Sometimes we see news stories about new laws.
Other times, we hear about the courts making
decisions. A few times a year, the President gives
an important speech. Do you ever wonder why
the government can seem so complicated?
Today, our government is a lot like the one that
was created in 1787. The Founding Fathers1
good reason for writing the Constitution the way
they did. Those choices are still a big part of how
the American government works today.
Colonization and Revolution
People started coming to North America in the 1600s. Those people were called colonists. They were
from all over Europe, but the most people came from England. Soon the British were the strongest
influence in America. Because of this, all of the colonies became part of Great Britain. For a while
people liked being part of a very large kingdom. It meant that they would be protected by a strong
government. Then, In the middle of the 1700s, that changed. People started getting uncomfortable
with how much power the king had.
The biggest problem people had was how much money they were paying in taxes. They sent the British
a lot of money, but they didn’t get to be part of the government. That meant they could not choose
how their taxes were spent. Colonists started saying “taxation without representation” to talk about the
problem. The phrase caught on, and was part of what started the American Revolution. In 1776, the
colonists wrote the Declaration of Independence. The letter told the king that the colonies didn’t want
to be part of England anymore.
The British tried to stop the colonies from leaving by sending an army to end the rebellion. In the end,
the Americans won the Revolutionary War and the British soldiers went back to England. By 1781 the
states were finally free, but that was only the beginning.
1. The Founding Fathers are a group of men who were key figures in initiating America’s independence from Britain
and establishing American government and early international relations.
Now the Americans had to choose how they would run their new country. The people remembered
what life was like under England’s very powerful government. They wanted their new government to
have less power. That way, the people would have most of the control.
In order to do that, the people made the Articles Of Confederation.2
This was a document that
explained what the central government’s job was. It also set the limits of what the state governments
could do. The central government would have the power to start a war, but it wasn’t allowed to make
an army. The federal government also wouldn’t be allowed to collect taxes. There wasn’t even a
president! Instead, those jobs were done by individual states. Each state was allowed to decide how to
do them. People felt their rights would be safer if the states had the most power.
Unfortunately, this system caused a lot of problems. In Massachusetts, poor farmers started Shays’
It was a serious conflict, but the government couldn’t do anything to help. They did not have
any power in the state. Another problem was trade deals, which could not be made for the whole
country at once. Making separate agreements state by state was not working well. These kinds of
problems kept happening for a few years.
Soon people realized that they were going to have to make a change. In 1786, Alexander Hamilton4
called for a meeting to fix the Articles. Leaders met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to talk about how
they would solve the problems.
A Convention of Compromises
The meeting of the Founding Fathers in May, 1787 was called the Constitutional Convention. The
meeting took all summer. A lot of people disagreed on what needed to be done. Some delegates
wanted to just make changes to the Articles. Others wanted to start from scratch. In the end, everyone
had to make compromises.
The Great Compromise
One of the biggest arguments was about representatives. It was important to decide how many
delegates each state would have in Congress. Congress is the main law-making group. The bigger
states wanted the number of representatives to be based on the state’s population. The smaller states
worried that this would be unfair. They wanted every state to have the same number of delegates. In
the end, they agreed on the Great Compromise. Congress would be split into two parts. The House of
Representatives would be based on population. The Senate would have an equal number of
representatives from each state.
2. The Articles were written in 1777 and came into power in 1781, once enough states ratified, or approved, them.
3. The rebels, upset over what they thought were unfair taxes, used weapons to try to overtake the state government.
4. Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was a Founding Father who fought in the Revolutionary War.
The Three-Fifths Compromise
Slavery was another big issue for the Founding Fathers. States that had a lot of slaves thought they
should count as part of their population. A bigger population would mean they could have more
delegates in the House. States with fewer slaves didn’t think they should count. Because they weren’t
citizens, slaves were not allowed to vote. Eventually, they came to a compromise. Every five slaves
would count as three people when they counted the population. This rule stayed part of the
Constitution until after the Civil War.
The Contents of the Constitution
The meeting ended on September 17, 1787. The result was a document called the Constitution of the
United States of America. It only had seven articles and was the shortest constitution in the world. It
wasn’t long, but it covered all the most important parts of our government.
Separation of Powers
The leaders still remembered the problems they had as part of Great Britain. They never wanted to
have their rights taken away again. However, the Articles of Confederation taught them that the central
government needed to have some power.
They decided to split the government into three pieces. The Legislative branch, or Congress, makes the
laws. The Executive branch, or the president, makes sure the laws are followed. The president is also in
charge of relationships with other countries. The judicial branch interprets the laws and makes
decisions about whether they’re being broken. The judicial branch is made up of all of the federal
courts and the Supreme Court.
Giving each branch different responsibilities made sure no branch could ever have too much power.
This would make it harder to take away people’s rights.
Checks and Balances
The Founding Fathers wanted to protect people even further. Beyond just splitting the government,
they made it so each branch could stop other branches from making bad decisions. This is called a
system of checks and balances.
For example, Congress writes all laws but it’s up to the President to approve them. The Supreme Court
can erase new laws if they go against the Constitution.
The Founders also wanted to make sure the states still had some authority. The balance of powers
between the central government and all the state governments is called federalism.
“The Founding of American Democracy” by Jessica McBirney. Copyright © 2016 by CommonLit, Inc. This text is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
One example of this balance is the Senate. Every state has two representatives in the Senate, no
matter how big it is. This makes all the states equally powerful. Another example is the presidential
election. Each state gets to hold its own election. The results are mixed together later as part of the
The Constitution was carefully written. It protected the rights of the people and the states. However,
not all of the colonies thought it was good enough. The first political party, Anti-Federalists, started to
form. They thought the central government would still have too much power.
Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay6
all wrote essays explaining how everyone’s rights
would be safe under the Constitution. These were called the Federalist Papers. They also talked about
why a strong but small government was important. The papers worked. By 1790 all 13 colonies
The Bill of Rights
The Founding Fathers’ job was still not done. Many states requested that Congress also add a Bill of
Rights to the Constitution. This resulted in 10 important amendments8
being made to the original
document. The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to clearly say what the rights of every voting citizen9
the United States are.
The Bill of Rights is what protects our freedom of speech. It also grants Americans freedom of religion
and the right to a fair trial. The 10th amendment tells us that anything the central government doesn’t
control is up to the states.
The Constitution Today
Today, we still use the same Constitution from 1787. Congress has made 17 more amendments over
our nation’s history. The U.S. Constitution is still the shortest governing document in the world. We also
still use it to make all new laws and policies A. The Constitution was inferior to the Articles of Federation, under which the
states had dealt with Shays’ Rebellion and diplomatic trade conflicts.
B. The Constitution was founded on compromises between states of different sizes
C. The Constitution sought to balance the power of the three branches of
government while allowing the president to have the most power to introduce
laws and determine foreign relations.
D. The Constitution sought to balance the power dynamic between the central
government and all the state governments.
E. The Founding Fathers began the Constitution with the Bill of Rights because the
individual's rights were most important to them.
F. The Constitution has had to be amended so many times because the Founding
Fathers did a poor job at writing and organizing it.
Sometimes we see news stories about new laws.
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