Ark Valley Voice today begins a multiple-part series on the Constitution of the United States; what it is, how it was built, and the protections and responsibilities it frames. We do so as a part of our first amendment responsibility to report on the actions of our government, to assure transparency and access to information. As the nation heads into the 2020 elections, and as the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump appears to be winding up in the United States Senate, some perspective may be in order as to how we got to this place in history.
The United States is a federal republic in which the president, congress and federal courts share powers reserved to the national government. The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1789, following six years of governance by the Articles of Confederation , following the Revolutionary War, which officially ended with the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
The country had come through long years of war (1775-1783) during which time it was governed by the Continental Congress. The process of selecting the delegates for the First and Second Continental Congresses underscores the revolutionary role of the people of the colonies in establishing a central governing body. It managed this despite significant numbers of the population, still loyal to King George the Third, having aided and abetted the British army.
The new nation had achieved what was considered impossible: throwing off the power of a king, and come together across all classes of people to achieve freedom and independence. But for six long years it wrangled over what kind of government it wished to have.
The chief problem with the Continental Congress had been, in the words of George Washington ,“no money.” It did not have the power to raise funds to support the Continental Army; meaning Washington had to resort to begging the colonies to cloth and feed the regiments of soldiers they sent. Some paid. Others didn’t. That reality continued after the war ended; there was no money for a government to govern.
In June, 1783 Washington wrote a Circular Letter of Farewell to the Army. In it, he resigned his commission leading the Continental Army, supposing he was returning forever to domestic life. He wrote “For my own part, conscious of having acted while a servant of the public, in the manner I conceived best suited to promote the real interests of my country …” He went on to remind the people of the Untied States to “be induced to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.” Then he relinquished the power he held.
Finally in 1787 a Constitutional Congress was called, to hammer out a new system of governance. The delegates elected George Washington of Virginia, former commanding general of the American Revolutionary War’s Continental Army as President of the Convention. From his years leading an impoverished army against nearly insurmountable odds, Washington was a proponent of a stronger national government.
The result of the Convention was the creation of the Constitution of the United States, placing the Convention among the most significant events in American history.
The original vision of governance by congress, of what was then referred to as “these United States” had no executive branch. It was a governance system “of, by and for the people” with idealistic sentiments that attempted to address how to fairly represent the people’s will. During that convention what came to be called “The Great Compromise was proposed, that set up how the two branches of congress, laid out a court system and an executive leadership branch. It brilliantly balanced the power of government among those three branches of government. No one branch was given too much power and each one checked the other branches.
As the constitution was created, there was still no system of American law, except that which had arrived with early English settlers. All of what is now America’s legal system of criminal law and civil law had yet to be formalized.
The new country had recent examples of both bribery and treason during the Revolutionary War, that together with monarchist sympathizers, had almost undone the revolution. So leery were they of kings and dictators, that the founders wrote an impeachment clause into the constitution. It including a broad term called “abuse of power,” to cover situations and laws not yet imagined, as a means to remove a president who so abused his power, that he too closely resembled the situation from which they had just freed themselves.
Following ratification of the new Constitution, a national vote was taken. In April 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States of America, and the country’s first senators and congressmen took their places in the new government.
It should be remembered that before there was a country, before there was a flag, before there was a constitution, there was George Washington. More than any other single individual, he embodied that which was America’s best hopes for an honorable government “of, by and for the people”.