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Join the conversation! There are now 15 comments on “What’s a Constitution? pg 3
  1. I would be a nit-pick a little here and say that the constitution does not give the government its authority — in the United States the people (well, the land-owning white men) gave the government authority, through the ratification conventions — but rather specifies what authority the people do and do not give the government.

    • Trust me, we’ll be getting into all the nitpicking very soon! This is just the intro. I like to start out presuming zero knowledge, and give a general grounding before building to the more sophisticated topics and philosophical concepts.

      Of course, feel free to nitpick here and now, as well. That’s what the comments are for!

  2. Gregory T. Bogosian says

    Didn’t the United States already exist under the articles of confederation?

      • Are you sure? Articles of Confederation, Article I: “The Stile of this Confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America’.” It seems to me that people living in what is now the eastern United States at the time of the Articles thought they were living in a country called the United States of America.

    • Instead of waiting for the next page, let’s try to answer this now! That way Nathan has room to laugh at us and tell us why we’re all wrong. Here goes!

      Sorta’ nope. Sorta’ yep. Several ways to answer this:

      1. They weren’t “united” states but “confederate” states (see articles of “confederation”) as they formed a federation, not a union. Answers like this will say the name changed when the constitution changed. However. . .

      2. That’s not really true. There’s no way to unambiguously refer to the country that existed prior to the constitution other than “The United States” in some sense. In fact, the very first article reads “The Stile of this Confederacy shall be ‘The Unites States of America.'” So yeah, there was something called “The United States of America” even before the present constitution, however. . .

      3. The federation was dissolved and replaced by the union that followed (although the federation was still referred to as a “union,” but suffice to say it was a different government). Thus while the name was the same, it was politically speaking a new country that replaced the old. . . thing (whether it was a country or a union of countries might be a point of debate? The British parliament certainly treated it as a political alliance of 13 countries, from what I’ve understood).

      So. . . the country we know today, as a political entity, did not exist prior to its present constitution, however, there was a “United States of America” prior to that, and all the people and borders were the same, so in many senses, it was the same country, but considering it such would make the distinction between that state and their condition as colonies of Britain prior to their independence unclear.

        • True. I suppose part of what usually counts as a country being in existence is whether it is recognized internationally as an independent country. For a long time, Taiwan was recognized by many nations as being “China” in the sense of continuity with the previous country, while the country that actually occupied mainland China was considered new, but they’ve been able to slowly negotiate change to that (while still claiming ownership of Taiwan). From that perspective, “France” remains “the same France” because other countries have acknowledged it as such, still bound under earlier treaties, etc.

          From what I’ve understood, part of the trouble “the country” (Can we call it the same country? Can’t we? Will we ever know?) had under the articles of confederation was getting recognized as a single nation by foreign powers. I’ve heard that a delegation from the continental congress to Britain got laughed out of Parliament when they came to form a treaty (Wouldn’t we need to sign 13 treaties?), which would suggest that Britain recognized its colonies as independent under the articles, but not as a unified nation. But yeah, as I said above, it’s pretty vague.

          • Britain recognized the United States in 1783 in the Treaty of Paris, becoming either the fifth or sixth country (see infra) to do so, after France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden. It was followed by the Papal States, Prussia, and Morocco, although Morocco claims to have recognized the US in 1777, which would make it the first state to do so. In any case, nine countries recognized the US before the ratification of the Constitution.

            That being said, I reject the idea that a country exists only if it is recognized by other countries. First, that would be a logical absurdity: who recognized them? Some state had to have been the first state to exist, after all, and there would have been no other states to recognize it, so how could any state ever come into being? Second, the very word “recognize” implies that one is acknowledging a thing that exists, not bringing that thing into existence. Third, the official position of the American government itself, at least since the Lincoln administration, has been that the United States came into being with the Declaration of Independence (there was an obvious political reason why Lincoln took that position), but the Declaration does refer twice to the “united [sic] States of America”.

      • “So. . . the country we know today, as a political entity, did not exist prior to its present constitution, however, there was a “United States of America” prior to that, and all the people and borders were the same, so in many senses, it was the same country, but considering it such would make the distinction between that state and their condition as colonies of Britain prior to their independence unclear.” The British Empire recognized American independence before the constitution was ratified. The U.S. was independent for 6 years from 1783 to 1789 under the articles of confederation. So considering the country under the articles of confederation and the country under the current constitution to be the same really doesn’t make it harder to distinguish it from its status as 13 colonies of the British Empire. Wikipedia|United States|Independence and expansion

        • But how many nations have been dissolved and reformed since decolonization, often changing names and so on? It’s pretty rare that we consider those to be the same country. It is a bit fuzzy, however, yes.

          • When we consider decolonized countries to be different countries from what they were before colonization, it is usually because decolonization coincided with the borders, political structure, social structure, name of the country, or its inhabitants self-understanding of their political status changing. None of those conditions apply to the U.S. Even before the British endorsed the Peace of The Yukon and formerly recognized American independence, the people in what is now the eastern seaboard still considered themselves inhabitants of a country called “The United States of America.” The British authorities exiting didn’t create any substantive changes in the country’s borders, political institutions, or social structure. Most importantly, the adoption of the present constitution and the dissolution of the articles of confederation did not change the self-concept of the region’s inhabitants. Both before and after the constitution was ratified, the people in the first 13 states of the Union thought that they were inhabitants of an independent republic called The United States of America. Ultimately, a country is defined by its inhabitants, not observers from different places or different times.

  3. Harry says

    Will this chapter cover the difference between the state and the government?

    • There isn’t one, at least, not in the most general sense. It just counter-intuitive in the U.S. because what the rest of the world would call provinces we call states. So instead of saying federal state we say federal government to avoid confusion with the state governments.

  4. Devilbunny says

    Geography nitpick: Georgia’s western border shouldn’t be there on the map, as (per Wikipedia, at least) it didn’t renounce western claims until 1802.

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