Introduction: The Road to Constitutional Convention
The War of Independence settled the question of U.S. political ties to Britain. The defeat of the mother country meant that the thirteen states could claim complete self-rule. What remained to be settled was who within the newly independent states would rule.
Although the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and possessed “certain unalienable Rights,” in reality the situation was quite different. Most states limited the right to vote to white male adults who were taxpayers or who owned a set amount of land. Women, enslaved people, and native peoples did not have the right to vote. They were also largely excluded from participating in the political process.
While the proportion of people in the United States who farmed their own land was much higher than in Britain, a large minority of white men in many states did not meet the property requirements for voting.
Even within the body of citizens eligible to vote, political influence was far from equal. The patriot leadership was drawn primarily from the wealthy, educated classes. Most prominent patriots mistrusted the judgment of the small farmers, craftsmen, and other ordinary people who made up the vast majority
of the country’s population. Members of the patriot elite expected to continue guiding the new nation after independence and to avoid the pitfalls of what many of them called “popular rule.”
The controversies of the eighteenth century about the purpose and limits of government represent the birth pangs of the United States. They also remain relevant in the twenty-first century. Like the founders, the people of the United States today are engaged in the process of considering what role they want the government to have in society. The debates of more than two centuries ago help clarify the choices that responsible citizens must face.
As is the case today, people in 1788 were not unanimous about their political beliefs. Divisions and disagreements ran deep. In the coming days, you will examine primary sourc- es to reconstruct the conflicts of the late 1700s.
You will have an opportunity to recreate the debates that these elite leaders had over ratifying the Constitution of the United States. The debates give insight into the difficulties that confronted the founders of the United States and the continuing relevance today of the issues raised more than two hundred years ago.