he negotiated “Jay’s Treaty” which was successful at avoiding war with Britain, but which received a negative reception in the United States because of the belief that Jay had made too many concessions to the British. The next year Jay resigned from the Supreme Court as he had been elected governor of New York—an office he neither requested nor sought. As governor, he signed an emancipation bill and continued to work for the abolition of slavery.
In 1787, he was a leader at the Constitutional Convention. The author of the Virginia Plan, he suggested a system of checks and balances. He also worked to balance the reserved and concurrent powers of the states and federal government. He also took detailed notes through the convention. Because of his efforts, Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution.
When the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, Madison teamed with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers in support of ratification. He led the debate to approve the Constitution in Virginia, taking on Anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry. When it became clear that the Constitution would not pass without the promise of a listing of rights, he proposed seventeen amendments, twelve of which were sent to the states for approval. Of those twelve, the states approved ten which became known as the Bill of Rights. Madison was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1789, where he became George Washington’s chief supporter. Madison eventually split from Washington politically as Washington aligned himself with Alexander Hamilton and his plan for a Bank of the United States. Madison moved away from the Federalists and closer to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party.
After leaving Congress in 1797, Madison and Jefferson wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Madison became Jefferson’s Secretary of State and later succeeded him as President in 1809. As President, he allowed the nation to enter the War of 1812—called “Mr. Madison’s War” by many at the time—a decision that many historians count as a historic failure. However, the war won respect for the new republic overseas and Madison emerged from the war with great popular support.
During the 1780s, Mason was among the many statesmen who believed the Articles of Confederation to be an inadequate form of government. Mason was called on to serve at the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. There, he opposed the Constitution because he believed the central government was too strong. He argued that the document needed a bill of rights to protect the people from government abuses. He also called for an end to the importation of slaves. All these calls were rejected. Acting with integrity, Mason refused to sign the Constitution. He argued against its ratification, making enemies of James Madison and George Washington.
Mason became a leading Anti-Federalist after the Convention, writing a pamphlet called Objections to this Constitution of Government. He argued that the Constitution gave “no security” to the “Declarations of rights in the separate States.” At the Virginia Ratifying Convention, he joined Patrick Henry in opposing adoption. Madison promised that a bill of rights would be added, and Virginia voted to ratify. Three years later, many of the protections in the U.S. Bill of Rights would be based on Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. For this reason, Mason is known as the “Grandfather of the Bill of Rights.”
In 1781 as Assistant United States Superintendent of Finance, Morris struggled to finance the Continental Army. He hinted that the Continental Army might employ force if Congress did not act. The officers assembled at a barn in Newburgh, New York to discuss marching on Philadelphia, but George Washington quelled the Newburgh Conspiracy by appearing at the gathering.
Morris was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was appointed, along with Alexander Hamilton, to the Committee of Style and was responsible for the final language of the Constitution. Some believe he glossed the wording to enhance the power of the federal government, including beginning the Preamble with the words “We the people” rather than “We the states,” signifying that the Constitution was not the creature of the states, but the work of the nation as a whole.
Morris turned down an offer from Alexander Hamilton to co-author a defense of the Constitution which became known as The Federalist Papers. He succeeded Thomas Jefferson as ambassador to France and courageously remained at his post during the bloody Reign of Terror—the only foreign diplomat to do so. In 1812 he became distressed by the war with Great Britain and called for the secession of New York and New England from the Union. This attempt was discredited, and Morris died four years later at the age of 64.
Morris was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention. He was appointed, along with Alexander Hamilton, to the Committee of Style and was responsible for the final language of the Constitution. He rewrote the Preamble to begin with the words “We the People” rather than “We the States,” signifying that the Constitution was not the creature of the states, but the work of the people as a whole.
At the Constitutional Convention, Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan. By the Convention’s end, though, Randolph refused to sign the Constitution. He believed his integrity required him to refuse. He thought the final version had strayed too far from what he called the “republican propositions” of the Virginia Plan. He also feared that a single President would lead to tyranny. Instead he supported a three-person executive council. James Madison later persuaded Randolph to support ratification at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. The compromise was made easier for Randolph because eight states had already ratified by the time of Virginia’s Convention.
Randolph was appointed to serve as the nation’s first Attorney General by President George Washington.
Rousseau held that human nature was essentially good—that man was naturally a “noble savage”—but degrades into cruelty without a system of laws. Rousseau held that in a natural state, individuals must compete with each other, but they are also increasingly interdependent on each other. This contradiction was to blame for man’s degradation. By uniting under a social contract, individuals surrender their natural freedom and agree to submit to the general will of the people, who are sovereign.
While the Founders accepted some of Rousseau’s philosophy, such as supporting freedom of religion, they rejected others. Rousseau criticized private property and asserted that the general will of the people was sovereign over the individual’s body and property. This argument put him knowingly in opposition to other enlightenment philosophers including John Locke, Rousseau also advocated restraints on free speech in order to protect people from bad ideas. For this and other reasons, he is considered an intellectual ancestor of socialist systems.
In the 1760's Sherman became a leader in the resistance to British tyranny. Dedicated to moderation, he urged peaceful forms of protest, including boycotts and petitions. In 1774 he was elected to the Continental Congress. He served on the committee in charge of drafting the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson; it was the committee that chose Jefferson to draft the document. In 1776, Sherman helped frame the Articles of Confederation, and he later signed it. After leaving national politics to return to public service in Connecticut, Sherman returned to Congress in 1783 to approve the Treaty of Paris.
Sherman was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he worked to guard the power of states against the national government. He argued that the legislature should be the strongest branch of government, suggesting Congress should have the power to select the President. He suggested the Connecticut Compromise, or Great Compromise, which determined the method of representation in Congress. He initially opposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution, but eventually supported James Madison’s effort to add amendments. In 1791, the 70-year old Sherman was appointed to the U.S. Senate, where he served until he died in 1793.
As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Wilson advocated direct election of the president. This would have constituted a radical change from the system under the Articles of Confederation (which had no national executive) and from that supported by advocates of republican government. It also put him at odds with major figures from the Founding period, such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that substantial power should be reserved to the individual states, and that a popularly-elected executive–among other changes–would concentrate power too heavily at the national level. Wilson is credited with the compromise that resulted in the formation of the Electoral College. Once the Constitution was sent to the states, Wilson joined with Benjamin Rush to secure ratification in Pennsylvania.
In 1789, President George Washington appointed Wilson to the Supreme Court. His most important opinion, establishing that a citizen of one state could sue the government of another state, was overturned by the Eleventh Amendment. During his time on the Court, Wilson also served as the University of Pennsylvania’s first professor of law. He lectured on the place of law in society, and cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, and he urged moderation, swiftness, and certainty in punishment as a means of ensuring justice.
Documents/Supreme Court Cases
In the second part of No. 39, Madison examines the “compound republic” created by the Constitution which is what we today call federalism. The Constitution, he points out, has both “national” and “federal” characteristics. The national government will have authority over individuals as national citizens, but in several ways, the new government will be federal in form. For example, he says, federalism is reflected in the method of ratification of the new Constitution where delegates to the state ratifying conventions will vote as citizens of their respective states. The federal form is also reflected, he notes, in the structure of the U. S. Senate where the states will be equally represented by senators chosen by their state legislature. Finally, Madison concludes, the fact that the individual states retain certain important powers is proof of the “federal” nature of the Constitution.
Madison also discusses the way republican government can serve as a check on the power of factions, and the tyranny of the majority. “[I]n the federal republic of the United States… all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” All of the Constitution’s checks and balances, Madison concludes, serve to preserve liberty by ensuring justice, and “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society.”
Though some delegates had called for an executive council, Hamilton defended a single executive as “far more safe” because “wherever two or more persons are engaged in any common…pursuit, there is always danger of difference of opinion…bitter dissensions are apt to spring. Whenever these happen, they lessen the respectability, weaken the authority.” Hamilton also argued that a single executive would be watched “more narrowly” and vigilantly by the people than a group of people would be.
Brutus was wary of giving the national government too much power. He wrote, “Many instances can be produced in which the people have voluntarily increased the powers of their rulers; but few, if any, in which rulers have willingly abridged their authority. This is a sufficient reason to induce you to be careful, in the first instance, how you deposit the powers of government.”
Brutus had several specific objections to the proposed new Constitution. He believed it would infringe on the peoples’ liberty and argued that a bill of rights was needed. He thought the necessary and proper clause of Article I, Section 8 gave Congress too much power. He also believed that giving the Supreme Court the power to interpret the Constitution would lead to even greater power for Congress and would infringe upon the powers of the states.
After spending the entire summer behind closed doors in secrecy dealing with several difficult issues, on September 17, 1787, the new Constitution of the United States was completed. Thirty-nine delegates present at the end of the convention signed the Constitution. Three delegates – Edmund Randolph of Virginia, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, and George Mason of Virginia—refused to sign it. The new Constitution was then sent to the states for ratification.