Principles of the Constitution
The U. S. Constitution outlines the powers of the legislative (or lawmaking) branch in Article I, the powers of the executive (law enforcement or law execution) branch in Article II, and the powers of the judicial (law interpretation and settlement of disputes) branch in Article III.
As the Framers anticipated, the power struggles that have sometimes occurred between the national and state governments have also served as part of the system of checks and balances designed to prevent abuse of power and protect individual rights.
A federal system of government such as that found in the U. S. and a few other nations can be compared to a unitary system of government that Great Britain and most nations of the world have. In a unitary system all power is in the central government, and local governments have only those powers granted them by the central government. A federal system is also very different from what the U. S. had under its first national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, where all the power was lodged in the state governments. A federal system is thus a compromise between a confederation system and a unitary system.
In Federalist No. 22, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.” Of course, the clearest endorsement of the fundamental importance of the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the American Constitution is the opening words of the Constitution’s Preamble “We the people of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.”
Amendments added to the Constitution over time have also placed important limitations on government. The Bill of Rights originally placed certain very basic limitations on the national government only. However, using the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court through a doctrine called “incorporation” has made most of those limitations of the Bill of Rights also apply to and limit the power of the state governments. In addition, Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment placed three major limitations on the power of state governments. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments limit the power of both national and state governments as far as the right to vote is concerned.
The Framers had great respect for the will of the majority, but also understood, as James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, that “the great danger in republics is that the majority will not respect the rights of minority.” President Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in his First Inaugural Address: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.” An early example of legislation designed to protect religious minorities was the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom, and a modern example of legislation intended to protect the political and civil rights of women and ethnic minorities was the Civil rights Act of 1964.
An independent judiciary composed of judges who are appointed and serve for life is an important way to help ensure justice and the protection of minorities. Throughout American history, what minorities cannot accomplish by action of the elected branches of government, they can often accomplish through the judiciary. A prime example of this is the U. S. Supreme Court’s ending racial segregation in the nation’s public schools by the Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education. At the same time, ordinary citizens can help insure minority rights by believing in and practicing such civic values as toleration and respect in their daily lives.
Further evidence of the Framers’ belief in the value of republican government is that portion of Article IV of the Constitution which provides that the national government will guarantee each state a republican form of government.
In the Kentucky Resolution, Thomas Jefferson argued that when the national government passes a law a state considers unconstitutional, the rightful response is for a state to nullify, or refuse to enforce it. Jefferson argued that “several states who formed that instrument [the Constitution], being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized … is the rightful remedy.”
In the period before the American Civil War, the foremost champion of the doctrine of nullification was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina who was met with strong opposition to his advocacy of nullification by President Andrew Jackson. The debate over a state’s ability to nullify a national law was ultimately resolved by the Union victory in the Civil War.