Back To CourseBusiness Law: Help and Review
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Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.
The early colonists were still governed by British Parliament and English laws. Many colonists felt oppressed by Britain's continued efforts to tax them and restrict their trade. The patriot movement was an effort to protest Britain's rule and to secure more freedoms for the colonists.
The Revolutionary War stemmed from the patriot movement. This war began the process of creating a new, independent nation for the colonists. The Revolutionary War led to America's independence and served as the turning point for the development of an American law system.
After the war, colonists were no longer ruled by the royal authority of England or by the colonial charter. The immediate priority was the formation of a new government, though the colonists already had some governmental processes in place even before the war.
In the colonies, the patriot movement spawned the creation of individual state constitutions. The Continental Congress served as the general political body and was already meeting before the war, though most of the governing power was possessed by the states. In 1777, the members of Congress recognized the need for clearly written 'national' governing rules and drafted the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles served as our nation's first constitution, though this document was limited. It mostly set out the way Congress had already been operating for at least two years. Nevertheless, the states did not finish the ratification of the Articles - which makes them official - until 1781.
The Articles of Confederation formalized our national government but did not provide for much power. The Articles purposely allowed the individual states more power than the federal government. For example, the U.S. Congress could pass laws, but Congress had no power to force the states to follow their laws.
It is helpful to remember that many colonists felt England's rules were too harsh. Therefore, they feared providing their new government with too much power over the people.
But Congress soon recognized the inherent difficulty with having a federal government that was too weak. They needed to find the middle ground. Though they feared giving too much power to a central individual or entity, they knew the Articles needed to be revised.
Meanwhile, the states already had their own constitutions. Many states started using constitutions several years before the end of the Revolutionary War. These constitutions largely served to place the majority of power in the hands of state legislatures, which were made up of many representatives. This took the emphasis off the role of individual governors in an attempt to keep any one person from possessing too much power. Our framers looked to these state models and decided that this type of constitution would be necessary for the new federal government.
Following an idea used in the Massachusetts Constitution, our nation's leaders made the Articles of Confederation changeable only through constitutional convention. This meant each state was required to send representatives back to Philadelphia for a large meeting. These leaders met with the intention to modify the Articles, but they ended up drafting a completely new document.
A revised system of government was introduced through the United States Constitution. The Constitution was designed to limit the power of government while ensuring basic personal rights for the American citizens. The new government would be based on republican principles. These principles placed an emphasis on the good of the people, while protecting their individual rights.
The new document was known as the United States Constitution. It was drafted in 1787.
The Constitution would be centered on this theme: government should be run by the people, for the people. This was a popular patriot idea reflected in the state constitutions, but the congressmen initially differed on how that goal should be achieved for the federal government.
After much argument, the Constitution was finalized. However, it could not be used until nine of the thirteen colonies ratified it. This was a challenge, as many states still did not agree with the Constitution. For example, the larger states of Virginia and New York felt that they should have more power than the smaller states - and many colonists still felt that a federal government was not necessary at all.
The Constitution gained support once the first ten amendments were added. These amendments are known as the Bill of Rights, and serve to guarantee citizens certain individual liberties.
Besides protecting individual liberties, our constitutional framers wished to divide power equally between the states, the people and the federal government - so that none of these groups possessed too much power. They incorporated several systems to ensure this fairness and equality.
The Constitution formed Congress to operate through two different houses just as it operates today. This is known as a bicameral legislature. Congress is comprised of the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the population of a state determines the number of state representatives. This is unlike the Senate, where two senators represent each state.
Besides dividing our Congress, the Constitution also serves to divide our federal government into three separate branches. The United States Congress forms the legislative branch and creates and passes laws and acts. The United States Supreme Court forms the judicial branch and serves as the final decision-maker in disagreements between states (and also between states and the federal government). The United States President forms the executive branch. This branch executes and enforces laws.
The Constitution purposely designed each branch to possess a system of 'checks and balances' over each of the other branches. This ensures that no one branch of government holds all of the power. For example, Congress passes laws, but the President holds the power to veto those laws. Also, the United States Supreme Court can invalidate a law if it is not keeping with the Constitution.
Though a system of government was already in place, the United States Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Under this treaty, the Revolutionary War officially ended, and Great Britain finally recognized the United States as an independent nation.
This new nation reached as far west as the Mississippi River and as far south as Florida. The U.S. was now expansive and free to make and enforce laws as the citizens saw fit.
By the time England recognized the U.S.A. as an independent country, many of our nation's new laws and processes were already in place. The new government already leaned more toward individual freedoms. But there were more new changes in American law after the Treaty of Paris. This new shift toward greater liberties and equality was seen most in the areas of property ownership and the separation of church and state.
For example, the laws involving land ownership changed dramatically. Under English law, land ownership passed from father to his eldest son. This law kept land within certain families and did not allow new individuals to acquire property. The new states rejected these laws and instead seized large estates from many colonists in order to divide smaller parcels between multiple families.
Additionally, the new land to the west was ripe for development. Many families were encouraged to move west and claim new land. There were now abundant land ownership opportunities that were not available under English rule.
Another change in the law came with the separation of church and state. A state-supported church was a cornerstone of English rule, but the new American laws distanced the relationship between any one, organized religion and the national government. This left room for more freedom of religion because Americans were freer to choose between different religious options or even to choose none at all.
Many people believe that the Bill of Rights called for the separation of church and state. There is no amendment specifically stating that the nation should not support an official state church. This is an idea that developed over some time, and was based on the First Amendment's freedom of religion and freedom of expression clauses. Thomas Jefferson is largely credited as supporting a 'wall' between church and state, but Jefferson never proposed that the government could not support religion. In 1802, in a famous letter on the subject, Jefferson simply proposed that it was not the place of the federal government to establish a religion.
As new ideas developed regarding how to best implement the Bill of Rights, states stopped supporting the Anglican Church of England through their taxes.
The Anglican Church eventually severed itself from English rule and renamed itself the Episcopal Church. The new church even began appointing American clergy.
Let's review. The patriot movement brought about the use of state constitutions and our nation's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. A proposed revision to the Articles resulted in the United States Constitution and our Bill of Rights. These documents focused heavily on the rights of individual citizens and carefully balanced power between several entities.
The end of the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris spawned the development of new American laws. These laws also emphasized individual rights. This was most evident in the areas of property ownership and the separation of church and state.
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Back To CourseBusiness Law: Help and Review
27 chapters | 345 lessons