The United States of America is a “work in progress”—and probably always will be. A new nation was born with the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain by the 13 American Colonies on July 4, 1776. The representatives of the colonies had met at the First Continental Congress in 1774 and proposed various means of working out their grievances with Great Britain. Their proposals were soundly rejected. The Second Continental Congress decided that a formal declaration of independence was the only means of breaking free from the tyranny of the British Monarchy. At the Second Continental Congress, the representatives drafted the Articles of Confederation, which were adopted by the colonies in 1777, confirming their commitment to form an independent union of the American colonies.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the member states retained most of their individual sovereignty while agreeing to unite for the purpose of carrying out the essential functions of an independent nation. Their primary concerns were national defense and international trade. The colonists knew they would need to form defense and trade agreements with other nations, primarily France and Spain, if they were to break free of Great Britain. They needed to be recognized as an independent nation to make formal agreements or treaties with other nations.
Under the confederation, the member states would have the ultimate authority, and the federal government would be accountable to the states. With a federation, on the other hand, the federal government would have had the ultimate authority and the states would have been accountable to the federal government. The Articles of Confederation served the colonies well in forming the international alliances needed to outlast and ultimately defeat the British army. The United States of America was formally established under the Articles of Confederation when the document was ratified by the last of the 13 colonies in March of 1781. In December of 1781, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington in Yorktown, VA, ending the Revolutionary War. The United States of America was then recognized as a fully independent nation.
Following the war, the confederation form of government quickly proved to be inadequate in addressing the many challenges and opportunities of the new nation. For example, the government had no executive or judicial branches to carry out its decisions or resolve disputes concerning state and federal authority. A Constitutional Convention was held in 1787 for the stated purpose to revise the confederation government or “to form a more perfect union.” However, most of the delegates apparently felt the nation needed a different form of government rather than a revision of the confederation.
Most of the states had already replaced their colonial governments with “republican” governments. The term republican, small r, means that government is acknowledged as a “public matter” rather than the “private concern” of a ruler. The republican constitutions of the states were based on the "separation of powers," with governments organized into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Republics, as distinguished from democracies, allow for different classes of representation and for the exclusion of some classes of people from participation. Members of the Senate were selected by state legislatures, House of Representative members were selected directly by voters, and slaves and women were both excluded from voting. After much deliberation, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention drafted the Constitution of the United States of America, which followed the pattern of a “republic” initiated in the states. This is what Benjamin Franklin meant in response to a question concerning the kind of government the founders had established. He answered, “A republic if we can keep it”.
The Founders harbored no illusion that the U.S. Constitution established a “perfect union” or even provided a final blueprint for the evolution of the new nation. In fact, Article V of the Constitution provides specific procedures to be followed in adopting amendments to the original document. To secure ratification by the states, James Madison promised to add a set of amendments addressing states’ concerns regarding the potential abuse of the expanded authority given to the federal government under the republican form of government. The U.S. Constitution was ratified by the 13 states in 1789. The individual states then proposed a variety of amendments to address their concerns. From their proposals, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights, were gleaned and ratified in 1791.
The Founders anticipated additional amendments beyond the first ten. A quote enshrined in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC states, "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." A revolutionary writer and visionary, Thomas Paine, wrote in his classic essay, Rights of Man, “The best constitution that could now be devised, consistent with the conditions of the present moment, may be far short of that excellence which a few years may afford.” However, only two amendments, largely addressing procedural matters, were added to the Constitution in the 74 years following the Bill or Rights.
The next major step “toward a more perfect union” came during the 1860s. The abolitionist movement had turned the question of slavery into a defining political issue by the 1850s. The Republican political party was formed in 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery into states to be added from the Western Territories. As a Republican candidate for President, Abraham Lincoln relied on precedents set by the Founding Fathers in proclaiming the federal government’s authority to determine the necessary conditions for statehood. Lincoln was elected in November 1860, and by February 1861, five southern states had seceded from the union. They were later joined by six additional states to form the Confederate States of America. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, proclaiming freedom for all slaves in the United States. In his legendary Gettysburg Address later that same year, Lincoln quoted from the Declaration of Independence in describing the U.S. and a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He described the Civil War as a war to determine whether a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, formally abolishing slavery, was approved by the U.S. Congress in January 1865 and was ratified by the states remaining in the Union later the same year. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant, finally bringing the Civil War and slavery in the U.S. to an end. President Lincoln was assassinated five days later on April 14. Vice President Johnson assumed the presidency and made the signing of the 13th Amendment a condition for the readmission of Confederate states to the Union. The 14th Amendment was added in 1868 in an attempt to mitigate continued discrimination by granting citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” It included assurances of “equal protection under the law” for all citizens, which now included former slaves, and assessed penalties for states denying “male citizens their right to vote.” Ratification of the 14th Amendment also was made a condition for confederate states to rejoin the United States. The 15th Amendment was added in 1870, going beyond assessing penalties for voter suppression and declaring “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The remaining "unreconstructed" were required to sign the 15th amendment for readmission to the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation and constitutional amendments of the 1860s represented a major step forward toward the “creation of a more perfect union.” The abolition of slavery confirmed a national commitment to the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The union was still far from perfect, but it had addressed one of its “original sins” and had taken an important step forward.
Granting voting rights to previous slaves also represented a step toward becoming a “democratic” republic. Democracy is a form of government “by the people” as well as “for the people.” People in a democracy may exercise their right to govern themselves either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. Slavery had excluded about one-sixth of “the people” of the United States from citizenship and the right to vote in elections. However, the nation was still a republic. The rights of minorities were not left to a majority vote but instead were protected by the Constitution. Members of the Senate were elected by state legislators rather than elected by “the people.” The President was, and still is, officially elected by the Electoral College, which allows presidents to be elected without receiving a majority vote of “the people.” And women, about half of “the people,” were still not allowed to vote.
The nation made another major step “toward a more perfect union” during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. An unrestrained corporate economy led to the Gilded Age of unprecedented social and economic inequity. In response, an impressive list of “trust-busting” legislation placed government restraints on corporate consolidation of power, including the power to exploit workers. Three amendments were also added to the U.S. Constitution. In 1913, the 16th Amendment authorized a federal income tax to pay for “general welfare” programs instituted by the federal government. The 17th Amendment was ratified the same year providing for direct election of Senators by “the people” rather than state legislators. The 19th
An amendment was added in 1920, for the first time giving women the right to vote, essentially doubling the number of potential participants in the democratic processes of governance. The United States was now a legitimate “democratic republic.” The “general welfare” of the people was again given priority over the private interest of corporate investors. The Progressive Era set the stage for the New Deal programs of the 1930s and the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1960s.
Another major step “toward a more perfect union” was taken during the 1960s and early 1970s. Four major pieces of “civil rights” legislation became law, widening prohibitions on racial discrimination and protecting voting rights and fair housing opportunities for racial minorities. Major environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, reaffirmed the responsibilities of government to protect the rights of future, as well as present, generations. The promises made by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence were not, and are still not, fulfilled but neither had the self-evident truth been forgotten that all are created equal and have equal unalienable rights.
However, the late 1970s brought a retreat by the government from the responsibilities proclaimed by the founder in the Declaration of Independence. Women had been given the right to vote in 1920 but still faced numerous instances of legal discrimination. An “equal rights for women amendment" proposed in 1923, had failed to gain congressional approval. A new “Equal Rights Amendment,” was proposed in 1972 stating: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Eighteen-year-olds had been given the right to vote in 1971, so the timing seemed right. The new Equal Rights Amendment was quickly approved by Congress and was ratified by 35 states, just short of the required 38. In the face of stiff opposition from supporters of the Regan Revolution in the Republican Party, it suffered the same fate as the amendment proposed back in 1923.
This retreat from the covenant made by the Founders began in the late 1970s, accelerated during the 1980s, and continues today. Civil rights and environmental regulations of the 1960s and 1970s have been systematically weakened or repealed. Restraints on corporate have been removed, weakened, or ignored. Blatant racism and voter disenfranchisement and suppression resurface during the 2016 elections and threaten the elections of 2020. A new Progressive Movement has arisen in response: a movement rooted in the principles encoded in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. However, it has struggled to frame a coherent message or gain widespread political support.
The 2020 political campaign and elections promise to be the most divisive the nation has endured since the Civil War. Once again, the nation is facing a very real risk of being ripped asunder by cultural and political divisions. If we fail to return to the self-evident truths and secure the unalienable rights of our founding documents in the 2020 election and beyond, this nation of the people, by the people, and for the people may well perish from the earth. We must continue the quest "toward a more perfect nation."