The Constitution’s Original Precepts
The Framers of the Constitution constructed a new system of government for America. Seven specific, essential principles guided their efforts to write a new constitution for our nation. These are the seven building blocks upon which this country’s new form of government has been, and is still, being built. Together the seven principles listed below were those that our founding fathers used to form the foundation of the United States Constitution.
“We the people of the United States establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” These words from the Preamble to the Constitution clearly spell
out the source of the government’s power. The American form of government comes from a school of political thought called classical liberalism, which emphasizes freedom, democracy, and the importance of the individual. The Constitution rests on the idea of popular sovereignty — a government in which the people rule. As the nation changed and grew, popu- lar sovereignty took on new meaning. A broader range of Americans shared in the power to
The Framers of the Constitution wanted the people to have a voice in government. Yet the Framers also feared that public opinion might stand in the way of sound decision making. To solve this problem, they looked to republicanism as a model of government. Republicanism is based on this belief: The people exer- cise their power by voting for their political representatives. According to the Framers, these lawmakers played the key role in making a republican government work. Article 4, Section 4, of the Constitution also calls for every state to have a “republican form of government.” Civic Republicanism is the idea that citizens stay informed about politics and participate in the process.
The Framers wanted the states and the nation to become partners in governing. To build cooperation, the Framers turned to federalism. Federalism is a system of government in which power is divided between a central government and smaller political units, such as states. In the early years of the United States, federalism was closely related to dual sovereignty, the idea that the powers of the federal government and the states were clearly defined, and each had exclusive power over their own spheres with little overlap. This view of federalism led to states’ rights conflicts, which were contributing factors in the Civil War. The Framers used federalism to structure the Constitution. The Constitution assigns certain powers to the national government. These are delegated powers. Powers kept by the states are reserved powers. Powers shared or exercised by national and state governments are known as concurrent powers.
4. Separation of Powers
The Framers were concerned that too much power might fall into the hands of a single group. To avoid this problem, they built the idea of separation of powers into the Constitution. This principle means the division of basic government roles into branches. No one branch is given all the power. Articles 1, 2, and 3 of the Constitution detail how powers are split among the three branches.
5. Checks and Balances
Baron de Montesquieu, an 18th-century French thinker, wrote, “Power should be a check to power.” His comment refers to the principle of checks and balances. Each branch of government can exercise checks, or controls, over the other branches. Though the branches of government are separate, they rely on one another to perform the work of government. The Framers included a system of checks and balances in the Constitution to help make sure that the branches work together fairly. For example, only Congress can pass laws. Yet the president can check this power by refusing to sign a law into action. In turn, the Supreme Court can declare that a law, passed by Congress and signed by the president, violates the Constitution.
6. Limited Government
The Framers restricted the power of government. Article 1, Section 9, of the Constitution lists the powers denied to the Congress. Article 1, Section 10, forbids the states to take certain actions. The principle of limited government is also closely related to the “rule of law”: In the American government everyone, citizens and powerful leaders alike, must obey the law. Individuals or groups cannot twist or bypass the law to serve their
7. Individual Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution shield people from an overly powerful government. These amendments are called the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees certain individual rights, or personal liberties and privileges. For example, government cannot control what people write or say. People also have the right to meet peacefully and to ask the government to correct a problem. Later amendments to the Constitution also advanced the cause of individual rights.