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C O U R S E 
Key Constitutional Concepts and Supreme Court Cases
Professor Kermit Roosevelt, III, University of Pennsylvania
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
Why We Needed a Constitution
Notes taken on September 24, 2014 by Edward Tanguay
Independence Hall in Philadelphia
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence
on July 4, 1776 congress met here and approved it
that was the beginning of the American nation
after the Declaration came the Revolutionary War
1781: ratification of the Articles of Confederation
the first, but failed, attempt at a national government
1787 delegates from 12 states meet again at Independence Hall
to propose revisions to the articles
what emerged after months of deliberation, was the constitution
Declaration of Independence
a statement of two foundational principles
1. a statement of values
all men are created equal
they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights
odd wording coming from slave holders
we'll see how this unresolved tension between the Declaration and slavery colors American history
2. a theory of government
governments are created to secure these rights
when governments don't protect these rights, when they oppress people, then the people have a right to change their government
this is a surprising statement for the signers to make
it does seem to justify their rebellion, but it would also justify a slave rebellion
certainly the American slaves could say that the government was not protecting their rights
it's a particularly surprising thing to say to a king, to King George
government authority, the Declaration says, comes from the consent of the governed: your power comes from us, and we're taking it back
according to King George, this is treason
if the Americans lose the war, they will be considered traitors and be executed
so a ragtag rebel alliance takes on a vast and power empire
that works out well in the most movies but not so much in real life
and yet somehow, with some help from the French and the Spanish, the American colonists win
lesson learned:
faraway states can stand up to protect the rights of (some of) their citizens
Articles of Confederation
in creating it, they were worried about a tyrannical national government
their solution was to create a government that is took weak to be a tyrant
something like the United Nations
there is a legislature called congress
each state gets one vote as in the United Nations
congress can make laws, but it can't enforce them
no executive branch
no judicial branch
congress can't require individuals to do anything
it can act on the states
it can ask them to do things like pay their revolutionary war debts, but it can't force them to
it can't tax
the states were basically still independent countries
they have their own currencies
they don't get along that well, many disputes
lesson: the national government must be strong enough to govern
states in general look after their own citizens, but they may mistreat the citizens of other states
states may not contribute to the collective good of the nation the way they should
the national government has to be strong enough to keep them in line and make them do what they are supposed to do
the colonies were revolting against a monarchy and a parliament
they wanted to prevent any institution from having that kind of power over their lives again
the states saw themselves more as sovereign nations
1787: congress meets to consider changes to the articles
changes are all that the articles allow
changes require unanimous consent, even the smallest state can block it
when they meet, the first thing they decide is that they are not going to do revisions, they are going to create a new constitution
in wanting to do away with the current government, this was like Declaration, and the Declaration was treason
they are going to wipe out the Articles of Confederation, in effect, wipe out the existing government
illegal is too strong of a word, but what they wre doing was not permitted under the Articles of Confederation itself, which declared that the states' union shall be perpetual and that any change shall be unanimous
yet the constitution declared that it would binding if 9 of 13 states ratified it
the delegates had no authority under the previous system of government to do what they were doing
this wasn't supposed to be a constitutional convention, it was supposed to be a tweaking convention
the third day of the convention, Edmund Randolph stands up and says, "Virginia thinks we should throw out the Articles of Confederation and write a new constitution"
so on the third day of a convention with the purpose to make recommendations to the Articles of Confederation, the delegates overthrow the United States government
was this treason?
there really was no sovereign against which to commit treason
the Declaration of Independence was treason, a slap in face to King George
tossing out the Articles of Confederation, who will be upset?
Rhode Island is the answer: it has a veto under the Articles of Confederation, they like the veto and have used it a lot
now the constitution is going to take it away
King George was a real threat, Rhode Island wasn't