American Revolution: the Constitution

Exam task

Section A Question 3 – American Revolution

Source extract

“It [the Constitution] is a nationalistic document. As such, it was far in advance of its time, which explains why Patrick Henry and many others were so alarmed. The idea of a national government meant to them alien, selfish and oppressive power. After all, the last authority to insist on the Americans’ nationality had been George III. The anti-Federalists need not have worried: American nationality was no imperial fiction. The Constitution as it emerged between 1787 and 1791 crowned the American Revolution and provided a safe compass for the future. In theory, it settled all those problems – of taxation; of foreign relations; of collective duty and individual rights; of political and legal organisation – which had proved so difficult that they brought about the downfall of the old British Empire in America. It strongly resembled the old order to which Americans, as inheritors of English traditions. The political thought on which it was based was realistic, accepting that men were not angels but that their aspirations were mostly legitimate. Liberty and law were its two inescapable guiding lights.”

Source: Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the United States of America

Question

“Using both the source and your own ideas, why it was thought necessary to draft and implement a new constitution in America in 1787-88.” (6 marks)

Student response

“The Constitution (1787, ratified 1788) was penned as a pragmatic response to the crises that was existent under the idealistic Articles of Confederation (1781). The ‘loose union’ established to preserve the sovereignty of the states did not grant the national congress the ability to tax, run a currency or raise an army. This left the ‘union of friendship’ incapable of paying ex-Continental army serviceman and retrieving war debt leading to an attempted counter-revolution, Shay’s Rebellion (1786). This event along with the economic recession (which Congress had no power to address) due to inflation and the loss of the strong trading relationship with Britain led to a reconsideration of the Articles at the Philadelphia Convention (1787). Furthermore larger states were themselves dissatisfied with the one vote per state structure of Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and through leaders such as Benjamin Franklin joined in the chorus for a scrapping of the Articles and a compromise based on population.”

Question

“Explain the usefulness of this source for understanding the return to strong national power in America in 1789. In your response, refer to other views and historical perspectives.” (10 marks)

Student response

“The extract celebrating the Constitution as the crowning of the American Revolution is only partially useful in understanding the political development of the new society. Brogan’s strength is his ability to make note of the unifying nature of the Constitution (1787-8) and how such a document, despite resembling the oppressive British form of Government, protected liberty and law. Furthermore he establishes the contention that the Constitution, in creating a ‘national government,’ solved many of the crises prevailing under the Articles of Confederation (1781). The weakness of the extract is its failure to question the Constitution and the very real risk of a return to ‘tyranny.’ Jenson develops such an argument claiming that the founding fathers called for a scrapping of the Article of Confederation to ‘check the ‘levelling spirit’ of the new nation which had become ‘too democratic’. Thus the ideals of liberty and law were inferior to what Zinn claims to be the ‘economic interests’ of the celebrated ‘founding fathers.’ Also contrary to Brogan’s document is Wood’s understanding that it was not the federalists that were in front of their time but the anti-federalists. The Constitution was the conservative end to the revolution with the ‘men of the future’ being those who opposed it. The document is as a result too isolated and too much of a celebration to provide a useful depiction of the political direction of the new society.”

Teacher feedback

Both responses are clear, relevant and contain a high level of understanding and detail. The first question asks for reasons why the Constitution was drafted in 1787. The student provides information relevant to the question, mentioning the perceived flaws of the Articles of Confederation, political disunity, the economic crisis of the 1780s and Shays’ Rebellion (though he/she does not offer reasons for these economic problems). The decline of foreign trade, internal disputes between the states, the frustration of leaders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and the Annapolis Convention might also have been mentioned.

The second question asks for a critical discussion, incorporating some historiography, about why the United States returned to strong centralised government in 1789. Brogan’s view is conservative, praising the Constitution as a “pragmatic” response. He suggests the new government “strongly resembled the old order”, albeit with some refinements that protected individual rights and provided “a safe compass for the future”. As the student points out, this is not a view shared by other historians. Progressives like Beard and Jensen considered the Constitution a reflection of landed and commercial class interests, as well as a device to protect property rights and assert greater controls over trade. Left wing historians like Zinn go further, claiming the Constitution was a control device, providing the means to crush uprisings and enforce laws and regulations. The student’s final sentence provides an interesting and perceptive evaluation of the extract. Together these responses would score in the region 15-16 out of 16.


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