A constitutional democracy is a government based on written law. A constitutional system keeps the power of the government in check through fragmentation, decentralization of power, and appropriate checks and balances. The United States moved to a constitutional democracy after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 which separated the American colonies from control by England. The Articles of Confederation, which became effective in 1781, formed the first constitution for the newly formed United States. During the time the Declaration of Independence was being drafted in 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress calling for the formation of a government for the United States.
Congress began work on the formation of a formal government structure in 1776. Concerns about defending the fledgling United States against the superior military power of England caused this work to be placed on the ìback burnerî in favor of raising and supporting the Army and Navy to fight the war. The states were also busy developing and ratifying their own constitutions.
Several times during this period, the Congress had to evacuate Philadelphia to escape from the British Army. In 1778, Congress sent the Articles of Confederation to the states with a three-year limit for ratification. In 1781, the Articles were ratified and the first constitution went into effect. The power in the first constitution was clearly placed in the states.
The states retained their sovereignty (no higher authority could intervene). The national government consisted of a Congress and a weak executive. The national Congress was beholden to the states for revenue because the national government could not impose taxes. The end of the war with England in 1783 brought new attention to the inadequacies of the national government. While consensus could be reached among the states on fighting the war, gaining consensus on other issues was very difficult. By the mid-1780s, problems were mounting from inter-state disputes, such as Virginia and Pennsylvania coming close to war over border disputes south of Pittsburgh; rampant inflation of state-issued paper currency; and pressures from foreign nations for a stronger national government that they could deal with.
The overriding fear of many intellectuals was that too much power placed in the hands of the people (direct democracy) could be as destructive to a republic as the tyranny of King George III. The Convention opened in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, but only a few delegates were on hand. These few had to wait for eleven days until enough delegates arrived to constitute a quorum. Seventy-four delegates were appointed by state legislatures. Only 55 showed up during the Convention with 30 to 40 delegates present at most sessions. It should be noted that the delegates to the Convention were sent by their legislatures to draft proposals for amending the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles of Confederation, any change to that document had to be approved by the thirteen states, a very difficult task to achieve.
Rhode Islandís refusal to send delegates to the Convention made any change to the Articles virtually impossible. During the Convention, the attending delegates voted to set aside the Articles and draft a new constitution even though that was beyond the scope of the delegatesí authority. Although a few delegates walked out and returned to their states, a quorum remained, and work on the Constitution proceeded. Debates were intense on many issues. Little consensus existed on most issues.
Bargaining, conflict, and compromise were key to keeping the Convention moving towards a final document. Many key issues were resolved by only one vote. Once voted, the majority view was accepted and work proceeded on the next issue. One thing you should remember when you hear the Founding Fathers quoted (usually on the floor of Congress) is that they did not have a consensus on many issues. Instead, a simple majority carried many key issues. Some issues such as slavery were set aside for another day or another generation, and other issues such as statesí rights are still debated.