Principles of the Constitution

The Framers of the U. S. Constitution created a government with three separate and independent branches, each with distinct powers, different constituencies, chose in different ways, and with competing interests. If one branch attempts to act outside its constitutional bounds, one or more of the other branches can stop, or check, that overreach of power. Some examples of the checks and balances are: the President’s veto power over bills passed by the two chambers of Congress; Congress’ ability to override a President’s veto by a two-thirds vote of both chambers; the requirement that the Senate by a two-thirds vote must ratify treaties negotiated by the President; the Supreme Court’s power to declare acts of the president or acts of Congress unconstitutional; Congress’ control of the nation’s treasury and thus money the other two branches need to operate; and the Senate’s approval of judicial appointments made by the President. These checks and balances provide some of the “auxiliary precautions” against the abuse of power that James Madison spoke of in Federalist No. 51. In framing a government based on separation of powers along with checks and balances, the framers of U.S. government were influenced by the thinking of the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu and his The Spirit of the Laws.
Influenced by the writings of the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, the English philosopher John Locke, and other political theorists, the Framers of the U. S. Constitution created a system of government with power divided among three distinct branches. Montesquieu argued that if there was concern about anyone having too much power, the answer was simple. Because government, he noted, has three major functions -- making law, enforcing or executing law, and interpreting law and settling disputes – the way to prevent anyone from having too much power was to create three separate branches and assign each branch one of the three functions. The Framers believed this type of governmental system would best protect the liberty of the people.

The U. S. Constitution outlines the powers of the legislative (or lawmaking) branch in Article I, the powers of the executive (law enforcement or law execution) branch in Article II, and the powers of the judicial (law interpretation and settlement of disputes) branch in Article III.

Federalism is a system of government with dual sovereignty. The U. S. Constitution divides power between the national and state governments. This is what James Madison called a “double security.” The Constitution specifically lists the powers of the legislative branch of the national government in Article I, the powers of the executive branch in Article II, and the powers of the judicial branch in Article III. The Tenth Amendment reserves to the states or the people powers not denied to the states and not delegated to the national government.

As the Framers anticipated, the power struggles that have sometimes occurred between the national and state governments have also served as part of the system of checks and balances designed to prevent abuse of power and protect individual rights.

A federal system of government such as that found in the U. S. and a few other nations can be compared to a unitary system of government that Great Britain and most nations of the world have. In a unitary system all power is in the central government, and local governments have only those powers granted them by the central government. A federal system is also very different from what the U. S. had under its first national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, where all the power was lodged in the state governments. A federal system is thus a compromise between a confederation system and a unitary system.

Influenced by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, the framers of the U. S. Constitution believed in the doctrine of popular sovereignty which asserts that the people are the source of government power. Actions of government and the laws it makes should represent the will of the people. Thomas Jefferson articulated this doctrine in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote “…to secure these [inalienable] rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

In Federalist No. 22, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.” Of course, the clearest endorsement of the fundamental importance of the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the American Constitution is the opening words of the Constitution’s Preamble “We the people of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.”

Another fundamental principle of the American system of government is limited government which means government is not all powerful. The ultimate power is in the hands of the people as the words of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution indicate. The U. S. Constitution as written at the constitutional convention in 1787 placed several limits on the power of either the national government or the state governments or both. For example, Article I, Section 9 lists several limitations on the power of the national government, and Article I, Section 10 lists certain limitations on the powers of the states.

Amendments added to the Constitution over time have also placed important limitations on government. The Bill of Rights originally placed certain very basic limitations on the national government only. However, using the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court through a doctrine called “incorporation” has made most of those limitations of the Bill of Rights also apply to and limit the power of the state governments. In addition, Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment placed three major limitations on the power of state governments. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments limit the power of both national and state governments as far as the right to vote is concerned.

The Framers of the U. S. Constitution and the American system of government believed in the natural rights theory which holds that the rights of the people do not come from government but rather come from nature or from God. Here the Framers were greatly influenced by some of the great “natural rights” philosophers such as the Englishman John Locke. The majority of the people accordingly are limited in their ability to vote away or otherwise abridge or restrict the natural rights of political, ethnic, or religious minorities.

The Framers had great respect for the will of the majority, but also understood, as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, that “the great danger in republics is that the majority will not respect the rights of minority.” President Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in his First Inaugural Address: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.” An early example of legislation designed to protect religious minorities was the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom, and a modern example of legislation intended to protect the political and civil rights of women and ethnic minorities was the Civil rights Act of 1964.

An independent judiciary composed of judges who are appointed and serve for life is an important way to help ensure justice and the protection of minorities. Throughout American history, what minorities cannot accomplish by action of the elected branches of government, they can often accomplish through the judiciary. A prime example of this is the U. S. Supreme Court’s ending racial segregation in the nation’s public schools by the Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education. At the same time, ordinary citizens can help insure minority rights by believing in and practicing such civic values as toleration and respect in their daily lives.

Their study of the Ancient Republics and great philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and others led the framers of the U. S. Constitution to their belief that republican government, also called representative government, mixed government, or indirect democracy, was most conducive to a good way of life. The people are the source of government power. Since they are too numerous to govern themselves directly, they elect representatives who make and enforce laws to serve the peoples’ interests and the common good. James Madison, the so-called Father of the U. S. Constitution, explained: “We may define a republic to be…a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior.”

Further evidence of the Framers’ belief in the value of republican government is that portion of Article IV of the Constitution which provides that the national government will guarantee each state a republican form of government.

The doctrine of nullification refers to the claimed power of a state to refuse to enforce a national government law the state deems unconstitutional.

In the Kentucky Resolution, Thomas Jefferson argued that when the national government passes a law a state considers unconstitutional, the rightful response is for a state to nullify, or refuse to enforce it. Jefferson argued that “several states who formed that instrument [the Constitution], being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized … is the rightful remedy.”

In the period before the American Civil War, the foremost champion of the doctrine of nullification was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina who was met with strong opposition to his advocacy of nullification by President Andrew Jackson. The debate over a state’s ability to nullify a national law was ultimately resolved by the Union victory in the Civil War.

The American system of government provided by the U. S. Constitution provides for a variety of different types of powers. Some powers of the national government are delegated or enumerated in the Constitution. The Supreme Court has ruled that the national government also has what are called “implied powers.” These are powers which are not specifically listed in the Constitution but can be traced to certain key parts of the document such as the “necessary and proper clause” of Article I, Section 8, the “Commander in Chief” clause of Article II, Section 2, and the “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” clause of Article II, Section 3. Powers denied the national government are listed in Article I, Section 9. Powers denied state governments are listed in Article I, Section 10. Several amendments to the Constitution also deny power to both the national and state governments. Concurrent powers are those which are held by both the national and the state governments. A good example of a concurrent power is the power to tax. Reserved powers are those of the states or the people as indicated by the Tenth Amendment which provides that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”