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What Is the Constitution?
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What Is the Constitution?
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We the people at Who HQ bring readers the full story—arguments and all—of how the US Constitution came into being. Signed on September 17, 1787—four years after the American War for...
We the people at Who HQ bring readers the full story—arguments and all—of how the US Constitution came into being. Signed on September 17, 1787—four years after the American War for...
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  • We the people at Who HQ bring readers the full story—arguments and all—of how the US Constitution came into being.
    Signed on September 17, 1787—four years after the American War for Independence—the Constitution laid out the supreme law of the United States of America. Today it's easy for us to take this blueprint of our government for granted. But the Framers—fifty-five men from almost all of the original 13 states—argued fiercely for many months over what ended up being only a four-page document. Here is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the hotly fought issues—those between Northern and Southern States; big states and little ones—and the key players such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington who suffered through countless revisions to make the Constitution happen.

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  • From the book What Is the Constitution?


    The first time the thirteen American colonies declared themselves a free nation was in the Declaration of Independence, written in July of 1776. By then, the colonies were fed up with being ruled from afar by Great Britain. A bloody war for independence broke out—the Revolutionary War.

    At the start, winning the war seemed impossible. How could the ragtag rebel army ever defeat Great Britain, the mightiest military power in the world? But a fierce drive to be free fired the rebels' spirits.

    By 1783, the war was over—and the colonies were no longer colonies. They were states in a free and independent nation: the United States of America!

    Even while at war, the new country had needed some sort of government. So, in 1776, a group of leaders of the Revolution had quickly patched together some rules. They were called the Articles of Confederation.

    Nobody wanted a government that was all-powerful. That's what the states were breaking away from. So, they created a congress that was too weak to do any harm. Unfortunately, the result was a government that was too weak to do much good, either.

    By 1787, just four years after the United States' glorious victory, the young country was in trouble. National pride didn't exist yet. In fact, if you asked most people what their country was, they named their state. It was easy to see why. Over their whole lifetime, people rarely traveled more than thirty miles away from where they were born. In 1785, a man from Georgia wrote that he was leaving his "country" to go to "a strange land amongst strangers." The "strange land" was New York!

    States quarreled often over where their state boundary lines were and which state "owned" certain rivers. Enemies abroad smirked at America's troubles. Didn't all this arguing prove that the upstart nation was not capable of ruling itself without a powerful king?

    America's young government needed fixing—and soon. So, during the horribly hot and sticky summer of 1787, fifty-five men from twelve states gathered in Philadelphia for a special meeting. (Rhode Island wouldn't come.) Their mission was to change the Articles of Confederation. Most had no idea they were going to frame—to plan out—a whole new system of government!

    The framers, which is what history books call these men, had to find answers to big, thorny questions. Who decided if the United States would go to war again? What powers should be given to the head of the government? What should happen if leaders abused their power? Who should be allowed to vote? How would laws get passed?

    For four months, the framers debated . . . and debated . . . and debated. Tempers flared. Voices rose. Every man cared deeply about his ideas. It was hard work to listen to the other side. So much was at stake! They knew they were trying to decide the fate for "millions yet unborn," as delegate George Mason said.

    At some points, writing a new constitution seemed hopeless. Would an agreement ever be reached?


    Chapter 1: A Limping Government


    In 1787, the United States of America had a name. And it had a flag. Yet many things were missing to make it a true nation.

    There was no president. There was no central court system. Neither was there a US army or navy. There was no Senate or House of Representatives—only a weak "Congress." Congress could pass laws, but it could not enforce them. For instance, Congress could charge taxes to pay off war debts. But it had to rely on the goodwill of the states to pay up.

    People's loyalty to their state made...

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Patricia Brennan Demuth
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