Constitutional Democracy: Promoting Liberty and Self-Government
I. Before the Constitution: The Colonial and Revolutionary Experiences
A. The Declaration of Independence
B. The Articles of Confederation
C. A Nation Dissolving
II. Negotiating Toward a Constitution
A. The Great Compromise: A Two-Chamber Congress
B. The Three-Fifths Compromise: Issues of Slavery and Trade
C. A Strategy for Ratification
D. The Ratification Debate
E. The Framers’ Goals
III. Protecting Liberty: Limited Government
A. Grants and Denials of Power
B. Using Power to Offset Power
C. Separated Institutions Sharing Power: Checks and Balances
1. Shared Legislative Powers
2. Shared Executive Powers
3. Shared Judicial Powers
D. The Bill of Rights
E. Judicial Review
IV. Providing for Self-Government
A. Democracy versus Republic
B. Limited Popular Rule
C. Altering the Constitution: More Power to the People
1. Jeffersonian Democracy: A Revolution of the Spirit
2. Jacksonian Democracy: Linking the People and the Presidency
3. The Progressives: Senate and Primary Elections
V. Constitutional Democracy Today
Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:
Describe the system of checks and balances on the powers of the three branches of American government, and assess its effectiveness in controlling the abuse of political power.
Explain and analyze the roots of limited government in America.
Compare separation of powers and separated institutions sharing power. Assess why the second, which characterizes the U.S. system, is the more substantial check on political power.
Explain what is meant by the term judicial review, and assess its significance in a system based on limited government. Be sure to explain the constitutional significance of Marbury v. Madison.
Discuss the distinction the framers made between the terms democracy and republic, and why they considered one preferable over the other.
Describe how provisions for majority rule have changed and increased over time, and what role the Progressive movement played in this evolution.
Summarize the arguments for and against direct democracy, as compared to an indirect, representative government.
Detail the aspects of current American constitutional democracy for which it could be considered more democratic than other systems, and those aspects that make the U.S. system less democratic than some.
The Constitution is a reflection of the colonial and revolutionary experiences of the early Americans. Freedom from abusive government was a reason for the colonists’ revolt against British rule, but the English tradition also provided ideas about government, power, and freedom that were expressed in the Constitution and earlier in the Declaration of Independence.
The Constitution was designed to provide for a limited government in which political power would be confined to its proper uses. The framers wanted to ensure that the government they were creating would not itself be a threat to freedom. To this end, they confined the national government to expressly granted powers and also denied it specific powers. Other prohibitions on government were later added to the Constitution in the form of stated guarantees of individual liberties—the Bill of Rights. The most significant constitutional provision for limited government, however, was separation of powers among the three branches. The powers given to each branch enable it to act as a check on the exercise of power by the others, an arrangement which, during the nation’s history, has in fact served as a barrier to abuses of power.
The Constitution, however, made no mention of how the powers and limits of government were to be judged in practice. In its historic ruling in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court assumed the authority to review the constitutionality of legislative and executive actions and to declare them unconstitutional and thus invalid.
The framers of the Constitution respected the idea of self-government but distrusted popular majorities. They designed a government that they felt would temper popular opinion and slow its momentum, so that the public’s true interest (which includes a regard for the rights and interests of the minority) would guide public policy. Different methods were established to select members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the president, and federal judges as a means of separating political power from momentary and unreflecting majorities.
Since the adoption of the Constitution, however, the public has gradually assumed more direct control of its representatives, particularly through measures affecting the way in which officeholders are chosen. Political parties, presidential voting (linked to the Electoral College), direct election of senators, and primary elections are among the devices aimed at strengthening the majority’s influence. These developments are rooted in the idea, deeply held by ordinary Americans, that the people must have substantial direct control of their government if it is to serve their vital interests.
Focus and Main Points
This chapter describes how the principles of self-government and limited government are embodied in the Constitution and explains the tension between them. The chapter also indicates how these principles have been modified in practice in the course of American history. The major ideas in this chapter include:
America during the colonial period developed traditions of limited government and self-government. These traditions were rooted in governing practices, political theory, and cultural values.
The Constitution provides for limited government mainly by defining lawful powers and by dividing those powers among competing institutions. The Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, also prohibits government from infringing on individual rights. Judicial review is an additional safeguard.
The Constitution in its original form provided for self-government mainly through indirect systems of election of representatives. The framers’ theory of self-government was based on the notion that political power must be separated from immediate popular influences if sound policies are to result.
The idea of popular government—in which the majority’s desires have a more direct and immediate impact on governing officials—has gained strength since the nation’s beginning. Originally, the House of Representatives was the only institution subject to direct vote of the people. This mechanism has been extended to other institutions and, through primary elections, even to the nomination of candidates for public office.
The principle that the people are the ultimate source and should have a voice in their governing. (In practice, self-government has come to mean a government based on majority rule.)
A government that is subject to strict limits on its lawful uses of power, and hence on its ability to deprive people of their liberty.
A voluntary agreement by individuals to form government, which is then obliged to act within the confines of the agreement.
inalienable (natural) rights
Those rights that persons theoretically possessed in the state of nature, prior to the formation of governments. These rights, including those of life, liberty, and property, are considered inherent and, as such, are inalienable. Since government is established by people, government has the responsibility to preserve these rights.
Virginia (large-state) Plan
A constitutional proposal for a strong Congress with two chambers, both of which would be based on numerical representation, thus granting more power to the larger states.
New Jersey (small-state) Plan
A constitutional proposal for a strengthened Congress but one in which each state would have a single vote, thus granting a small state the same legislative power as a large state.
The agreement at the constitutional convention to create a two-chamber Congress with the House apportioned by population and the Senate apportioned equally by state.
A compromise worked out at the 1787 convention between northern states and southern states. Each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of federal taxation and congressional apportionment (number of seats in the House of Representative).
A term used to describe proponents of the Constitution during the debate over ratification.
A term used to describe opponents of the Constitution during the debate over ratification.
The fundamental law that defines how a government will legitimately operate.
denials of power
A constitutional means of limiting government by listing those powers that government is expressly prohibited from using.
grants of power
The method of limiting the U.S. government by confining its scope of authority to those powers expressly granted in the Constitution.
separation of powers
The division of the powers of government among separate institutions or branches.
separated institutions sharing power
The principle that, as a way to limit government, its powers should be divided among separate branches, each of which also shares in the power of the others as a means of checking and balancing them. The result is that no one branch can exercise power decisively without the support or acquiescence of the others.
checks and balances
The elaborate system of divided spheres of authority provided by the U.S. Constitution as a means of controlling the power of government. The separation of powers among the branches of the national government, federalism, and the different methods of selecting national officers are all part of this system.
Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution. They include rights such as freedom of speech and religion.
The power of courts to decide whether a governmental institution has acted within its constitutional powers and, if not, to declare its action null and void.
tyranny of the majority
The potential of a majority to monopolize power for its own gain to the detriment of minority rights and interests.
The principle that individuals should be free to act and think as they choose, provided they do not infringe unreasonably on the freedom and well-being of others
democracy (according to the framers)
A form of government in which the power of the majority is unlimited, whether exercised directly or through a representative body.
A form of government in which the people’s representatives decide policy through institutions structured in ways that foster deliberation, slow the progress of decision making, and operate within restraints that protect individual liberty. A republic is designed, not to prevent the people from governing, but to filter popular sentiment in ways that reduce the likelihood of hasty, ill-conceived, and injurious policies. To the framers, the Constitution’s separation of powers and other limits on power were hallmarks of a republican form of government, as opposed to a democratic form, which places no limits on the majority.
Elected representatives whose obligation is to act in accordance with their own consciences as to what policies are in the best interests of the public.
An unofficial term that refers to the electors who cast the states’ electoral votes.
The method of voting that is used to choose the U.S. president. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has members in Congress (House and Senate combined). By tradition, electoral voting is tied to a state’s popular voting. The candidate with the most popular votes in a state (or, in a few states, the most votes in a congressional district) receives its electoral votes.
Elected representatives whose obligation is to act in accordance with the expressed wishes of the people they represent.
A form of election in which voters choose a party’s nominees for public office. In most states, eligibility to vote in a party’s primary election is limited to voters who are registered members of the party.
constitutional democratic republic
A government that is constitutional in its provisions for minority rights and rule by law, democratic in its provisions for majority influence through elections, and a republic in its mix of deliberative institutions, which check and balance each other.
(Answers appear at the end of this chapter.)
1. In the American political context, John Locke’s conception of inalienable rights and the legitimacy of the social contract found its most explicit statement in
a. the Mayflower Compact.
b. the Declaration of Independence.
c. the Magna Carta.
d. the U.S. Constitution.
e. The Federalist Papers.
2. What was the significance of Shays’s Rebellion?
a. It demonstrated the flaws of the U.S. Constitution.
b. It demonstrated the power of the national army.
c. It demonstrated that Congress was weak and unable to respond to crises in an effective manner.
d. It demonstrated the power of the presidency.
e. None of these answers is correct.
3. The Three-Fifths Compromise dealt directly with the issue of
a. the admission of new states into the Union.
b. apportionment of taxes and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
c. ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
d. amending the U.S. Constitution.
e. None of these answers is correct.
4. The Anti-Federalists opposed ratification of the Constitution because they felt that
a. the national government would be too powerful.
b. the national government would threaten the sovereignty of the states.
c. the national government would threaten the liberty of the people.
d. the national government would be too weak and ineffective.
e. All these answers are correct, except the answer suggesting they felt the national government would be too weak and ineffective.
5. Which of the following is NOT true of government under the Articles of Confederation?
a. Congress had insufficient funds to build a navy or hire an army.
b. Each of the thirteen states had one vote in Congress, and the agreement of nine states was required to pass legislation.
c. Amendments could be added only by unanimous approval of the states.
d. Congress was overshadowed by the president.
e. The states did not have the power to raise their own taxes.
6. The Senate was initially designed to
a. allow for a purer form of self-government in the national legislature.
b. check the power of the judiciary.
c. allow states legislative power based on their populations.
d. be less responsive to popular pressure.
e. protect the interests of wealthier Americans.
7. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned against the dangers of
b. states’ rights.
c. judicial review.
d. an all-powerful president.
e. ex post facto laws.
8. The principle of checks and balances is based on the notion that
a. leaders are trustees of the people.
b. all legislative and executive action must be tempered through judicial review.
c. a weak government is more preferable than a strong government.
d. power must be used to offset power.
e. None of these answers is correct.
9. Marbury v. Madison (1803) became the foundation for
a. free speech jurisprudence in the United States.
b. establishment clause jurisprudence in the United States.
c. judicial review by the federal courts.
d. election disputes in the United States.
e. states’ rights cases in the United States.
10. Under the original Constitution, U.S. senators were elected by
a. the U.S. House of Representatives.
b. the Electoral College.
c. direct vote of the electorate.
d. state legislatures.
e. the Supreme Court.
11. ________ persuaded the states to choose their presidential electors on the basis of the popular vote.
a. Thomas Jefferson
b. James Monroe
c. John Quincy Adams
d. Andrew Jackson
e. James Knox Polk
12. Which reform occurred during the Progressive Era?
c. recall election
d. primary election
e. All these answers are correct.
13. After Andrew Jackson’s time, which three candidates won the presidency after losing the popular vote?
a. James Garfield (1880), Grover Cleveland (1888), and Harry Truman (1948)
b. Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000)
c. James Buchanan (1856), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and Woodrow Wilson (1912)
d. Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Warren Harding (1920), and John F. Kennedy (1960)
e. None of these answers is correct.
14. Under the U.S. Constitution, members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a ________ term, members of the U.S. Senate have a(n) ________ term, and the president has a ________ term.
a. 2 year; 6 year; 4 year
b. 2 year; 4 year; 6 year
c. 4 year; 4 year; 4 year
d. 2 year; 8 year; 4 year
e. None of these answers is correct.
15. ________ wrote The Federalist Papers.
a. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson
b. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison
c. John Jay and Thomas Jefferson
d. Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison
e. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay
16. Which of the following is a check on legislative power in the U.S. system?
a. Congress can overturn a presidential veto with a 2/3 vote by both houses.
b. Congress can overturn a presidential veto with a 3/4 vote by both houses.
c. The president can appoint the Speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.
d. For legislation to be passed, a majority in each chamber of Congress is required.
e. Congress must appropriate funds that are to be used by the executive.
17. In what way was the government of Pennsylvania an exception among the state governments formed after the Revolutionary War?
a. It was the only state government with an independent judiciary.
b. It lacked any separation of powers, and had an all-powerful legislature.
c. It went further than simple separation of powers by building a system of separated but overlapping powers.
d. It took great pains to enfranchise minority groups, such as the Quakers.
e. It contained no popularly elected legislature.
18. In most democracies of the world,
a. the legislative branch is far more powerful than the executive branch.
b. there is no separated judicial branch.
c. executive and legislative powers are combined in a single body.
d. the executive has little to no checks on its power.
e. the judicial branch is the strongest branch of government.
19. The Great Compromise dealt with the issue of
a. the continued legality of slavery.
b. the power of the presidency.
c. the nature of state representation in Congress.
d. the extent of the powers of the Supreme Court.
e. how Senators would be elected.
20. Which of the following states was steadfastly opposed to the new Union and refused to ratify the Constitution until eleven other states had done so and had begun to form the new government?
b. South Carolina
e. Rhode Island
1. John Locke maintained that a government, if originally put into place by legitimate means, could never be revoked legitimately.
2. The case of Marbury v. Madison established the power of the Supreme Court to decide the constitutionality of an act of Congress.
3. In a parliamentary democracy, policy is made by direct referendum from the people, since there is no legislature.
4. There is no provision in the U.S. Constitution for any form of direct popular participation in public policymaking, such as a national referendum.
5. The staggered terms of office for the House, Senate, and president were devised by the writers of the Constitution in order to provide the majority position of the voting public more opportunities to influence the government.
6. The U.S. Constitution was an attempt to strike a balance between representative government and limited government.
7. Over time, the American national political system has become more responsive to popular majorities.
8. Federal justices are allowed to hold office for life, unless they commit a crime.
9. Since presidential electors have been chosen on the basis of popular vote, there has not been a president elected who lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote.
10. Thomas Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800” was based on rejection of the elite-centered politics of President John Adams.
Identify the fundamental flaws of the Articles of Confederation.
What was the central importance of Shays’s Rebellion?
What were the major goals of the framers of the U.S. Constitution?
What political reforms occurred during the Progressive Era?
How did the framers ensure that popular rule would be limited in the United States?
Answers to the Practice Exam
Multiple Choice Answers
b 11. d
c 12. e
b 13. b
e 14. a
5. d 15. e
d 16. d
7. a 17. b
8. d 18. c
9. c 19. c
d 20. e
Multiple Choice Explanations
1.Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence (b), declared that Locke “was one of the three greatest men that ever lived, without exception.” He paraphrased Locke’s ideas in key passages of this document.
2.When the governor of Massachusetts asked Congress for help in quelling the revolt, it had no army to send (c). The governor had to raise money to hire a militia to put down the rebellion.
3.In a controversial tradeoff, the Three-Fifths Compromise mandated that each slave was to count as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportionment of taxes and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (b).
4.The Anti-Federalists had a deep distrust of centralized power and felt that the national government would be too powerful, usurp state sovereignty, and infringe upon individual rights, so (e) is the correct response.
5.Although Congress was woefully under-funded and weak, there was no executive (and thus no president) under the Articles of the Confederation. The correct answer is (d).
6.U.S. senators initially were appointed by the legislatures of the states they represented. Because state legislators were popularly elected, the people would be choosing their senators indirectly, and thus be less responsive to popular pressure (d).
7.In Federalist No. 10, Madison warned about “the mischiefs of faction” (a).
8.The principle of separated institutions sharing power is implemented by checks and balances, so that each branch of government checks the powers of the others (d).
9.Chief Justice John Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, declared that the judiciary has the power to determine the constitutionality of executive and legislative actions (c).
10.U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures (d) until passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913.
11.In 1828, Jackson (d) persuaded the states to choose their electors on the basis of the popular vote, as he recognized that the president was the only official who represented the nation as a whole.
12.All these changes occurred during the Progressive Era at the end of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century (e).
13.Since Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828, only Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), and George W. Bush (2000) have captured the presidency after losing in the popular vote (b).
14.Under Article I and II of the Constitution, House members have 2-year terms, Senate members have 6-year terms, and presidents have 4-year terms (a).
15.Franklin did not participate in this project, but the others did, so (e) is the correct answer.
16.Within Congress, there is an internal check on legislative power: for legislation to be passed, a majority in each chamber of Congress is required. Thus, the answer is (d).
17.Pennsylvania was an exception to the other state governments in that its all-powerful legislature was unrestrained by an independent judiciary or executive, and ignored basic rights and freedoms. Thus, the proper answer is (b).
18.Most democracies are of the parliamentary type, with executive and legislative power combined in a single institution, rather than vested in separate ones. Thus, the correct answer is (c).
19.The Great Compromise was the result of debates between the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, which were alternate proposals over the issue of state representation in Congress, and whether or not it would be weighted proportionally by population or made equal regardless of state size. Thus, (c) is the correct answer.
20.North Carolina and Rhode Island (e) were steadfastly opposed to the new union and did not ratify the Constitution until the other eleven states had ratified it and begun the process of establishing the new government.
1. b 6. a
2. a 7. a
3. b 8. a
4. a 9. b
5. b 10. a
There were several flaws with the Articles of Confederation. The Articles created a very weak national government that was subordinate to the state governments. Under the Articles, the national government consisted of a unicameral Congress, where each of the thirteen states had one vote. Nine votes were required to pass legislation, and a unanimous vote was necessary to amend the Articles. No executive or judicial branches of government at the national level existed under America’s first written constitution. The Articles effectively did not allow Congress to generate revenue via taxation or create and sustain a national navy or army. In addition, there was no singular national economy, as states engaged in trade wars as Congress did not have the power to regulate interstate commerce under the Articles.
Shays’s Rebellion occurred in late 1786 in western Massachusetts. An army of 2,000 farmers marched on county courthouses to prevent foreclosures on their property. Many farmers were veterans of the Revolutionary War. They had been assured that their property would not be confiscated for unpaid debts and taxes. They had also been told they would receive back pay owed to them for military service. Instead, they received no pay and their farms were heavily taxed. The central importance of Shays’s Rebellion is that it scared propertied interests, who called on the governor to quell the revolt. The governor turned to Congress for assistance, but Congress had no army to send. Finally, the governor hired a militia to put down the rebellion. It became clear to many Americans that the national Congress was too weak to effectively respond to a crisis in the new nation, and advanced efforts to reform the Articles or to create a new Constitution.
The framers had four major goals in creating the U.S. Constitution. First, the framers desired to create a national government strong enough to meet the nation’s needs, especially in defense and commerce matters. Second, the framers wanted to establish a government that would not threaten the existence of the states. Third, the framers hoped to create a government that would not threaten individual liberties. Fourth, the framers aspired to create a government based on popular consent.
Several political reforms occurred during the Progressive Era. The Progressives changed the manner in which some state and local governments operated at the time, with the establishment of the initiative, referendum, and recall election. In addition, reformers also instigated two changes in federal elections. With the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, direct election of U.S. senators commenced in the 1914 elections. The second change was the primary election, which gave the people the opportunity to select nominees for the political parties. Before this change, nominees were chosen by party leaders.
The framers mandated that all power would be exercised through representative institutions. There was no provision to allow the people to directly make policy decisions. In the original Constitution, the framers only allowed direct election in the U.S. House of Representatives (keep in mind that the electorate has expanded greatly since 1787). U.S. senators were selected by elites in state legislatures. The Senate was also expected to temper the passions in the House because senators were not directly accountable to the people, and they were given 6-year terms, as opposed to 2-year terms in the House. Presidential selection was debated at great length in Philadelphia. The framers rejected the idea of direct election, and instead created a group of elites (the Electoral College), which would select a president on behalf of the people. Finally, the framers determined that all federal judges would be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, thus bypassing direct popular control entirely.
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