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The Spread of Democratic Ideals During the Revolutionary War

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  • 0:02 The Patriot Movement
  • 2:26 The Articles of Confederation
  • 4:13 State Constitutions
  • 5:50 The United States Constitution
  • 7:05 The Treaty of Paris
  • 7:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Democratic ideals spread before, during and after the American Revolution. This generated the democratic government known in the United States today. This lesson explores the Revolutionary roots of the Constitution.

Patriot Movement

It was President Abraham Lincoln, in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, who declared our government to be of the people, by the people, for the people. But how did we get to this democratic government?

The early American 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 backlash against British rule spawned the Patriot movement, which was an effort to protest Britain's rule and to secure more freedoms for the colonists.

Tensions escalated between the American colonists and the British government for several years before the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775. This was a war waged by American colonists against British rule. The Patriot movement spawned the war, but it's important to note that the war wasn't originally about independence. The colonists' original goal was to fight for the rights to which they felt they were already entitled.

Though not the original intent, by mid-1776, the war became a process of creating a new and free nation for the colonists. The colonists grew frustrated and saw no other viable solution. In May 1776, the Continental Congress endorsed overthrowing existing royal governments. The Congress served as the general political body and was already meeting before the war.

Every colony that did not yet have a Patriot government established one, and they began calling themselves states. In June, a committee of congressmen led by Thomas Jefferson met to draft the Declaration of Independence. When the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration on July 4, 1776, the thirteen American colonies officially severed their political connection to Great Britain. However, the war didn't end until 1783.

The Articles of Confederation

After the war, the 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. Let's look at those processes.

In the colonies, the Patriot movement spawned the creation of individual state constitutions. In 1777, 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, making 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, Congress could pass laws, but it had no power to force the states to follow those laws. It's helpful to remember that many colonists felt England's rules were too harsh and restricting. 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 a middle ground. They knew the Articles needed to be revised.

State Constitutions

Meanwhile, the new states already had their own constitutions. Remember that many states started using constitutions several years before the end of the Revolutionary War. The state 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 constitutional 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 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 American citizens. The new government would be based on democratic principles. These principles placed the emphasis on the good of the people, allowing their participation while protecting their individual rights.

The United States Constitution

The Constitution was drafted in 1787. It was 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 couldn't 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 the federal government was not necessary at all.

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