The Beginnings of Our Constitution
Today and tomorrow, May 14 and 15, are the anniversaries of two linked events in our Founding. On May 15, 1776, the Continental Congress issued a “resolve” to the thirteen colonies: that each “Adopt such a government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the safety and happiness of their constituents in particular and America in general.” This instruction initiated the effort that all the colonies—soon to be states—would undertake by 1780: the creation of state constitutions. Gordon Lloyd, in his website on the Constitutional Convention, notes that: “Between 1776 and 1780 each of the thirteen colonies adopted a republican form of government. What emerged was the most extensive documentation of the powers of government and the rights of the people that the world had ever witnessed.” He goes on to say that “These state constitutions displayed a remarkable uniformity. Seven attached a prefatory Declaration of Rights, and all contained the same civil and criminal rights. Four states decided not to “prefix” a Bill of Rights to their constitutions, but, instead, incorporated the very same natural and traditional rights found in the prefatory declarations. New York incorporated the entire Declaration of Independence into its constitution.”
The resulting state governments were “robust and healthy,” Lloyd notes. After the Continental Congress created a government linking all the new states—the Articles of Confederation—a conflict arose, becoming particularly noticeable after independence was secured. The state governments were more powerful than the “late arriving, weak and divisive continental arrangement.” Statesmen such as Washington and Hamilton were frustrated that the Articles could not easily compel states to comply with the articles of peace with Great Britain or easily regulate interstate commerce. Madison worried that overbearing majorities in the state legislatures “were passing laws detrimental to the rights of individual conscience and the right to private property. And there was nothing that the union government could do about it because the Articles left matters of religion and commerce to the states,” Lloyd writes. So an initiative began to convene representatives of the states in Philadelphia to discuss ways of improving the Articles of Confederation.
The date appointed for the opening of the convention in Philadelphia was May 14, 1787.
Gordon Lloyd’s website on the Constitutional Convention amasses a wealth of information and resources useful for student research. A comprehensive online collection of information on the Convention, it presents the facts of the Founding in multiple ways, adaptable to different learning styles.