The politics of the American founding shaped the political compromises embodied in the Constitution. This in turn defined the institutions and many of the rules that do much to determine the winners and losers in political struggles today.
The battle for America involved a number of different groups, including American Indians, the Spanish, the French, and the British colonists. The English settlers came for many reasons, including religious and economic, but then duplicated many of the politically restrictive practices in the colonies that they had sought to escape in England. These included restrictions on political participation and a narrow definition of citizenship.
The Revolution was caused by many factors, including British attempts to get the colonies to pay for the costs of the wars fought to protect them. The pressures from the Crown for additional taxes coincided with new ideas about the proper role of government among colonial elites. These ideas are embodied in Jefferson’s politically masterful writing of the Declaration of Independence.
The government under the Articles of Confederation granted too much power to the states, which in a number of cases came to serve the interests of farmers and debtors. The Constitutional Convention was called to design a government with stronger centralized powers that would overcome the weaknesses elites perceived in the Articles.
The new Constitution was derived from a number of key compromises: federalism was set as a principle to allocate power to both the central government and the states; the Great Compromise allocated power in the new national legislature; and the Three-fifths Compromise provided a political solution to the problem of counting slaves in the southern states for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives.
The politics of ratification of the Constitution provides a lesson in the marriage between practical politics and political principle. The Federalist Papers served as political propaganda to convince citizens to favor ratification, and they serve today as a record of the reasoning behind many of the elements of our Constitution.
The American founding reflects competition among elites as well as the establishment of a new form of citizenship.