In which Craig Benzine teaches you about the compromises met in ratifying the U.S. Constitution. The United State’s didn’t always have its current system of government. Actually, this is it’s second attempt. Craig will delve into the failures (and few successes) of the Articles of Confederation, tell you how delegates settled on a two-house system of representation, discuss the issues of slavery and population that have been imbedded into our constitution, and fire up the clone machine to discuss how federalists and anti-federalist opposition provided the U.S. a Bill of Rights. And who knows, maybe all this talk of compromise will even inspire Craig and eagle to find some middle ground.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m Craig, and this is Crash Course Government and Politics, and today we’re going to talk
about the single most important document in America, one that we’ll be talking about a
lot over next few months. No, I’m not talking about O Magazine – it’s the United States Constitution,
and what we’re really gonna focus on is how it got made and how it became the foundation of our government.
Those of you who watched the U.S. History series with John Green probably remember that
the government set up by the Constitution is actually the second attempt at an American
government. Also, as pointed out in the comments, you probably noticed that I am not John Green.
The first American government, which was in place during the Revolutionary War and for
almost 10 years afterwards, was the Articles of Confederation. Like many first attempts,
the Articles government had some good ideas and it meant well, but it was poorly executed.
Give it a break, it never did this before!
So when delegates gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles, they ended
up scrapping the whole thing and creating a new Constitution. It’s probably not because
they didn’t know what revise meant. So, the delegates from the various states each had
their own agendas at the Constitutional Convention, and that made it difficult for them to agree
on what the new government should look like. In order to hammer out a Constitution, they
had to do something you don’t see very much of in government these days – compromise.
Oh, let’s compromise, I’m sorry, eagle, I didn’t mean…
Before we get into what those compromises were, it’s kinda necessary to look at what
was so bad about the Articles government in the first place. The main thing was it really
couldn’t govern. There was no executive branch or president and no judiciary to settle disputes.
It was basically just a congress where each state was equally represented and they all
pretty much had veto power and could sink legislation they didn’t like. All decisions
were collective, which meant that very few decisions were actually made, because it’s
really hard to get 13 people to agree on something that will be in the interest of all 13. I
can barely agree with Stan on anything. Right, Stan? He said wrong.
Most important, the Articles government had no power to levy taxes, which meant that if
it needed any money to do, well, anything, it had to ask for the money from the states,
which were free to say, “No, I don’t think we’ll be giving you any money today. …or tomorrow. Or ever.”
As I remember from my college years – and I don’t remember much – living without money
is awful. Without money, it’s pretty much impossible for a government to do anything,
except buy ramen noodles. The Articles government was able to accomplish one notable thing,
though. One of the big issues it had to deal with was Americans moving out West, which
in the 1770’s and 80’s meant to places like Ohio and Indiana that weren’t states yet.
The government managed to set up rules for these settlements in the Northwest Ordinance
of 1787, which set up a system for eventual statehood. But most importantly, it forbade
slavery in these territories, which, as students of American history know, was kind of a big
deal. You wouldn’t know that, you’re not a student of American history. You’re a symbol of America, bird!
I’m not gonna punch you.
Other than that, though, the Articles government was a flop. And the very thing that made it
so ineffective threatened to screw up any attempts at new government, too. This was
the issue of competing interests between different states, more specifically the states with
large populations and the smaller states. Basically, a state with a large population
like, say, Virginia, had different needs than a state with a small population, like Delaware.
More importantly, large states might stand to benefit more from any government spending.
When the delegates decided to make a new congress, these large population states wanted the number
of representatives to that congress to be proportional to the states’ populations, which
would mean that the larger states would have more representatives than the smaller ones.
This idea, a large congress made up of many delegates, was called The Virginia Plan. Because
it was put forward by the delegates from Wisconsin. Just kidding…Virginia.
The delegates from small New Jersey put forward a plan that would have a congress where each state would send an equal
number of representatives. In other words, something that looked a lot like the Articles government.
This New Jersey Plan would prevent smaller states from being dominated by the larger states, and also
ensure that the large states wouldn’t be able to vote themselves a bigger share of government spending.
These two opposing interests threatened to scuttle the whole new government thing until
Roger Sherman from Connecticut proposed The Great Compromise, that gave us the bicameral
legislature that we talked about in episode two, and we’ve all come to know and love, sometimes.
So The Great Compromise meant that we would have a two-house legislature, but this wasn’t
the only issue related to how the seats in Congress would be apportioned. The membership
in the House would be based on the state’s population, but at the time there was an issue
about how to count that population.
The issue was slavery. More specifically, how to count slaves as part of a state’s population.
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
The states with large slave populations, like South Carolina and Virginia, had a pretty
big interest in counting these slaves for the purposes of determining representation.
And the states with few slaves didn’t want them counted at all. Because this would mean
that the white non-slave people in those states with lots of slaves would effectively be better
represented than the white non-slave people in the states with few slaves.
The delegates at the Constitutional Convention solved this problem with another compromise
that was decidedly less great. Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution includes the following
clause: “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states
which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be
determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service
for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons.”
If you’re looking for the word “slave,” you won’t find it. They’re the ones described
by the phrase, “three-fifths of all other persons.” This is the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise.
What it means is that in order to determine how many representatives a state has, you
count the number of free people in the state, including indentured servants, and add to
that number three-fifths of the number of non-free persons, otherwise known as slaves.
So in terms of counting, each slave was worth three-fifths of each free person.
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
Anyway, this meant that states with large populations of slaves would be disproportionately
represented in Congress, but not quite so badly that most northern states with small
numbers of slaves wouldn’t vote for the Constitution.
What this also did was enshrine the idea that slaves, who were mostly black, were worth
less than free people, who were mostly white. And it embedded slavery into the Constitution.
So before this constitution of compromise could go into effect, it had to be ratified
by at least 9 of the 13 states. So each state had a special convention where delegates could
vote on whether or not to adopt the new constitution. These conventions were more open to the public
than the Constitutional Convention itself, and the ratification process is the reason
why some people say the Constitution is based on the will of the people.
But not everybody wanted the Constitution, and they needed convincing. This is where
things get a little confusing. Did you want the Constitution? Did ya?
In 1787, public opinion about the Constitution was pretty evenly divided. Those who wanted
the Constitution were called Federalists, largely because of the Federalist Papers,
a series of articles written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
They wrote the Federalist Papers to convince voters in New York to ratify the Constitution.
And since New York did eventually ratify the document, I guess they worked. But we should
listen to both sides of the argument…in the Clone Zone.
So joining us in the Clone Zone today will be Federalist Clone and Anti-Federalist Clone.
Let’s hear from Federalist Clone first. Feddy? Can I call you Feddy?
No. The Federalists were the incredibly intelligent Americans who thought that a strong central
government would benefit the country as a whole. They tended to come from cities, and
often they represented commercial classes, especially wealthy people, who had lent money
to the government during the Revolution.
They liked the new Constitution because they felt that a strong national government would
pay its debts, and this was good for business. They also tended to want stronger ties with
England, again because England was a good trading partner. Given the raging success
of the Articles government, it’s pretty clear that the Federalists were right.
Okay, now let’s hear from Anti-Federalist Clone. How do you respond, Anti?
I’m not your aunt! Sure, Federalists were right to believe in tyranny. Anti-Federalists
were right to be skeptical of a large government that would trample on our individual liberties.
They didn’t want a big government that would tax them to death, and possibly take away
their slaves. In general, Anti-Federalists felt that states would be the best protectors
of people’s rights and liberties, because being smaller, they would be more responsive
to people’s needs. Okay?
The Anti-Federalists published pamphlets and articles, too. But we weren’t quite as organized,
so we didn’t have a coherent set of Anti-Federalist Papers to push on government students.
Okay, okay, you seem really mad about this.
But you eventually lost the debate.
How come he got to shoot fireworks–
–I didn’t know he was gonna–
–I wanna shoot fireworks–
Okay? I’m sorry, I’m sorry–next time. You can have fireworks.
So the Federalist position won out and the Constitution was ratified. And that’s the
government that Americans have been living under ever since. Hooray!
Because the Constitution was passed, we tend to think that everyone loved it. But it wasn’t
nearly as clear-cut as hindsight makes it appear.
Eventually, the Federalists had to offer another compromise, promising a Bill of Rights in
the first ten amendments. This isn’t called one of the constitutional compromises because
it happened outside of the Convention, but it was yet another example of how different
interests had to give a little in order to get a Constitution passed.
It’s very important to remember that compromise, the idea of balancing interests and giving
a little to get a lot, is embedded in the Constitution. While today it seems like a
political dirty word, compromise is the basis of the American government itself.
Thanks for watching. I’ll seeya next week. Well, I’ll compromise. Seeya in a week and
a half. Let’s face it; Stan’s probably not going to get this done in time anyway.
Crash Course Government and Politics is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support
for Crash Course U.S. Government comes from Voqal. Voqal supports non-profits that use
technology and media to advance social equity. Learn more about their mission and initiatives
Crash Course was made by all of these nice people at the Chad and Stacy Emigholz Studio,
in tropical Indianapolis. Thanks for watching. I’m going to the beach.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video.