The Confederation was designed as a temporary civil machine, with which to conduct a war common to the colonies. The Constitution was the later and permanent bond, combining the States under a single government. Without the confederation, there would have been chaos in the revolution; without the constitution, there would have remained the weakness arising from the division and rivalry of States.
It is most interesting to observe the gradual manner in which our civil government crystallized out of the original elements offered by the colonies; and it is wonderful to see with what wise deliberation and patriotic earnestness States differing so widely in manners, in religion, in colonial system, and even in blood and race, were brought together in harmonious coalition, bound with a bond which the greatest civil war of modern times failed to sever, and which it seems only to have confirmed and strengthened.
There were, indeed, local confederations before those which, in 1774, enabled a congress to meet at Philadelphia, and which, in 1777, established articles for a more regular, though still a temporary, civil enginery with which to bring the war to a successful conclusion. More than a century before the first meeting of the Continental Congress, the idea of a confederation had been agitated among the New England colonies. In 1643 a confederation of those colonies was agreed upon at Boston, with twelve organic articles, for the common protection and defense. Here was the very beginning of American unions; and in its features may be discovered traces of the democratic principles of the Pilgrims.
A general congress of all the colonies met at New York in 1690, for purposes of the conference, when the Stamp Act was promulgated. Massachusetts invited the colonies to meet in a general congress, which assembled at New York in 1765, adopted a declaration of rights, asserted the sole right of taxation to rest in the colonies, and passed other important resolutions. Eleven years before this, commissioners from nearly all of the colonies had met at Albany, and before this body, Benjamin Franklin submitted his famous "project of union." Other conferences and congresses were held between 1765 and 1774; but it was early in September of the latter year that the first formal Continental Congress met, at Philadelphia, mainly to concert measures for resisting the arbitrary acts of the mother country. The rules which guided its deliberations were few and simple; but even so early we find Patrick Henry arguing upon the great question of the rights of the States, which has been a bone of contention in this country from that time to this.
The first formal articles of confederation, after several ineffectual attempts, were adopted on the 15th of November, 1777, when the States were in the midst of the war of independence; but they were not formally ratified by all of the colonies until 1781 when Maryland, at last, agreed to them. These articles contained the germs of nationality, the crude material out of which the much broader and wiser constitution was afterwards framed. The second article provided for the complete "sovereignty, independence, and freedom," of the several States, in all powers not expressly delegated to Congress.
It was declared that the confederation was a mutual league for protection and defence; that each State should deliver fugitives from justice to the others, and accord full faith to the judicial records of the others; that each State should have the right to recall its delegates, and that no State should be represented in Congress by less than two nor more than seven delegates; that no State should send embassies to foreign powers, confer titles of nobility, lay imports inconsistent with treaties of the United States, keep vessels of war or military forces in time of peace without the consent of Congress, a certain quota of militia excepted, or engage in war except in certain specified exigencies.
These, with many minor regulations, were the organic rules under which our civil government was carried on from 1777 to 1788 when the constitution came into force. The confederation was supplied with an executive chosen by Congress, comprising secretaries of foreign affairs, war, and finance. It was evident, however, that this league, while it had well served a temporary purpose, was quite inadequate to the purpose of a permanent bond of union. "We are one nation today," said Washington, "and thirteen tomorrow; who will treat with us on these terms?"
The first formal step towards establishing a constitution was the meeting, in the autumn of 1786, of commissioners from Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, at Annapolis. They conferred together and reported to Congress a recommendation that a body, comprising delegates from all the States, and empowered to frame an organic instrument, should be convened early in the following year. Congress adopted the scheme, and the constituent convention was called.
This famous assembly met at Philadelphia in May 1787, and its deliberations continued until the middle of September. Among its members were many of the most eminent statesmen and soldiers of the Revolutionary period.
George Washington, pre-eminent in war, and to be still pre-eminent in times of peace, presided over the convention, and was one of the guiding spirits of its labors. Of the thirty-eight delegates who signed the constitution, six--Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, James Wilson, and George Clymer--had previously signed the Declaration of Independence. It was in the constitutional convention that Alexander Hamilton's genius for statesmanship became conspicuous to the whole nation; while Madison, the future President, achieved therein a large reputation.
Among others, the two Pinckneys from South Carolina, John Dickinson, Jonathan Dayton, Rufus King, Gouverneur Morris, Jared Ingersoll, and John Rutledge, were eminent in various spheres of public life. Some of the members of the convention refused to, or for some reason did not sign the constitution after it was completed and drafted. These were Elbridge Gerry and Caleb Strong of Massachusetts, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, John Lansing and Robert Yates of New York, William C. Houston of New Jersey, Luther Martin and John Francis Mercer of Maryland, George Mason, James McClung, Edmund Randolph, and George Wythe of Virginia, William R. Davis of North Carolina, William Houston and William Pierce of Georgia.
The discussions on the proposed constitution were long, earnest, sometimes heated, and revealed the presence of widely divergent opinions. Four plans, or projects, were submitted severally by Edmund Randolph, William Paterson, Charles Pinckney, and Alexander Hamilton, differing widely in the political systems recommended. Throughout, the struggle was between those who desired to preserve a large degree of independence to the States, and those who wished to make a strong national government; and the crisis of the struggle came upon the question whether the States should have equal votes in the Senate, or should be represented in that body, as in the House of Representatives, according to population.
This was warmly debated for several days, the venerable Roger Sherman and Hamilton sustaining the principle of State equality, and Madison and Rufus King as vigorously opposing it. At last the former party prevailed after a report in favor of State equality in the Senate said to have been moved in committee by Dr. Franklin. Other phases of the same contention occurred in the discussion of the article specially defining the powers of Congress. It was the object of the "States' rights" party to limit these as much as possible, and of the nationalist party to give them a broad range.
Thus, after labors extending through nearly four months, the constitution issued from the hands of its framers with the marks of compromise and concession on almost every section. On the one hand, the States were to vote as equals in the second and upper branch of Congress and reserved to themselves local self-government and all powers not expressly set forth in the instrument. On the other, Congress was clothed with authority to lay uniform taxes and imposts, to provide for the common defence, to borrow money on the credit of the nation, to regulate foreign commerce, to make naturalization and bankruptcy laws, to coin money, to establish post offices and roads, to declare war and raise armies and a navy, to constitute courts, to organize and call out the militia, and to "execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrection, and repel invasions."
Animated, too, by the true republican spirit, the framers of the constitution inserted in it that no bill of attainder or _ex-post-facto_ law should be passed; that the writ of _habeas corpus_ should only be suspended in cases of extreme necessity; and that no title of nobility should either be granted by the government or accepted by a citizen of the United States.
As soon as the constitution was promulgated, a warm contest arose in all the States over its ratification. The instrument, upon being ratified by nine States, was to become the organic law of the land. Although it was strenuously opposed by many eminent men, among them Patrick Henry, a sufficient number of States assented in time to bring the constitution into operation the year after its submission to the people.
Although neither Hamilton nor Madison was entirely satisfied with the work of the convention, both sank their scruples in a loftier spirit of patriotism; and their defense of the constitution, in conjunction with John Jay in the _Federalist_, is likely to be read as long as the constitution lasts. How wisely the framers labored, and the great fruits of their labor, are far more clearly to be seen now that the great instrument has been so long and so severely tried than was possible in their own generation. The constitution has stood well the strain of a progress far more rapid, and needs far more vast and pressing than they could have foreseen. It protects the liberties of a nation many fold more extended and numerous than they could have anticipated would exist within the brief space of a century; nor does the promise of its endurance yet grow feeble.