Development of American Law After the American Revolution

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  • 0:59 Articles of Confederation
  • 2:30 State Constitutions
  • 3:58 U.S. Constitution
  • 6:51 Treaty of Paris
  • 7:22 Property Law and…
  • 10:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

The patriot movement and American Revolution generated the democratic government known in the United States today. This lesson discusses the process of creating the new nation through innovative laws.

After the Revolution

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.

The Articles of Confederation

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.

State Constitutions

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 United States Constitution

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.

Components of the Constitution

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.

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