How can the Constitution be understood in light of the political ideas of philosophers like Hobbes and Locke, the problems under the Articles of Confederation, and the personal motives of the...

How can the Constitution be understood in light of the political ideas of philosophers like Hobbes and Locke, the problems under the Articles of Confederation, and the personal motives of the Founders?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Constitution was the logical result of fusing together different political ideas and philosophers.  It helped to assert the basic premise of the Framers' seeking to assemble a workable government in which stability and representation would flourish.  This benefitted both the Framers' and the nation's political stability at the same time.

The need for the Constitutional Convention arose out of the failures of the Articles of Confederation.  The new nation emerged out of the American Revolution steeped in freedom, but without much in way of central guidance. This became evident in the government of the Articles of Confederation.  A "loose confederacy of states" ended up representing the new nation.  State autonomy was very high, and the result was instability in national issues. Enabling each state to print its own currency, the federal government's inability to fundamentally collect taxes, and a lack of centralized understanding helped to create a situation where the perils of freedom endangered the new nation. The bloodshed and insufficient response to Shays' Rebellion made clear to the Framers that the Articles were not working and a new government was needed.

From this, the Constitutional Convention convened.  Charged with the original duty of revising the Articles, it became clear that a new document was going to be drafted.  The Framers were educated men, for the most part, and the teachings of previous political theorists found their way into the new document. For example, the Roman idea of representative democracy was evident in the discussions.  The theories of John Locke also found their way in the new document, specifically with the idea of "the consent of the governed. " Hobbesian notions of the social contract in which individuals recognize that a small sacrifice of personal freedom for social good is needed.  Montesquieu's separation of powers helped to formulate the structure of the new document, while Voltaire's emphatic defense of individual rights helped to develop the Bill of Rights.  The Constitution displayed the Framers' understanding of political theory and philosophers.

Political theory helped to match the Framers' desire to consolidate their own power.  Thinkers like Howard Zinn argue that those in the position of power “either control the government directly or control the laws by which government operates.”  Certainly, this could be seen in the formation of the Constitution.  The personal motives of the Framers were advanced in the writing of the Constitution.  The Constitutional Convention, itself, was closed to the public.  Power was not actively shared in the final document.  Women, people of color, Native Americans were not included in the end vision.  Power was kept in the hands of wealthy men who were members of the dominant social group.  Issues like slavery were never abolished.  While there was a rift between the states that owned slaves and those that did not, the Constitutional Convention failed to take any meaningful action on the issue.  It sought to preserve the Status Quo for the Framers, more than anything else.  

The Framers recognized that one of the real challenges in Shays' Rebellion was how their own power can be easily threatened and evaporate.  Shays' Rebellion exposed how structure and order was needed in order to develop a foundation in which power can be replicated and success can be seen over time. The Constitution's appeals to stability were evidenced of how the document helped to enhance the Framers' personal motives.  In this way, the Constitution can be seen as a work of political genius in how it asserts the theories of representative democracy and individual rights as well as a document that preserves the power structure.  Such a reality takes into account “the economic interests, the social backgrounds, of the makers of the Constitution."  In this light, political theory and socio- economic reality find a home in the formation of the Constitution.

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