For centuries, the focal point of the political system in the United States has been its Constitution (McNeese, 2001, p.7). Legally, the U.S. Constitution is defined as the fundamental law of American federal system and “the landmark document of the Western world” (Duignan, 2012, p. 1). Ratified back in 1787, it is believed to be the oldest national constitution fixed by a written word. The U.S. Constitution serves to define the major organs of U.S. government along with their jurisdictions. Besides, it defines the basic rights of American citizens (Duignan, 2012, p.1). If these rights are violated by the government, the latter may be subject to what is known as civil liability (Hames & Ekern, 2012, p.11). In this paper, the historical background of the U.S. Constitution is provided. Namely, the significance of major documents that influenced the creation of the U.S. Constitution is discussed in a chronological manner. The timeline of U.S. Constitution creation is based on credible academic U.S. sources, both legal and historical.
Before the creation of the Constitution, Americans had used a range of other documents, which included various charters, royal grants, as well as compacts. Of particular importance were a set of British documents the earliest of which dated back to the medieval times. Magna Carta is believed to have been the source of principal ideas that may be found in today’s U.S. Constitution. Signed back in 1215 by King John of England, this “great charter” provided the idea of the limited power of the government. At that time, Magna Carta restricted the absolute state power of the king and was used as a source of rights provision for the king’s barons (Moehn, 2003, p.11). More specifically the role and significance of Magna Carta for the creation of U.S. Constitution is described by McNeese in his “U.S. Constitution”. McNeese (2001, p. 7) observes that Magna Carta stood at the roots of British constitutionalism. This means that it influenced the worldview of those Englishmen who came as settlers to America. Historically, the tyrannical King John of England was made to sign the document to retain his throne after his army was defeated by the enemy. As a result of that major revolt against the king’s rule initiated by his noblemen, the feudal lords and later peasants and merchants got protected by the law. That set the basis of American constitutional thinking: apart from many other things, the king was to keep to the law and did not have right to punish his vassals without a trial. In addition, the King got restricted in his right to tax people. In particular, he was not allowed to impose new taxations without his people’s consent.
Another important document that preceded the creation of the Constitution was Mayflower Compact signed back in 1620. It was signed by Puritans who arrived to America on board of Mayflower, their ship. By signing the compact, the leaders of the newly arrived agreed to establish some kind of government. That was done based on preceding experience of British colonialists, who “recognized rights for the people and political limits of power (…)” and based their understanding of political governance on “representation by the people and protection of the rights to life and liberty” (McNeese, 2001, p. 11). The significance of the Mayflower Compact was that it signified the creation of the first prototype of the American government established to “enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equal Lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought, most meete & convenient for ye general good of ye colonie (…)” (McNeese, 2001, p.11).
The Declaration of Independence signed back in 1776 by the leaders of American colonists was of unprecedented importance for the creation of U.S. Constitution and its ratification 11 years after the Declaration. First of all, the Declaration of Independence established the colonies as free states that were no longer subject to the colonial rule of the British crown. Secondly, the Declaration set the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution that was adopted later. These are just some of these principles:
- Governments are created to secure the following rights: people’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness;
- Governments take their power from those people that are governed;
- If the government abuses the power, it should be changed.
Next, the important document that impacted the formulation of the Constitution was the Articles of Confederation. Its significance is hard to overestimate. In the context of thirteen completely different colonies neither of which desired to be subject to one central government (indeed, they had just defeated the King of England to be free!), the Articles of Confederation were the first attempt to unite American colonies and set up a national government. Ratified back in 1781, the Articles established the institution of presidency, the Congress, and fixed the extensive rights of states. Despite the fact the newly created government was limited in certain aspects (it could not impose taxation and draft men to serve in the military), they provided the solid basis for the Constitution by their key positions and definition of the state structure (Hames & Ekern, 2012, p.9).
Finally, the Federalist Papers, which had 85 essays, were published in support of the U.S. Constitution and of necessity of its ratification. According to historians, the best-written and influential essay was that of Madison (No.10). The effect of the Federalist Papers was that they successfully opposed the policy of Anti-Federalists. The latter did not support the Constitution in the format it was finally ratified. Federalists argued in favour of the system that the United States have today, with the strong federal government, the president as the head of the executive branch, and the supremacy of the Constitution. Anti-federalists opposed those changes by asserting that political powers were supposed to stay in different states; they were against the institution of presidency, and campaigned for the Constitution to be changed before ratification. The Federalists Papers, which addressed the confrontation between two fractions in the society, fixed the divide. That set the basis for the American two-party system in the future.
In summary, the documents that have been discussed above all contributed to the creation of the U.S. Constitution the way we know it today. The chronological approach has helped identify that the major legal document of our country did not appear overnight, but resulted from a range of efforts taken by different people, in different lands, and in different epochs.