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Birth of the US Constitution

In this video, Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson talks to Sal about  the Declaration of Independence. Created by Sal Khan and Aspen Institute.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user ataplin75
    What was the first form of our national government?
    (22 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Greg L
      Under the Articles of Confederation there were 13 independent states. Each state was it's own state or government. The 13 states due to a common geography, heritage and enemy did agree that they needed to have a unifying treaty amongst them - primarily to defeat the British forces. The Articles created a loose confederacy which was similar to the EU or UN. The states agreed to meet together as a body but gave it no real power to legislate or bind any of the states to agreements.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Skylar Scaling
    At you incorrectly describe the intent of the General Welfare clause of the Constitution, by ascribing to it a general power to do things not specifically enumerated in the Constitution "like health care". This is eloquently addressed by Madison in Federalist #41:

    "It has been urged and echoed, that the power "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,'' amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it; though it would have been difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases. A power to destroy the freedom of the press, the trial by jury, or even to regulate the course of descents, or the forms of conveyances, must be very singularly expressed by the terms "to raise money for the general welfare.

    ''But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied any signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars."
    -Madison, Federalist #41

    This is foundational to the intent of the US Constitution providing STRICT limits on federal power, and it is incorrect to teach American citizens that the government has unlimited federal power by simply using "general welfare" as justification.
    (10 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user iHATEMATH.jpg
    Who exactly thought up the idea of the Articles of Confederation?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Anup Choudhari
    What exactly was the role of the federal government when the articles of confederation were in effect?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user EmanBouy
      The government role was smaller they were able to manage foreign policy and certain militiary activity. This was because the federalist belived that the state governments should have less power and the national government have more power
      (1 vote)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Avikal Jain
    why we need a constitution? why south africa constitution konw as the best constituttion of the world?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user EmanBouy
      we needed a constitution because is would set up a platform mfor how a government is to operate based on the platform. those who wrote the south african constitution as the best in the worl and are those who think you are dumb idiot who cant think for yourselves and need elite governments officials to make decisions for you
      (1 vote)
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user Aliah De leon
    how does the us constitution relate to the declaration of independence
    (1 vote)
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    • hopper happy style avatar for user m j
      Actually the Declaration of Independence listed the grievances of king George on the colonists and declared our independence as a result of these grievances, whereas the constitution was what first built the foundation of the constitutional republican government that we enjoy, and then showed what we were going to do about the problems we had in the Declaration of Independence. So to put it as simply as possible, the constitution relates to the Declaration of Independence in that the constitution answered what the founding fathers were complaining about in the Declaration of Independence.
      (6 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Dave Morgan
    Can anyone clarify what Benjamin Franklin's contributed to the study of electricity besides that lightning is electricity? Why is Franklin remembered as the Father of Electricity, and Tesla forgotten about in most history books?
    (0 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user laura bazile
    what caused washington to attend the convention to rewrite the articles?
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Shizhe Ouyang
    who first came up with the idea of a republic?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Julie💜
    What does militia mean
    Sorry i couldn't find were they mentioned it
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

Male 1: The whole period of the American Revolution and the establishment of the country, of the government, can get very muddled in people's minds. What I was hoping we could cover in this video is unmuddle that, separate out the events and see how they all fit together. Male 2: Let's start in 1775 because that's when the rebellion really begins. That's when you have the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Paul Revere riding to say that the British are coming. They started to rebel against the taxes that Parliament has but on us. They're not quite clear what the rebellion is all about, especially those people who aren't up there in Massachusetts where the rebels are happening. By 1776, that's when they write the Declaration that says here's what we're doing. We're fighting a war of independence and "let facts be submitted to a candid world," here's why we're doing it. Then you get, you're fighting the war, it's really not until 1781 that we win the war. Around that period, between 1776 and 1781, they've drafted this thing called the Articles of Confederation. It's sort of rules by which the States are going to get together and govern themselves. But it doesn't really create a new nation. It's really just a federation of the separate states. Male 1: This is really around this idea the Declaration of Independence is really, look, we're already essentially at war. This is why. This is articulating why we're at war, what we actually believe in, but that didn't establish a government, it didn't actually talk about what kind of government it would be, how it would govern itself, so the Articles were really this first attempt at saying, well, assuming that we're able to win this war of independence, how do we set up? Male 2: Right. What they were during this war of independence were 13 separate states. They didn't really think of themselves as one new nation. Some people did. Ben Franklin and others thought we should really be a union of one nation, but when they get together to do the Articles of Confederation, really starting right after the Declaration is signed in 1776, they finish writing it in 1777, they write a pretty uninspiring document that just says we're from a whole lot of separate states and we're going to get together a bit and be a union of theses States, but we're not going to give ourselves many powers as one government. Male 1: Yeah, we have it right here. Actually, I'd never seen it before this conversation. I've obviously read about it when I was in history class, but "To all to whom these presents "shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the "States affix to our names send greeting." Male 2: Oh, I mean it's like something written by a bad template. Male 1: To whom it may concern! (laughs) Male 2: It's not an inspiring document and it gives no power to a central government. As you say, it's the Delegates of the States. They "affix our names" to this and it's the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between these States. One of the main things they fail to do is give the central government any taxation power. So really it's up to the States to tax, and then this Congress that's meeting, based on the Articles of Confederation, tries to beg each one of the States, hey, requisition us a little bit of money so we can continue our business. Male 1: The Federal, the central government, does not directly, there's no Federal income tax, or not any tax of any kind, not even any kind of tax. The States can tax in whatever way they see fit and then they have to give something. Male 2: What's kind of amusing is we win the Revolution in the Battle of Yorktown. That's in 1781. A messenger comes riding into New York where this Congress has been meeting, it sort of floats from city to city, and gives them all the details and they don't even have enough money to pay the messenger. They have to reach in their pockets to do it. So you have this sort of poorly written document called the Articles of Confederation, that seems to make a confederation of States, meaning we're going to gather together but we're going to have our own separate powers and doesn't given any taxation powers. You have a kind of messy governance structure. Male 1: It's obviously not a perfect analogy, but if we take analogy to present-day, it's kind of what's happening in Europe where there's these separate nations, separate States, that are trying to form some type of union, not clear who has what power. The Central European Union is not directly taxing. Male 2: Precisely. That's a very good analogy to what was happening because they weren't quite clear whether they had a central currency or not back then. They weren't quite sure what are the powers of each of the States versus the central government, and that's been something throughout history. Even starting with the Greek city-states where you can have confederations and it's unclear how much power you're going to put in the central government versus how much power you're going to leave at the States. Male 1: Considering that this is not the governing document for us now, something must have broken to want to replace it. Male 2: Well, yes. By the time you're getting into 1786, it is totally clear that this document isn't working. You have all sorts of disputes. Like Maryland and Virginia are having this horrible dispute over navigation and border rights. They call an Annapolis Convention to try to fix that up and they try to get the States to come. Only five of them come. You have something up in Massachusetts called Shays' Rebellion where there was this rebellion of the poor farmers in western Massachusetts under a former Revolutionary War officer named Daniel Shays. It's sort of unclear what ... Male 1: His name was Shays? Male 2: Yeah. S-H-A-Y-S. Male 1: So it's Shays, the apostrophe's after ... Male: The apostrophe's after, yeah. Daniel Shays was his name. He leads a rebellion and there's no central government to send a force to stop them. Washington's army has been disbanded. So the poor people of Massachusetts have to try to raise a militia to try to stop Shays' Rebellion, but they can't get the Federal government to step in. It was just one of many, many symptoms that we were all disintegrating and falling apart. There was no rule of law that governed all the colonies, and now all the States. What happens is people like Hamilton, Madison, others get together and say, you know what? Congress is meeting, I think they were meeting in New York by then. We ought to go back to Philadelphia where this all began in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and we should have a Constitutional Convention. We should write a whole new constitution to govern centrally this new nation. Most of the States agreed to come. Some of them worried about the fact that we were writing a whole new constitution, so they did not give their delegates authority to get rid of the Articles of Confederation. So when they began in that very hot summer of 1787, it was kind of unclear whether they were going to be able to write a new constitution or just try to amend the old Articles of Confederation. Male 1: This makes it clear that even after Shays' Rebellion, even after these border disputes between Maryland and Virginia, it still wasn't a done deal. A lot of States still liked their autonomy, liked their independence. So even going into this, it wasn't like everyone was unanimously saying hey, we need to give the federal government more power. Male 2: And by the way, what does that sound like? It sounds like the debates we're having today. Male 1: Exactly! (chuckles) Male 2: We still, as a nation, have always had these debates of how much power should be given to the central government, how much power should retain with the States, whether it's on healthcare or our laws or our taxation. It's a useful tension to have. Male 1: Absolutely. Then they are able to come up with a solution. Male 2: It's a very difficult problem of the big States wanting there to be proportional representation in a new Congress, the small States wanting equal votes per State. You finally have Ben Franklin again, once again being the person who works out the compromise to have both a House and a Senate, equal votes per State in the Senate, proportional representation in the House. They finally come together and they all agree to line up and sign this new Constitution that will give taxation authority to the Federal government, or to Congress, a new Congress, a Federal taxation authority and, by the way, that has a Preamble that's a whole lot more inspiring than that Articles of Confederatin thing-y that said, "To all to whom these presents shall come." Male 1: (laughing)To whom it may concern! Male 2: Let's look at the Preamble to the constitution. Male 1: "We the people of the United States." That's as opposed to "To whom it may concern." Male 2: Just look at those first three words. I mean those first three words are totally an inspiring thing. It's never been done before, which is "We the people" are getting to create this Constitution. It's not the States getting together to do it. It's not the king devolving authority. It's not a Parliament doing it. It's "We the people" gathered together here. We are the ones that are going to ordain, a nice religious word down there, "ordain." "Do ordain and establish." It's almost like we have the power. It's not coming from the divine right of kings or God, we the people get to ordain and establish this constitution. Male 1: We've made previous videos about the Declaration of Independence. The Articles of Confederation in no way share any of the spirit or the poetry of the Declaration, while this Preamble does. It seems almost a continuation of it. Male 2: Yeah, let's read it. "We the people "of the United States, in order to form a more "perfect union." That's a very transcendent phrase, but it also means, hey, the Articles of Confederation, we weren't really unified. We have to create a united States. We have to create a union. Male 1: And the "more perfect," is that a direct reference to the Articles that that was a less perfect, or is this something else? Male 2: It's not a very good piece of grammar. As you know, things are either perfect or they're not. The notion of creating a more perfect union, yes, they are making a nod to the fact that we have been confederated under the Articles of Confederation, but now we have to create a more perfect union. We have to really hold together. Then they decide what's the purpose of this Constitution? First of all, establish justice. That means there'll be one common set of laws. Ensure domestic tranquility. This is Shay's Rebellion. It's still going on when they start writing this Preamble. Domestic tranquility means that the federal, the central government, has a right to raise an army and that in the end, the police and defense powers don't reside with just the individual States. There's going to be a more perfect union that helps ensure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense. What you've had is the Continental Army under Washington has been disbanded. There's no way to raise taxes for a central army. Now we're saying that the union of States, the United States, the federal government, they're going to raise the money and provide for the common defense. There's another phrase, "promote the general welfare." When people argue about Contitutionalism and what gives the Federal government the right to do things, one of those phrases is every now and then we have to use the "general welfare" phrase and say whether it's healthcare or anything else, maybe there are things the central government does that promote the "general welfare." Then we get to the inspiring lines, the poetry as opposed to "To all whom these presents shall come." That's "secure the blessings of liberty to "ourselves and our posterity, we do ordain "and establish this Constitution of the "United States of America." We've been calling ourselves that ever since the Declaration of Independence, but now it's in all caps and it's signifying we're one nation, not just 13 different States. Male 1: Previously I think the "U" wasn't capitalized. Man 2: Yeah, in some of the earlier documents it wasn't and we certainly were not united. It's only under this Constitution do we become, really, the United States of America.