Student Question

What is the 'critical period', and why is it significant to understanding the Constitution?

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The critical period is the name given by historians to the years following the American Revolution, when the future of the newly-formed nation hung in the balance. At that time, a growing consensus began to emerge that the existing constitutional arrangements, the Articles of Confederation, were inadequate for the new independent nation. Though the Articles had helped the American colonists defeat the British, they were simply not suited to the challenges of peace. Without a central government in place and with ultimate power and authority residing with the individual states, it would be virtually impossible for the United States to develop a coherent economic and foreign policy.

It seemed to many Americans, not least George Washington himself, that the spirit of unity forged in the heat of the revolutionary struggle would fade if power remained dispersed among the states. To make matters worse, the Articles of Confederation were proving to be woefully inadequate in dealing with domestic disturbances such as Shay's Rebellion, thus threatening the internal stability of the United States.

During this critical period in American history, the delegates chosen to attend the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 assumed the awesome burden of devising a new constitutional settlement that would strengthen the United States through the establishment of a centralized federal government while at the same time protecting the spirit of republican liberty for which so many Americans had fought and died. The ensuing settlement, the Constitution of the United States of America, has formed the basis of American government ever since.

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