Why It Matters: Creating a Government

A painting shows George Washington standing on a promontory above the Hudson River, wearing a military coat and holding a tricorner hat and sword in his hand. Just behind Washington, his slave William “Billy” Lee, a black man wearing a red, turban-like hat, holds a horse and watches Washington. In the far background, British warships fire on an American fort.

Figure 1. John Trumbull, Washington’s aide-de-camp, painted this wartime image of Washington on a promontory above the Hudson River. Just behind Washington stands the enslaved William “Billy” Lee, with his eyes firmly fixed on Washington. In the far background, British warships fire on an American fort.

Why examine the setup of the early American Government, the features of the Articles of Confederation, and the concepts central to the creation of the U.S. Constitution?

During the 1770s and 1780s, Americans took bold steps to define what equality would mean in America. Each state held constitutional conventions and crafted state constitutions that defined how the government would operate and who could participate in political life. Many elite revolutionaries recoiled in horror from the idea of majority rule—the basic principle of democracy—fearing that it would effectively create a “mob rule” that would bring about the ruin of the hard-fought struggle for independence. Statesmen everywhere believed that a republic should replace the British monarchy: a government where the important affairs would be entrusted only to representative men of learning and refinement.

After the Revolutionary War, the ideology that “all men are created equal” failed to match up with reality, as the revolutionary generation could not solve the contradictions of freedom and slavery in the new United States. Trumbull’s 1780 painting of George Washington hints at some of these contradictions. What attitude do you think Trumbull was trying to convey? Why did Trumbull include Washington’s slave Billy Lee, and what does Lee represent in this painting?

In this module, you’ll learn about the formation of a new Republic and the creation of the United States Constitution. You’ll learn about the impressive feats of the Constitution and the rights that it granted, as well as the rights and topics that were left out. Though the document was written over 230 years ago, it is a living document that affects the course of the country every day. For example, the Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, states that:


Figure 2. What does the right to “keep and bear arms” mean in today’s world?

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This amendment remains controversial today. The debate centers around such questions as: What does it mean to have the right to bear arms? Should all citizens have the right? Does that include arms of any kind, for any reason, or are there limits on this right? Should the amendment be interpreted in the way that gun-rights advocates do, or did the Founders have a much stricter idea of what it means to bear arms, limiting it to members of the military?

All of these are relevant questions and are debated and litigated over and over again. But the issue of gun rights is just one among many constitutional issues that Americans still grapple with today. Other constitutional issues include voting rights, the way elections should be run, immigration, and how to achieve equality under the law. Though it is old, the Constitution remains vital to our understanding of ourselves as a people and as a nation.