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The following are excerpts from Please read and take notes on the three excerpts for
class on Wednesday, August 12.
What did the leaders of the American Revolution value in terms of political
philosophy? In other words what principles did they fight for, and what did
they mean?
The American Revolution was much more than a war for national independence, such as the Swiss
struggle for independence from the Austrians during the 1400s or the 80-year struggle of the Dutch
against Spanish rule in the late 1500s and 1600s. It was also much more than a revolt against taxes and
trade regulations.
The American Revolution was truly the first modern revolution. It enjoyed widespread popular support and
marked the first time in history that a people fought for their independence in the name of certain
universal principles of human rights and civil liberties.
The American Revolution touched off an "age of revolution." Its example helped inspire revolutions across
the entire western world. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, revolutions and popular uprisings
erupted from the Ural Mountains in Russia to the Andes Mountains in South America: in Greece, Ireland,
Italy, Mexico, Poland, Switzerland, and in many other countries. In Haiti, for the first time in history,
slaves succeeded in winning their independence by force of arms. These revolutions were justified in
terms of such ideas as "the rights of man" and "national independence," principles popularized by the
American Revolution.
What were the principles that the American revolutionaries fought for? One was popular sovereignty.
The American patriots believed that all governments exist for the benefit of the governed. Whenever a
government violated the peoples' fundamental rights, they had the right to change or overthrow it.
Another basic principle was equality before the law. At a time when most people in the western world
were ruled by kings, the American patriots repudiated the idea that the people should be royal subjects.
Instead, they insisted that the people should be regarded as citizens with equal rights, including the right
to participate in governmental affairs.
A third fundamental principle was constitutional rights and rule of law. The American revolutionaries
believed in natural rights--the idea that the people have certain fundamental rights that must be protected
against tyrannical oppression, including the right to trial by jury, freedom of speech and conscience, and
freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment. They also believed in constitutionalism-- that the peoples'
rights and government's functions and powers needed to be spelled out in a written document.
How did the newly independent United States attempt to structure their first
government in order to protect their political philosophy & values? What was
the problem?
Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation was the United States' first constitution. Proposed by the Continental
Congress in 1777, it was not ratified until 1781.
The Articles represented a victory for those who favored state sovereignty. Article 2 stated that "each
State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power...which is not...expressly
delegated to the United States.…" Any amendment required unanimous consent of the states.
The Articles of Confederation created a national government composed of a Congress, which had the
power to declare war, appoint military officers, sign treaties, make alliances, appoint foreign ambassadors,
and manage relations with Indians. All states were represented equally in Congress, and nine of the 13
states had to approve a bill before it became law.
Under the Articles, the states, not Congress, had the power to tax. Congress could raise money only by
asking the states for funds, borrowing from foreign governments, or selling western lands. In addition,
Congress could not draft soldiers or regulate trade. There was no provision for national courts.
The Articles of Confederation did not include a president. The states feared another George III might
threaten their liberties. The new framework of government also barred delegates from serving more than
three years in any six year period.
The Articles of Confederation created a very weak central government. It is noteworthy that the
Confederation Congress could not muster a quorum to ratify on time the treaty that guaranteed American
independence, nor could it pay the expense of sending the ratified treaty back to Europe.
The Articles' framers assumed that republican virtue would lead to states to carry out their duties and
obey congressional decisions. But the states refused to make their contributions to the central
government. Its acts were "as little heeded as the cries of an oysterman." As a result, Congress had to
stop paying interest on the public debt. The Continental army threatened to mutiny over lack of pay.
A series of events during the 1780s convinced a group of national leaders that the Articles of
Confederation provided a wholly inadequate framework of government.
How was the United States’ second attempt at a constitution & government different from the
first? How did they attempt to fix the problems of the Articles of Confederation but also protect
their political philosophy & values?
The Constitution & The Bill of Rights
Between 1776 and 1789 a variety of efforts were made to realize the nation's republican ideals. New
state governments were established in most states, expanding voting and office-holding rights.
Lawmakers let citizens decide which churches to support with their tax monies. Several states adopted
bills of rights guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, as well as trial by jury. Western
lands were opened to settlement. Educational opportunities for women increased. Most northern states
either abolished slavery or adopted a gradual emancipation plan, while some southern states made it
easier for slave owners to manumit individual slaves.
Concern for the new nation's political stability led leading revolutionary leaders to draft a new Constitution
in 1787, which worked out compromises between large and small states and between northern and
southern states. The federal system balanced power between the national government and the state
governments; within the national government, power was divided among three separate branches in a
system of checks and balances.
In addition to listing the powers of the national government-which include the power to collect taxes,
regulate trade, and declare war-the Constitution enumerates the powers forbidden to the states and to
Congress; and the procedures for electing and appointing government officials as well as procedures for
amending the document.
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was ratified in 1791. These amendments,
which were originally intended to protect individual liberties from the power of the central government,
guarantee freedom of speech, the press, religion, petition, and assembly; and specify the rights of the
accused in criminal and civil cases.