We celebrate the formation of the United States of America on the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776.
Thomas Jefferson, the 33-year-old drafter of the Declaration, wrote an interesting document.
Jefferson’s prose has been seared into the American psyche: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…;” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The colonies did not separate themselves from Britain as a single country, but as separate states, as international law refers to countries. Thus, the last paragraph of the Declaration concludes, “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States,” which according to the document “have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
The Declaration, in large part, is a bill of particulars of grievances against Great Britain and its king. The numerated grievances contributed greatly to two other organic documents, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
While we celebrate the Fourth of July as Independence Day, the United States did not become a country until the ratification of the Constitution on June 21, 1788. Perhaps it is that day, not July Fourth, which we should be celebrating as our national day.
The day after the signing of the Declaration, the United States had no central government. It took four years for all states to adopt written constitutions. It took another year, for the first federal constitution, the Articles of Confederation, to be ratified. The Articles established a confederation of sovereign states with a weak central government. They were limited in scope because they addressed the conduct of the War and because Americans feared central authority (see the indictment of George III in the Declaration). Their loyalty was to their home states, their “country.”
There was little unity under the Articles. While in effect, there was economic depression, social unrest, interstate rivalries, and foreign intrigue.
Enter 36-year-old James Madison, the Father of the Constitution. In 1787, he was instrumental in convening a convention to consider superseding the Articles. Madison wrote what became known as the Virginia Plan, an outline of a constitution, which was submitted at the opening of the convention. The work of the convention quickly became to amend the Virginia Plan and to fill in the gaps.
The Articles left the American states with virtually no central government. This placed the United States in a difficult position when dealing with other nations in the areas of international relations and commerce. Domestically, it created hostilities between the states.
While there was agreement that this was an untenable situation, there were differences about how much power a new central government should have. This was the core disagreement between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.
There was the issue of the power of the federal government in relation to the states. The solution: the federal government was to have only those powers delegated to it by the states.
There was the issue of concentrated power. No one wanted to create a monarchy or dictatorship. The solution: dividing the federal government’s powers among three branches— executive, legislative, and judiciary — each with assigned duties and each acting as a check on, and balance to, the other two branches.
Then there was there was the relationship of the federal government to the individual. Mindful of the complaints against King George, this was of great concern but unaddressed in the proposed Constitution. It was a sticking point in the ratification process, one which was addressed in the Federalist Papers, written to gain public support for the new Constitution.
The solution was the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, originally proposed by Madison to the First United States Congress as 12 amendments in 1789. When the votes were counted in 1791, two amendments — dealing with congressional apportionment and legislative pay — didn’t make the cut.
I hope this abbreviated history allows you to read the Preamble of the Constitution with more understanding. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union ….” The Framers wanted a “more perfect Union” as opposed to the imperfect Confederation. It is the Constitution that formed the United States of America as we know it.
So while on July Fourth we celebrate our independence from Britain, keep in mind the United States was really born on June 21, 1788, when the Constitution was ratified.