|Foundations of American Government
Sea travel expanded the horizons of many European nations and created prosperity and the conditions for the Enlightenment. In turn, the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and justice helped to create the conditions for the American Revolution and the subsequent Constitution.
Democracy was not created in a heartbeat. In a world where people were ruled by monarchs from above, the idea of self-government is entirely alien. Democracy takes practice and wisdom from experience.
The American colonies began developing a democratic tradition during their earliest stages of development. Over 150 years later, the colonists believed their experience was great enough to refuse to recognize the British king. The first decade was rocky. The American Revolution and the domestic instability that followed prompted a call for a new type of government with a constitution to guarantee liberty. The constitution drafted in the early days of the independent American republic has endured longer than any in human history.
Where did this democratic tradition truly begin? The ideas and practices that led to the development of the American democratic republic owe a debt to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, the Protestant Reformation, and Gutenberg's printing press. But the Enlightenment of 17th-century Europe had the most immediate impact on the framers of the United States Constitution.
Europeans of the 17th century no longer lived in the "darkness" of the Middle Ages. Ocean voyages had put them in touch with many world civilizations, and trade had created a prosperous middle class. The Protestant Reformation encouraged free thinkers to question the practices of the Catholic Church, and the printing press spread the new ideas relatively quickly and easily. The time was ripe for the philosophes, scholars who promoted democracy and justice through discussions of individual liberty and equality.
The ideas of 18th-century philosophes inspired the Founding Fathers to revolt against what they perceived as unfair British taxation. Washington Crossing the Delaware is one of the most famous depictions of the American Revolution.
One of the first philosophes was Thomas Hobbes, an Englishman who concluded in his famous book, Leviathan, that people are incapable of ruling themselves, primarily because humans are naturally self-centered and quarrelsome and need the iron fist of a strong leader. Later philosophes, like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau were more optimistic about democracy. Their ideas encouraged the questioning of absolute monarchs, like the Bourbon family that ruled France. Montesquieu suggested a separation of powers into branches of government not unlike the system Americans would later adopt. They found eager students who later became the founders of the American government.
The single most important influence that shaped the founding of the United States comes from John Locke, a 17th century Englishman who redefined the nature of government. Although he agreed with Hobbes regarding the self-interested nature of humans, he was much more optimistic about their ability to use reason to avoid tyranny. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke identified the basis of a legitimate government. According to Locke, a ruler gains authority through the consent of the governed. The duty of that government is to protect the natural rights of the people, which Locke believed to include life, liberty, and property. If the government should fail to protect these rights, its citizens would have the right to overthrow that government. This idea deeply influenced Thomas Jefferson as he drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Important English Documents
Ironically, the English political system provided the grist for the revolt of its own American colonies. For many centuries English monarchs had allowed restrictions to be placed on their ultimate power. The Magna Carta, written in 1215, established the kernel of limited government, or the belief that the monarch's rule was not absolute. Although the document only forced King John to consult nobles before he made arbitrary decisions like passing taxes, the Magna Carta provided the basis for the later development of Parliament. Over the years, representative government led by a Prime Minister came to control and eventually replace the king as the real source of power in Britain.
The ideas of the French Enlightenment philosophes strongly influenced the American revolutionaries. French intellectuals met in salons like this one to exchange ideas and define their ideals such as liberty, equality, and justice.
The Petition of Right (1628) extended the rights of "commoners" to have a voice in the government. The English Bill of Rights (1688) guaranteed free elections and rights for citizens accused of crime. Although King George III still had some real power in 1776, Britain was already well along on the path of democracy by that time.
The foundations of American government lie squarely in the 17th and 18th century European Enlightenment. The American founders were well versed in the writings of the philosophes, whose ideas influenced the shaping of the new country. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and others took the brave steps of creating a government based on the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and a new form of justice. More than 200 years later, that government is still intact.
The Colonial Experience
John Winthrop was the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of the eight colonies governed by royal charter in the colonial period.
They created and nurtured them. Like children, the American colonies grew and flourished under British supervision. Like many adolescents, the colonies rebelled against their parent country by declaring independence. But the American democratic experiment did not begin in 1776. The colonies had been practicing limited forms of self-government since the early 1600s.
The great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean created a safe distance for American colonists to develop skills to govern themselves. Despite its efforts to control American trade, England could not possibly oversee the entire American coastline. Colonial merchants soon learned to operate outside British law. Finally, those who escaped religious persecution in England demanded the freedom to worship according to their faiths.
Each of the thirteen colonies had a charter, or written agreement between the colony and the king of England or Parliament. Charters of royal colonies provided for direct rule by the king. A colonial legislature was elected by property holding males. But governors were appointed by the king and had almost complete authority — in theory. The legislatures controlled the salary of the governor and often used this influence to keep the governors in line with colonial wishes. The first colonial legislature was the Virginia House of Burgesses, established in 1619.
The colonies along the eastern coast of North America were formed under different types of charter, but most developed representative democratic governments to rule their territories.
When the first Pilgrims voyaged to the New World, a bizarre twist of fate created a spirit of self-government. These Pilgrims of the Mayflower were bound for Virginia in 1620, but they got lost and instead landed at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. Since Plymouth did not lie within the boundaries of the Virginia colony, the Pilgrims had no official charter to govern them. So they drafted the Mayflower Compact, which in essence declared that they would rule themselves. Although Massachusetts eventually became a royal colony, the Pilgrims at Plymouth set a powerful precedent of making their own rules that later reflected itself in the town meetings that were held across colonial New England.
Trade and Taxation
Colonial economies operated under mercantilism, a system based on the belief that colonies existed in order to increase the mother country's wealth. England tried to regulate trade, and forbid colonies from trading with other European countries. England also maintained the right to tax the colonies. Both trade and taxation were difficult for England to control, and so an informal agreement emerged. England regulated trade but allowed colonists the right to levy their own taxes. Smugglers soon exploited the English inability to guard every port by secretly trading against Parliament's wishes.
A proprietary charter allowed the governor of the colony to rule with great power over his lands. In William Penn's Pennsylvania, that power was used to establish a land of religious tolerance.
This delicate agreement was put to test by the French and Indian War. The war was expensive, and from the British point of view, colonists should help pay for it, especially considering that England believed it was protecting the colonists from French and Indian threats. The new taxes levied by the Crown nevertheless horrified the colonists. British naval measures to arrest smugglers further incited American shippers. These actions served as stepping stones to the Revolution.
Religious freedom served as a major motivation for Europeans to venture to the American colonies. Puritans and Pilgrims in Massachusetts, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and Catholics in Maryland represented the growing religious diversity in the colonies. Rhode Island was founded as a colony of religious freedom in reaction to zealous Puritans. As a result, many different faiths coexisted in the colonies. This variety required an insistence on freedom of religion since the earliest days of British settlement.
So the colonial experience was one of absorbing British models of government, the economy, and religion. Over the course of about 150 years, American colonists practiced these rudimentary forms of self-government that eventually led to their decision to revolt against British rule. The democratic experiment of American self-rule was therefore not a sudden change brought about by the Declaration of Independence. By 1776, Americans had plenty of practice.
Independence and the Articles of Confederation
"Give me liberty, or give me death!" Patrick Henry's oratory against British taxation of American colonies was key in inspiring the Founding Fathers to declare independence.
"No taxation without representation!"
"These are the times that try men's souls."
All are famous phrases that sparked the American Revolution. In the view of many colonists, British rule suppressed political, economic, and religious freedoms. Many of those that hesitated to support independence were soon convinced by the passionate words of Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and eventually John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the American Revolution, and the creation of the Articles of Confederation represent the American colonies' first attempt to become a nation. This incubation was tentative at best, but ultimately led to success.
The Declaration of Independence
Thomas Paine advocated the independence of the American colonies from Britain. The writings of Paine, Samuel Adams, and others convinced Americans to set up their own state and democratic government.
As tensions between Britain and the American colonies increased, a series of meetings were called, including that of the Second Continental Congress (1775-1776.) On July 4, 1776, the delegates approved the Declaration of Independence, the event that marks the birth of the United States. Thomas Jefferson, a delegate from Virginia, drafted the document primarily as a list of grievances against the king. His most important words, however, clearly shaped the philosophical basis of the new government. The famous introduction clearly reflected John Locke's social contract theory: "...to secure these rights [Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Jefferson further reasoned that since the British government had abused these rights, the colonists had the right "to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."
The American Revolution and the Articles of Confederation
Shay's Rebellion showed the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. When the central government couldn't put down the rebellion, the first stirrings of federalism began to gather strength.
The British, of course, did not recognize the Declaration and continued to send troops to contain the rebellion. The war continued until 1783, so the new government had to be put in place in a wartime atmosphere. The Articles of Confederation, a compact among the thirteen original states, was written in 1776 but not ratified by the states until 1781. The loose "league of friendship" that it created reflected the founders' reaction to the central authority of King George III.
The government gave most powers to the states, and the central government consisted only of a legislature. Above all, the colonists wanted to preserve their liberties, but the central governments' lack of power proved to be disastrous. It could not regulate trade or keep the states from circulating their own currency. No chief executive could make real decisions, and no national court could settle disputes among states. And perhaps most importantly, they could not efficiently conduct a war nor pay the debts incurred once the war was over.
The Declaration of Independence reflected many of the ideals that the signers believed in. Ideas such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were products of the Enlightenment.
By 1786 the new country was in serious economic straits, and states were quarreling over boundary lines and tariffs. An economic depression left not only states in trouble, but also many ordinary citizens, such as farmers and merchants, were deep in debt as well. Shays' Rebellion, a revolt by angry farmers in Massachusetts, symbolized the chaos in the country. Even though the Massachusetts militia finally put the rebellion down, it pointed out the inability of the central government to maintain law and order. In reaction, Alexander Hamilton of New York initiated the organization of a meeting in Philadelphia in 1787. This convention would eventually throw out the Articles of Confederation and draft the Constitution.
So the freedom that the American Revolution sought to preserve proved to create a government under the Articles of Confederation that could not keep law and order. But the failure of the initial experiment helped the founders to find a more perfect balance between liberty and order in the Constitution they produced in 1787.
Creating the Constitution
"Nothing spoken or written can be revealed to anyone — not even your family — until we have adjourned permanently. Gossip or misunderstanding can easily ruin all the hard work we shall have to do this summer." -George Washington, presiding officer
The Constitution was written in secrecy over a summer in Philadelphia. Twelve of the thirteen states were represented. Once the drafters signed the Constitution, as seen here, it began to make a slow path around the states in search of ratification.
Most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention had already risked being hanged as traitors by the British. No wonder that they worried about their states' reactions to their decision to abandon the Articles of Confederation and create a whole new document.
Persuading the states to accept the Constitution was every bit as difficult as they predicted. It took two years for all thirteen states to ratify it. But their product was a blueprint for a new kind of government based on the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.
Separation of Powers
The Constitution is the basis of the United States government. All debates over laws have the few pages of the Constitution as their basis, and much political conflict has arisen due to different traditions of interpreting its clauses.
The Constitution provided for the structure and powers of Congress in Article I. It created a bicameral legislature, set qualifications for holding office in each house, and provided for methods of selecting representatives and senators. It carefully enumerated powers, such as regulating interstate commerce and declaring wars. Article II vested the power to execute laws in a president of the United States. It set the president's term at four years, stated qualifications for office, and provided a mechanism to remove him from office.
The president's constitutional powers are very modest, but they include commander-in-chief of the armed forces, negotiator of foreign treaties, and appointer of ambassadors, judges, and other "officers of the United States." Article III established a Supreme Court and defines its jurisdiction. The Founders disagreed on how much power to give the judges, but they ultimately gave judges appointments for life and forbid Congress to lower their salaries while they hold office.
Checks and Balances
The Founders were ever mindful of the dangers of tyrannical government. So they built a system in which the powers of each branch would be used to check the powers of the other two branches. Additionally, each house of the legislature could check one another. For example, both houses of Congress must vote to enact laws, the president can veto legislation, and the Supreme Court can rule laws unconstitutional. Congress can override presidential vetoes. The president nominates Supreme Court justices, but the Senate can refuse to confirm the nominees. The Congress can impeach and remove the president or a member of the Supreme Court. As a result, a "balance" was created among the three branches.
He may have been an elegant and refined statesman, but Alexander Hamilton's temper got him involved in a duel with Aaron Burr that resulted in death.
Wide differences of opinion existed even among the 55 delegates concerning the proper balance between liberty and order. Alexander Hamilton, for example, valued order more than liberty and supported the creation of a very strong executive. James Madison, influenced by his mentor Thomas Jefferson, conceded that an executive was necessary, but he saw the legislature as the preserver of liberty and an important check on the power of the executive. George Washington's experience as the head of the Continental Army during the revolution convinced him that the chaotic government needed more structure. Thomas Jefferson did not attend the convention because he was serving as ambassador to France, but his belief that "a little rebellion now and then" was a good thing tilted his balance more toward liberty.
Article IV defined the relationship between the federal government and the states in a system of federalism, which divides the power of government between national and state governments. This federal system was meant to correct the chaos of the country during the Articles of Confederation. However, it was still mindful of the threat of a tyrannical central government. This article included mechanisms for admitting new states to the Union.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the most important proponents of federalism at the Constitutional Convention. He presented a plan to create a strong executive branch, out of a belief that order is more important than liberty.
The relationship between national and state governments was defined in many other parts of the Constitution. For example, Article 1, Section 10 forbids the states to form alliances or enter with foreign countries or to coin their own money. Federalism was further defined in Article VI in which the constitution was declared "the Supreme Law of the Land." This supremacy clause, as well as the "elastic" clause (Article I, Section 8) tilts the federalist balance toward national law.
Article V provides methods of amending the Constitution. Only 27 amendments have been added to the constitution since the ratification in 1789.
The Founders acted boldly in 1787 when they threw out the Articles of Confederation and created the Constitution. The document they created has survived for more than 200 years. The risks that they took resulted in the longest lasting written constitution in world history.
The Bill of Rights
By working to get the Bill of Rights passed, James Madison continued his support of Jefferson's policies. Jefferson supported the Constitution under the condition that basic human rights would be protected through a series of amendments.
Understandably, any people that fought a revolution over "taxation without representation" would be cautious about the new Constitution created in 1787. For example, famous Virginian Patrick Henry refused to attend the Convention because he "smelt a rat."
States cherished their new freedom from British control, and ratification of the Constitution by state legislatures was by no means certain. All thirteen states finally ratified by 1790, but only with the addition of ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, that guaranteed citizens' rights and freedoms.
The Debate over Ratification
The debate polarized the new nation. Those who supported the Constitution became known as federalists and those who opposed its ratification were called antifederalists. The federalists supported a strong national government to preserve order. The antifederalists favored strong state governments and believed that the national government created by the Constitution was too strong.
George Mason was one of the leading figures in creating the Bill of Rights. After storming out of the Constitutional Convention because the Constitution didn't contain a declaration of human rights, he worked to pass amendments that would protect citizens from an intrusive government.
Believed the Union would fail without a strong central government
Wanted strong state governments (closer to the people)
Who Should Rule
Thought that elites were most fit to govern
Believed that ordinary people should have great input into government
The piece of parchment that is called the Bill of Rights is actually a joint resolution of the House and Senate proposing twelve amendments to the Constitution. The final number of accepted amendments was ten, and those became known as the Bill of Rights.
Trusting the People
Distrusted rule by the people
Distrusted elites; thought they were corrupt
Who were they?
Property owners, landed wealthy, well-to-do
Small farmers, shopkeepers, laborers, merchants
In many ways the argument was the same old debate about the proper balance between order and liberty. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote compelling arguments in favor of ratification in a series of essays known as the Federalist Papers. There were probably more antifederalists in America, but the federalists were better organized, controlled more newspapers, and were in greater positions of power. The two sides finally reached an acceptable compromise when they agreed to add some amendments to the Constitution that protected individual liberties and rights.
The Bill of Rights
In 1789 Virginian James Madison submitted twelve amendments to Congress. His intention was to answer the criticisms of the antifederalists. The states ratified all but two of them — one to authorize the enlargement of the House of Representatives and one to prevent members of the House from raising their own salaries until after an election had taken place. The remaining ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified in 1791.
They put limits on the national government's right to control specific civil liberties and rights, many of which were already protected by some of the state constitutions. Liberties protected included freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly (First Amendment). The Bill of Rights also provided safeguards for those accused of crimes. Two amendments — the right to bear arms (Second Amendment) and the right to refuse to have soldiers quartered in your home (Third Amendment) — were clearly reactions to British rule. The antifederalists were pleased by the addition of the Tenth Amendment, which declared that all powers not expressly granted to Congress were reserved to the states.
Over the years the Bill of Rights has become an important core of American values. The compromise that created the Bill of Rights also defined what Americans would come to cherish above almost all else. Together with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Bill of Rights helps to define the American political system and the government's relationship to its citizens.
Before the Constitution was written, each state had its own currency. This four pound note from Philadelphia reads, "To Counterfeit is Death."
Did you ever wonder why you don't need a passport to go from New York to California, but if you were to move from one state to another, you would need a new driver's license? Or why you can use the same currency in all states, but not be subject to the same speed limits? Or why you have to pay both federal and state taxes?
The maze of national and state regulations results from federalism — the decision made by the Founders to split power between state and national governments. As James Madison explained in the "Federalist Papers," our government is "neither wholly national nor wholly federal."
Federalism as a System of Government
In creating a federalist system the founders were reacting to both the British government and the Articles of Confederation. The British government was — and remains — a unitary system, or one in which power is concentrated in a central government. In England, government has traditionally been centralized in London, and even though local governments exist, they generally have only those powers granted them by Parliament. The national government is supreme, and grants or retains powers to and from local governments at its whim.
The country we think of as Russia is part of the Russian Federation, a federal government with a variety of partially self-governing autonomous regions, or oblasts. Most of these, such as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, are concentrations of non-Russian ethnic groups.
The Articles of Confederation represented an opposite form of government, a confederation, which has a weak central government and strong state governments. In a confederation, the state or local government is supreme. The national government only wields powers granted by the states. Most confederations have allowed the local government to nullify a federal law within its own borders.
Federalism is a compromise meant to eliminate the disadvantages of both systems. In a federal system, power is shared by the national and state governments. The Constitution designates certain powers to be the domain of a central government, and others are specifically reserved to the state governments.
The Founders and Federalism
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington were advocates of the federal system. In their attempt to balance order with liberty, the Founders identified several reasons for creating a federalist government:
to avoid tyranny
to allow more participation in politics
to use the states as "laboratories" for new ideas and programs.
As James Madison pointed out in The Federalist, No. 10, If "factious leaders kindle a flame within their particular states," national leaders can check the spread of the "conflagration through the other states." So federalism prevents a person that takes control of a state from easily taking control of the federal governments as well.
Electing both state and national officials also increases the input of citizens into their government. And if a state adopts a disastrous new policy, at least it would not be a catastrophe for everyone. On the other hand, if a state's new programs work well, other states can adopt their ideas and adjust them to their own needs.
The Constitution gives three types of power to the national government:
1. Delegated (sometimes called enumerated or expressed) powers are specifically granted to the federal government in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. This includes the power to coin money, to regulate commerce, to declare war, to raise and maintain armed forces, and to establish a Post Office. In all, the Constitution delegates 27 powers specifically to the federal government.
2. Implied powers are not specifically stated in the Constitution, but may be inferred from the elastic (or "necessary and proper") clause (Article I, Section 8). This provision gives Congress the right "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and other powers vested in the government of the United States." Since these powers are not explicit, the courts are often left to decide what constitutes an implied power.
3. Inherent powers are not specifically listed in the Constitution, but they grow out of the very existence of the national government. For example, the United States has the power to acquire territory by exploration and/or occupancy, primarily because most governments in general claim that right.
Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution authorizes the federal government to issue a central currency for all states. The form of this currency has changed many times through the years.
The Constitution also identifies reserved powers, which are set aside for the states. Unlike delegated powers, they are not listed specifically, but are guaranteed by the Tenth Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, not prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Some traditional reserved powers include regulating trade within a state, establishing local government, and conducting elections.
Some powers of federal and state governments overlap. For example, both may — and do — levy taxes, make and enforce laws, and borrow money. These concurrent powers are not granted exclusively to the national government, nor are they denied the states.
Trademarks such as the Morton Salt umbrella girl are protected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, established to "promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries," as stated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
Prohibited powers are denied either to the national government, state governments, or both (Article I, Section 9.) For example, the national government cannot exercise its powers in such a way as to interfere with the states' abilities to perform their responsibilities. States cannot tax imports or exports, nor can they coin money or issue bills of credit.
States also have responsibilities to one another, as explained in Article IV of the Constitution. One provision is that each state must give "full faith and credit" to the public acts, records, and civil judicial proceedings of every other state. Business contracts, then, are recognized by all states, as are marriages. Extradition, the legal process in which an accused criminal is returned to the state were the crime was committed, is also required by Article IV.
The founders very carefully divided powers between federal and state governments. They were responding to both the colonial aversion to the tyranny of King George III as well as the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Their careful separating and blending of state and national powers guarded against tyranny, allowed for more citizen participation in government, and provided a mechanism for incorporating new policies and programs.