Constitutional Underpinnings

Principles of Government

Political scientist Harold Laswell defied government as "who gets what, when, and how." In any nation a government is composed of the formal and informal institutions, people, and processes used to create and conduct public policy. Public policy is the exercise of government power in doing those things necessary to maintain legitimate authority and control over society.

Purposes of Government

Every nation must decide for itself what goals will be translated into public policy and the methods by which those goals will be translated. The Preamble of the United States Constitution addresses the goals of public policy for the United States:

  • forming a more perfect union: creation of a strong union of the states, while also maintaining state sovereignty
  • establishing justice: reasonable, fair and impartial law
  • insuring domestic tranquility: preservation of public order
  • providing for the common defense: protection and maintenance of national defense
  • promoting the general welfare: providing public services and economic health of the nation
  • securing the blessings of liberty: promoting individual freedoms

Forms of Government

Greek philosopher Aristotle attempted to classify governments based on the number of individuals who participated in making political decisions: rule by one, rule by the few, or rule by the many. His early classification system is still useful in describing governments today:

  • anarchy—lack of government
  • autocracy—rule by one
      — absolute monarchy: ruler gains power through inheritance; there are no restrictions on the ruler's power
      — constitutional monarchy: ruler gains power through inheritance; formal restrictions limit power, often restricting the monarch to ceremonial status
      — dictatorship: ruler seizes power, keeps power by force and restricts opposition to regime; no restrictions on dictator's power
  • oligarchy—rule by a few
      — aristocracy: rule by the elite, usually determined by social status or wealth
      — theocracy: rule by religious leaders
  • democracy—rule by the people
      direct democracy: citizens meet and make decisions about public policy issues
    • representative democracy: citizens choose officials (representatives) who make decisions about public policy

Theories of Democratic Government

Theories of democratic government are theories about who has power and influence over public policy and decision making at the local, state, and national levels of government.

  • traditional democratic theory—Government depends on the consent of the governed, which may be given directly or through representatives; may include criteria for the measure of "how democratic."
  • pluralist theory—Interest groups compete in the political arena, with each promoting its policy preferences through organized efforts. Conflict among groups may result, requiring bargaining and compromise (Robert Dahl).
  • elite theory—A small number of powerful elite (corporate leaders, top military officers, government leaders) form an upper class, which rules in its own self-interest (C. Wright Mills).
  • bureaucratic theory—The hierarchical structure and standardized procedures of modern governments allow bureaucrats, who carry out the day-to-day workings of government, to hold the real power over public policy (Max Weber).
  • hyperpluralism—Democracy is a system of many groups having so much strength that government is often "pulled" in numerous directions at the same time, causing gridlock and ineffectiveness.
The Constitution, the Articles, and Federalism: Crash Course US History #8

Colonial Experiences

Continental Congresses—The First Continental Congress included delegates from 12 colonies (all except Georgia) who met in Philadelphia in 1774. This Continental Congress resolved to send a Declaration of Rights to the king in protest of Britain's policies. They also agreed to meet again the following year. The Second Continental Congress began meeting in May 1775, more than one month after the battles of Lexington and Concord. The Second Continental Congress became America's first national government. Delegates from all 13 colonies were present, among them John Hancock, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Patrick Henry. The Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and appointed George Washington as its commander-in-chief, borrowed money from France and the Netherlands, created a monetary system, made treaties with foreign governments, and commissioned the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is mainly the work of Thomas Jefferson. The principles are based on the works of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. The Declaration of Independence can be divided into three parts: a theory of government based on social contract and natural rights, a list of grievances against the king and "others" (Parliament), and a statement of colonial unity and separation from Britain.

Articles of Confederation

The weaknesses evident in the Articles of Confederation allowed the states to focus on their own powers. With no central government to control them, the states taxed each other, printed their own money, made treaties with foreign governments, and often refused to uphold the laws of the Confederation government. Even with all these problems, the Confederation Congress was able to approve the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution in 1783, and pass the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The government under the Articles of Confederation, however, could not deal with the nation's problems. Economic chaos and violence broke out, resulting in conferences at Mt. Vernon and Annapolis. These meetings proved to be unsuccessful, and eventually a rebellion of farmers in Massachusetts (Shays Rebellion) led to the calling of a Constitutional Convention.

Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia in May of 1787, for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. Delegates representing all the states except Rhode Island attended.

  • Very early in the convention, the delegates decided that they would write a new constitution instead of revising the Articles of Confederation.
  • The delegates agreed that the new government would be a republic, a federal system, and would be composed of three branches (executive, legislative, judicial).
  • Several plans, including the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, were presented to the delegates.


  • Debate over the various plans presented at the Constitutional Convention resulted in the Connecticut (Great) Compromise. This compromise settled the disputes between the states over the structure of the legislative branch. Congress would be a bicameral legislature, with representation in the lower house based on the population of the state and equal representation of the states in the upper house.
  • A second compromise concerned the counting of slaves for the purpose of determining population for representation in Congress and for taxation. Southern states wanted slaves to be counted for representation but not taxation. Northern states wanted slaves counted for taxation but not for representation. The Three-Fifths Compromise resolved this issue: each state would count three-fifths of its slave population for purposes of determining both representation and taxation.
  • The Commerce and Slave Trade Compromise resolved other differences between southern and northern states. Congress was prohibited from taxing exports from the states and from banning the slave trade for a period of 20 years.
  • Numerous other compromises were made at the Constitutional Convention concerning the executive and judicial branches as well as the electoral process for choosing a chief executive.
  • Ratification of the Constitution

    Although the delegates at the convention signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, it still had to be ratified by 9 of the 13 states before it could go into effect. In each state, special ratifying conventions would be held over the next two years. Debate over ratification divided citizens into Federalist and Anti-Federalist positions (Figure 6-3).

    • The Federalists stressed the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation and the government it created. They supported a stronger central government with expanded legislative powers. The Federalist cause was helped by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in a collection of 85 essays published in the New York newspapers under the name "Publius." (Hamilton wrote 51, Madison wrote 26, Jay wrote 5, and Hamilton and Madison co-authored 3 of these essays.) These Federalist Papers defended the new government created under the Constitution and even today provide insight into the framers' original intent.
    • The Anti-Federalists believed that the new Constitution gave too much power to the national government at the expense of the state governments. Another objection was the lack of a Bill of Rights, ensuring fundamental liberties.

    Federalism and the Lost Briefcase- Interactive Lesson

    The Constitution

    A constitution details the structure of a government. The Constitution of the United States is the oldest national constitution in use today. Although the Constitution is relatively short, it describes the structure and powers of the national government as well as the relationship between the national and state governments.

    Basic Principles Within the Constitution

    Embodied within the Constitution are the basic principles of:

    • limited government—belief that government is not all-powerful; government has only those powers given to it
    • popular sovereignty—the people are the source of government's authority
    • separation of powers—power is separated among three branches of government; each has its own powers and duties and is independent of and equal to the other branches
    • checks and balances—each branch is subject to restraints by the other two branches
    • federalism—a division of governmental powers between the national government and the states

    Checks and Balances

    The constitutional system of checks and balances prevents one branch of the federal government from becoming more powerful than the other two.

    The Constitution may be divided into three major parts: the Preamble, articles, and amendments.


    The opening paragraph of the Constitution is called the Preamble. It lists the six goals for American government and explains why the Constitution was written.

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


    The Constitution is divided into seven articles. Each of the articles covers a specific topic. Article I is the longest, devoted to the legislative branch of government.

    • Article I—Legislative Branch
    • Article II—Executive Branch
    • Article III—Judicial Branch
  • Article IV—Intergovernmental Relationships
  • Article V—Amendment Process
  • Article VI—Supremacy of the Constitution
  • Article VII—Ratification Process
  • Formal Amendment Process

    One major weakness of the Articles of Confederation was the amendment process, which required unanimous approval for amendments to become effective. The framers of the Constitution anticipated the need to change the Constitution and provided a process to amend the Constitution (Article V) that required both state and national action. Amending the Constitution requires proposal, a national function, and ratification, a state function. Amendments may be proposed in Congress by two methods and ratified by two methods, creating four possible methods for formally amending the Constitution.

    • proposed by two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures (used 26 times)
    • proposed by two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and ratified by special conventions in at least three-quarters of the states (used once, to ratify the Twenty-First Amendment)
    • proposed by a national convention called by Congress at the request of two-thirds of the state legislatures and ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures (never used)
    • proposed by a national convention called by Congress at the request of two-thirds of the state legislatures and ratified by special conventions in at least three-quarters of the states (never used)

    Formal Amendments

    Formal amendments are written changes to the Constitution. They add to, change the wording of, or delete language from the Constitution. Only 27 formal amendments have been added to the Constitution since its adoption. The first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791.

    Informal Amendment Process

    Although the United States Constitution has been formally changed only 27 times, there have been many changes in the way in which the American government operates. Most of those changes have come about through the informal amendment process and do not involve actually changing the wording of the Constitution. Informal changes in the Constitution may occur in the following ways:

    • legislative actions—Congress has passed various acts that have altered or made clear the meaning of the Constitution. For example, under Article III Congress is given the authority to create lower courts, which they did through the Judiciary Act of 1789.
    • executive actions—The manner in which presidents use their powers can create informal amendments and expand presidential authority. The use of executive agreements rather than treaties allows the president to bypass the Senate.
    • judicial interpretation/judicial review—The people who serve as judges and the times in which they serve affect how courts interpret laws. The concept of judicial review resulted from Marbury v. Madison (1803); it is not mentioned in the Constitution.
    • custom and usage—Traditions that have been incorporated into the political system and which have lasted over time have changed the meaning of the Constitution. Senatorial courtesy in the Senate and the "no-third-term" tradition in the Presidency (until the Twenty-Second Amendment made it part of the Constitution) are examples.

    Marbury v. Madison (1803)

    In the election of 1800 political parties played an active role. Federalists supported John Adams, and Democratic-Republicans supported Thomas Jefferson. At the conclusion of the election, Adams and the Federalists had lost control of the presidency and Congress. In an effort to retain some control in the government, the "lame duck" Federalist Congress created numerous new judicial positions, which outgoing President Adams attempted to fill. Late into the night prior to Jefferson's inauguration, Adams was still signing the commissions of the "midnight appointments" which the secretary of state was to deliver. Not all the commissions were delivered, and when Jefferson took office, he ordered the commissions withheld, intending to make his own appointments. Marbury expected to receive a commission as a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia. He petitioned the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus (allowed under the Judiciary Act of 1791) ordering Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the commission to Marbury and several others. The Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that although Marbury was entitled to the commission, the Supreme Court would not order Madison to give it to him because the court did not have authority under the Constitution to decide this type of case, and that the portion of the Judiciary Act of 1791 that allowed the Court to hear these cases was unconstitutional. This case established the principle of judicial review and was the first time the court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.

    Supreme Court Stories: Marbury v. Madison

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