The U.S. Constitution: Principles of American Government

By Jack Bridges, PA

Did you know that September 17 is the annual federal observance of Constitution Day?  This holiday, tacked on to an omnibus spending bill in 2004 by the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, marks the anniversary of the delegates in Philadelphia signing the proposed Constitution of the United States in 1787.  Although celebrated without the fanfare of other American holidays, the act memorialized by Constitution Day defines what our country means more than any other holiday.

Our Constitution, the oldest governing document still in existence, originally served only to organize the framework of the federal government.  States and citizens, having just fought a war against a tyrannical government, were suspicious about suddenly giving power to an entity higher than themselves.  To placate this fear and to encourage states to ratify the Constitution, the Framers attached ten amendments to provide protection against the overreach of the federal government.  The Bill of Rights, however, did not originally provide such protection from state governments.  (Trivia Question One:  Which state maintained a “Church Tax” until 1833, despite the First Amendment’s prohibition on respecting the Establishment of Religion?) Trivia answers at the end of article.

Within the unamended body of the Constitution are six well-documented principles of American government. 

Students at Stanley Switlik Elementary School show off their own personal copies of the U.S. Constitution, donated by the Republican Party of Monroe County to celebrate Constitution Day 2021

Federalism:  The whole idea behind creating the Constitution was to establish a central government to eliminate the problems of thirteen separate sovereign states, each with the ability to make war (including with each other), form alliances, and make their own trade policies.  The Founders knew the prospects of peace and economic growth would be better served by having one government make such policies; however, the old Articles of Confederation gave no such power to the central government.  At the same time, no leading school of thought advocated the States abdicating their sovereign status.  Hence, the Constitution creates a form of federalism, or duel governments, each exercising exclusive sovereignty over those things within their own jurisdiction.  (Trivia Question Two:  Who is generally credited as the leading writer of the Constitution?)

Popular Sovereignty:  The Constitution enshrines the idea that all political power comes from the People.  This concept is not original to the Constitution:  Indeed, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence includes as one of the “truths to be self evident” that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  As originally conceived by the Founders, the House of Representatives would be elected by popular vote; the Senate would be elected by state legislatures which, in turn, were elected by the People; and the President would be elected by electors designated by state legislatures.  Although the Senate and the Presidency were filled by “election from among the elected” and far removed from the People, it was, ultimately, in the People that power found its base. (Trivia Question Three:  Although never required to, which states have always awarded their electors to the winner of the popular vote? )

Separation of Powers:  The Constitution ascribes certain powers exclusively to each of its three branches.   In the 1600’s, the concept of a separation between powers of Parliament and the Crown gained widespread acceptance in England.  As England did not have a written constitution, much of this acceptance was born of the English Civil War, an avenue our Framers wanted to avoid.  In order to ensure that too much power was never placed in one hand, the Constitution simply provided that the legislative power of the United States fell to the Congress; the executive power was vested in the President; and the judicial power in “one supreme court and such inferior courts as Congress may, from time to time, ordain and establish.”  How this separation is defined has been a source of healthy tension and debate over the last two and a half centuries,  with the branches’ respective powers often expanding and contrasting, depending on circumstances and personalities.  (Trivia Question Four:  In the last 50 years, which President issued the most executive orders?)

Checks and Balances:  This is the enforcement mechanism for the Separation of Powers doctrine.  The Constitution checks and balances power by ascribing counter-powers of one branch to another or both other branches.  For instance, Congress’ power to legislate is checked by the President’s power of the veto, which, in turn, is balanced by Congress’ power to override.  The President may name who he or she will to the federal judiciary; however, the choice must be confirmed by the Senate.  The President is Commander-in-Chief, but Congress determines whether war will be declared and whether the troops will be funded.  Judges and Presidents may be impeached, the Chief Justice presiding over the trial if the impeachment is of a sitting president.  (Trivia Question Five:  What are the constitutional requirements to be Chief Justice of the United States?)

Limitation of Government:   At the time of the Constitution’s adoption, suspicion of a strong federal government abounded.  To achieve the benefits of such a government, the Framers knew they had to provide assurances of its limitations.  Such express limitations include 1) placing a tariff or duty on items exported from one state to another, 2) favoring the ports of one state over another, 3) spending, without an appropriation bill, 4) taxing states other than by population, (later repealed by the 16th amendment), 5)  passing ex post facto laws or bills of attainder, and 6) Granting titles of nobility.  Congress’ powers are enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution, with two clauses being expansive:  The Necessary and Proper Clause (allowing Congress to enact such laws as are “necessary and proper” to achieve its other enumerated powers) and the Commerce Clause (allowing Congress to regulate subjects within interstate commerce.).  Since nearly everything is touched by interstate commerce, this clause permits Congress great, although not unlimited, powers.  The Gun-Free School Act of 1990 (amended 1996), federal anti-drug laws, and even the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s were based on the Commerce Clause.  (Trivia Question Six:  Which House of Congress is designated the “Upper House” of Congress?)

Republicanism:  We’ve often heard the phrase, “We are a republic, not a democracy.”  This is true.  The Founders knew populism was dangerous.  Quick-changing sentiments, the stress of emergencies, and an often ill-informed electorate can destabilize a government.  As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Emotion often governs and she never governs well.”  To combat this, the Constitution guarantees a republican form of federal government.  A republican form of government, which supports but limits Popular Sovereignty,  is sometimes called “Representative Democracy.”  That is, it is a form of government in which ultimate power lies with the People but government is through persons elected by the People, or, in some cases, through persons selected by persons elected by the People.  The republican form of government does not end with the federal constitution, however.  To guarantee a republican form of government is one of the few mandates the Constitution puts upon the States.  Indeed, a state is not required to have a governor or a supreme court, but it is required to govern itself through elected representatives.).  (Trivia Question Seven:  Are there any governments in the United States that are purely democratic?)

TRIVIA QUESTION ANSWERS:           

1.  Massachusetts 

2.  James Madison.  Widely considered to have achieved significantly more greatness at the Constitutional Convention than as president, Madison was also the last U. S. president to personally command the military. The result was that the Capitol and White House were burned and the War of 1812 largely ended in a stalemate.

3.  Pennsylvania and Maryland

4.  Ronald Reagan, with 381.

5.  None.  A federal judge has no constitutionally-mandated age, citizenship, residency, or legal education requirements.

6.  Neither.  Although the Senate is popularly referred to as the “Upper House,” the Constitution makes no such distinction.  Each House has certain powers and authority reserved unto itself.

7.  Yes.  In New England, many towns (usually below a certain population threshold) are still governed by the Town Meeting form of Government.  In a Town Meeting Government, the entire town meets once a year to enact ordinances, adopt a budget, and elect officials to administer the town.  The Town Meeting is often described as “the purest form of Democracy.”