A 2020 Primer on the US Constitution: Origins & Compromise

Above, this political cartoon speaks directly to “A 2020 Primer on the United States Constitution: Origins and Compromise”.

Jimmy Morgan will continue with Part II of this 2020 Primer on the United States Constitution in the February 21 issue of the Messenger Mountain News. Our re-acquaintance with the country’s founding document and how it applies to governing in the 21st century, continues throughout 2020 with further insights and perceptions from Morgan and MMN contributors.

All of us have grown up in a world where the United States has been the most powerful nation on earth; militarily and economically, anyway. This has not always been the case. In its infancy in the 1780s, the US was vulnerable to European powers; particularly France, Spain, and Great Britain. Yes, the U.S. had just defeated Britain in the revolution but this was possible only with the assistance of France.

Indeed, the predominant foreign policy debates at the time revolved around aligning the new country with its “first ally,” France, or mending fences with Britain. It wasn’t until after the War of 1812 with Britain—call it Chapter II of the American Revolution—that a strong alliance with Britain took hold and the country’s prospects gained a surer footing.

Of course, none of this was settled in the 1780s and the constitution that had served the nation through the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, was showing signs of trouble. In 1787, a Constitutional Convention was called.

Delegates from the 13 states originally met to revise the Articles but quickly turned to framing a new constitution. Over the course of a long, hot summer in Philadelphia, the delegates struggled with creating a government to unify a nation that faced a variety of external and internal threats.

Spain was on America’s doorstep in Florida, west of the Mississippi River and throughout much of Latin America. Britain still controlled Canada and had not fully embraced American independence. Even France had not yet given up hopes of a North American empire. In short, the country was in a fragile condition and its continued existence was in no way guaranteed. It is no exaggeration to say that America’s place in the modern world is directly attributable to the document that emerged when the Founders addressed this fragility.

Under the Articles, the government lacked the power to raise taxes, regulate foreign trade, settle disagreements between states, or even to raise an army. Each of the states operated more as an independent country than as part of a unified nation. The most dramatic symbol of this loose confederation was that each state coined their own money; resulting in a confusing variety of state dollars in circulation.

Modern issues surrounding the creation of the European Union (EU) resemble those discussed during the Constitutional Convention. Just as the 13 states were concerned about ceding power to a central government in the 1780s, so too have supporters of Brexit successfully argued that Britain’s sovereignty is threatened by remaining in the EU. Britain’s reluctance to remain is evidenced by the fact that the UK never adopted the Euro currency. In turn, the adoption of a common currency by most of the EU has served to unify much of Europe.

The drafting of a new constitution in 1787, likewise, amounted to individual states ceding power, such as coining money, in order to establish a stronger national government. Most pressing in the 1780s was that a revolution had just been fought to oust an abusive government and there was fear of returning to that order. The key at the Constitutional Convention, then, was creating a government that struck a balance between national and state power.

Adopted in 1788, the document they framed to address this problem is generally viewed as the most enduring plan of government in existence today: The United States Constitution, comprised of a preamble, seven articles, and twenty-seven amendments added over time.

The Constitution was ratified by the states only after a series of remarkable compromises. Properly referred to as the Great Compromise, this agreement between large and small states (by population) created a two-house legislature, thus settling the primary question of state representation. With few exceptions, the system of representation established over 230 years ago is the system we operate within today.

Representation in the House of Representatives is determined by population whereby those states with greater populations elect more representatives. This is why, today, there are 53 members of the House from California and only one from Montana.

In the Senate, the states are represented equally with two senators per state, a body where small states speak with equal measure. In a dramatic modern example, the million people of Montana elect the same number of US senators as 40 million Californians.

There is reason for the disparity. The typical Montanan is quite different from the typical Californian, if such people even exist. One way of looking at this is that the current system of representation protects Montanans from being over-governed by laws passed by massive numbers of Californians.


The decision to use population to determine representation in the House led to another debate and compromise that, for many, codified American racism.

Southern support of the new constitution was seen as critical. Ratification was dependent upon assurances that Southern property rights (slaves) would be protected. Therefore, the South argued that slaves should be counted for determining population. This debate between North and South resulted in the Three-Fifths Compromise whereby every five slaves would be counted as three toward the population in determining representation.

So, not only did the Constitution permit slavery to continue, it made an official statement regarding the personhood, or lack, thereof, of black Americans. After slavery was abolished in 1865, the Southern population count included former slaves. By 1900, however, only a small percentage of eligible black voters were able to cast a ballot as southern lawmakers devised poll taxes, and literacy tests, while fear and intimidation tactics were propagated by groups like the Ku Klux Klan. To this day, laws requiring voter identification disproportionately impact otherwise eligible voters of color. The political reality is that the white population of the South has, from the earliest days of the republic, enjoyed an outsized voice in the legislature.

In another concession to the South, the Slave Trade Compromise at the Constitutional Convention prohibited the legislature from limiting the slave trade through imposing a tax on slaves or by banning the importation of new slaves, for twenty years. Indeed, in 1808, the importation of slaves into the U.S. was prohibited; although an illicit trade continued.

The Electoral College Compromise grew out of the fear that the people were not informed enough to elect the president directly. In a great irony, at least to supporters of Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, who won  the popular vote, the Electoral College was meant to prevent the election of a bombastic and manipulative demagogue prone to inflame the passions of the people. I’ll leave it to you to evaluate that one.

Finally, the Commerce Compromise prohibited export tariffs and permitted import tariffs. Finished goods imported from Britain could be taxed, which encouraged the purchase of goods produced in the industrial North. In turn, the South was able to export their agriculture products without the burden of a tax.

As we have all become acutely aware, tariffs say a lot about the nation’s priorities because, by their very nature, they impose penalty to one and favor to another. Sometimes, however, tariffs can be imposed by a singular executive just to spite those he disfavors; which is my way of hinting that while this magnificent document deserves celebration, it also requires our attention and our participation. Stay tuned.


Jimmy P. Morgan

Jimmy P. Morgan is a semi-retired History teacher who writes about World Affairs, Social Justice, Politics, and Education. He can be reached at JimmyPMorganDayz@gmail.com.

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