Unit 5: Experiments in Government

Essential Questions

  • What is a government?
  • How did the first United States government operate?
  • How did the New York State Constitution reflect the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence?
  • How are the New York State Constitution and the United States Constitution alike? How are they different? (The Declaration of Independence ended the legality of colonial government. Students should understand that all states developed new institutions and laws and that several, such as New York, influenced the writing of the United States Constitution.)
  • Why was a new constitution necessary?
  • How does the Constitution embody the principles of the Declaration of Independence?
  • How do federalism and separation of powers promote those principles in the Constitution?


A. Need for a formal plan of union

  1. Historical precedent: the Albany Plan of Union
  2. Development of state constitutions
  3. Inadequacy of Continental Congress as a national government

B. Development of a formal plan of government

  1. Draft and debate in Congress, 1776-1777
  2. Ratification by the states, 1778-1781; period of operation, 1781-1789

C. The structure of government under the Articles of Confederation

  1. Congress was the only branch of government
  2. Each state had equal representation
  3. Congress's power under the Articles included:
    • Making war and peace
    • Conducting foreign and Native American Indian affairs
    • The settlement of disputes between and among states
    • Issuance of currency and borrowing

D. The Articles suffered from many weaknesses

  1. Indirect representation
  2. No coercive power; decisions more advisory than binding: e.g., Shay's Rebellion
  3. Lack of national executive and judicial functions
  4. Lack of taxing power
  5. Difficulty in passing legislation

E. The Articles did have several achievements and contributions

  1. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance, 1787
  2. Developed the privileges and immunities of citizenship
  3. Developed the concept of limited government

F. Adopted by convention without submission to popular vote

  1. Included Declaration of Independence
  2. Influence of leaders such as John Jay

G. Chronology of the document

  1. Draft and debate in convention, 1776-1777
  2. Period of operation, 1777-1822

H. Form of early State government

  1. Similar to colonial government
  2. Governor with limited authority and three-year term
  3. Inclusion of rights and liberties
  4. First system of State courts
  5. Limited franchise
  6. Bicameral legislature: Senate—four-year term; Assembly—one-year term

I. Effectiveness

  1. Smoother functioning than national government under the Articles of Confederation
  2. Cumbersome administrative procedures
  3. Excessive use of veto procedures
  4. A model for the United States Constitution of 1787

J. Annapolis Convention, 1786

  1. Impracticality of correcting weaknesses in Articles of Confederation
  2. Need for an improved form of government without losing key elements of a new philosophy of government
  3. Decision to write a constitution

K. Constitutional Convention: setting and composition

L. Major issues

  1. Limits of power: national versus state
  2. Representation: slaves and apportionment
  3. Electoral procedures: direct versus indirect election
  4. Rights of individuals

M. The need for compromise

  1. The issue of a "federal" or a "national" government
  2. The Great Compromise on representation
  3. The three-fifths compromise on slavery
  4. The commerce compromises

N. The underlying legal and political principles of the Constitution

  1. Federalism
  2. Separation of powers
  3. Provisions for change
  4. Protection of individual rights

O. The Constitution and the functioning of the federal government

  1. The Preamble states the purpose of the document
  2. The structure and function of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches (Articles I, II, III)
  3. The relation of states to the federal union (Article IV)
  4. Assuming the responsibility for a federal system (Article VI)

P. The Constitution as a living document

  1. The elastic clause and delegated power facilitate action
  2. Amendment pro c e d u re as a mechanism for change (Article V)
  3. The Bill of Rights
  4. Supreme Court decision (e.g.,Tinker v. DesMoines School District, 1989)

Q. The evolution of an "unwritten constitution"

  1. Political parties
  2. The President's cabinet
  3. President's relation to Congress
  4. Committee system in Congress
  5. Traditional limitations on Presidential term

R. The ratification process

  1. The debates in the states, especially New York State
  2. The Federalist Papers
  3. Poughkeepsie Convention
  • Federalists—Hamilton
  • Anti-Federalists—Clinton
  • Formal ratification of the Constitution and launching of the new government
  • The personal leadership of people like Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison