12 Putting It Together


We have shown that the Constitution was a political document, drafted for political purposes by its framers, who worked to replace the “first political system” of the post-revolutionary nation with one characterized by more national power than had existed under the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention, the framers reconciled lofty ideals and base self-interests. Through savvy compromises, they resolved cross-cutting divisions and achieved agreement on such difficult issues as slavery and electing the president, though their solution to the former proved to be a temporary one. By getting the Constitution ratified, the framers adroitly outmaneuvered or placated their opponents, in part by promising to pass a Bill of Rights during the first session of the newly created Congress.

The Constitution established a national government distinguished by federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, bicameralism, and a commitment to government by, for, and of The People. It divided power and created conflicting institutions—between three branches of government, across two chambers of the legislature, and between national and state levels. While the structure it created remains the same, the Constitution has been changed by amendments, interpretation, new practices, and intermediary institutions. Thus the Constitution operates in a system that is democratic far beyond the founders’ expectations. Though it is far from perfect, it is the oldest existing written constitution on the planet, and has provided the basis through which the American people have negotiated both emergent and perennial challenges, from the rise of industrial capitalism, to the practice of democracy itself.

The Constitution always was—and remains—a political document created and developed in political ways for political purposes, and it continues to be the object of political engagement in the twenty-first century.

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