Author: Adekola Taylor
The framers of the U.S Constitution convened in 1787 to establish a strong and virile political system predicated on ideas of democracy, liberty, and equality, and founded to place limits on government (Ginsberg et al 18). As a preamble to the Constitution, the framers clearly spelt out the objectives of government which include: promoting justice, maintaining peace at home, defending the country from foreign foes, providing for the welfare of the citizenry, and, above all, securing the "Blessings of Liberty" for Americans (Ginsberg et al 27). The new Constitution that was framed after America's successful breakaway from Great Britain was indeed highly controversial at first. The controversial views about the Constitution were quickly ratified by sponsoring a Bill of Rights to dispel the fears of the critics of too powerful a national government. With time, the relationship between the government and Americans drastically changed through Constitutional amendments and guided by the ideas of democracy, liberty, and equality.
At the inception, the concept of a strong federal government was riddled with scorn and suspicion. The reason behind this was traced to the fact that the republican form of government could only survive in a proportionately small country; therefore, few powers were conferred on the federal government by the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution's predecessor. However, it was ratified in 1781; the Articles of Confederation ostentatiously retained the state's freedom, independence, and sovereignty. The states kept all the powers which were not expressly granted to congress. In reality, the Congress was deprived of the fundamental powers to regulate commerce and tax. When the states failed to provide the national government with revenue, financial crises and nightmare arose which was an indication of the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Moreover, in establishing a federal judiciary, the Articles of Confederation failed making the Congress be authorized to resolve certain types of conflicts.
The U.S Constitution
In November 1777, after declaring their independence, the Continental Congress adopted the United States' first written constitution called the Articles of Confederation (Ginsberg et al 33). The Articles of Confederation were formulated towards limiting the powers of the central government (the Congress) without accruing any executive branch to it. The Congress possessed little power with its members as mere messengers or delegates from the state legislatures. However, the Congress was empowered to make peace and declare war, to make alliances and treaties, to borrow or coin money, but it could not regulate commerce among states or levy taxes.
From all indications, it was evident that the Articles of Confederation and the Declaration of independence were not enough to keep together the new nation as an efficient and independent nation-state. In 1883, steps were taken to strengthen and reform the Articles of Confederation. The framers of the U.S Constitution thought it right to incorporate the principles such as federalism (a system of government where power is divided, by the constitution, between a state government and national governments), and the separation of powers (the division of the government power among various institutions that must work together in decision making) into the Constitution (Ginsberg et al 45, 46).
Federalism was a step in a right direction towards greater centralization of power when compared to the principle of Articles of Confederation. It was unanimously agreed that more power should be vested in the national government, without totally undermining the power of the state governments. Eventually, a system of two sovereigns was devised; the states and the nation, with the hope of check and balance on the power of both. American federalism comprised two sovereigns in the original Constitution, and a few expressed powers (powers specifically reposed on the Congress and the president in the Constitution) to the national government granted by the principles in the Bill of rights and reserving all the rest to the state governments.
The Three Core Values on which American Government is built
The core values underlying the American system that reflected in the Founding documents such as the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights are as follows: liberty, equality, and democracy (Ginsberg et al 18). In the Declaration of Independence, "Liberty, Life and the pursuit of Happiness" were considered as the three inalienable rights. In the same vein, the preamble to the Constitution considered "the Blessings of Liberty" as a key reason through which the Constitution was drawn up. Liberty is more central to American values, as a matter of fact; liberty to Americans means economic freedom and freedom from government control. The Bill of Rights also known as the Constitution's first 10 amendments ultimately preserve individual rights and personal liberties.
Equality is another fundamental value in American government and it is declared in the Declaration of Independence as the first "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal." However, the core value of liberty is more profound in influencing the Constitution based on the historic events surrounding the Constitution of United States of America. Even in the devastating period of the Great Depression of the 1930s when profound barriers blocked equality of opportunity, the Americans refuted to bow down and decided to promote equality. Democracy is the third fundamental value of the American Constitution. Framers of the Constitution thought it right to rest the American democracy on the principle of majority rule with minority rights to protect the interests of the minority (Ginsberg et al 20). This was incorporated into the Constitution to prevent the tyranny of the majority where the individual liberties are violated.
The Powers of National Government
In 1787, for the purpose of remedying the inborn weak points in the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention was convened. Competing plans were debated by the delegates: (1) the Virginia Plan proposing a strong national government with authority to define both the national and the state authorities, and (2) the New Jersey Plan favoring strong state governments (Ginsberg et al 37). The New Jersey Plan was eventually rejected because it was too similar to the Articles of Confederation. At the end of the Constitutional Convention, a Great Compromise was reached, and delegates unanimously voted in support of a strengthened central government, with judicial, legislative, and executive branches. Expressed powers were granted to the central (national) government in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. These expressed powers of the national government include the power to collect tax, coin money, regulate commerce, declare war, and maintain a navy and the army; all other powers are arrogated to the states.
The exclusive powers were also granted to the national government, and they include: states are expressly forbidden to regulate trade outside their own borders, issue their own paper money, tax exports and imports, and impair the obligation of contracts. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution granted the implied powers to the national government to enable the Congress to make all Laws that shall be proper and necessary for the execution of the foregoing powers (Ginsberg et al 41). Besides the aforementioned powers, the federal government exercises power with one another advantage over states, in accordance with Article VI of the Constitution, which indicates that in a situation of conflict between the state and national law, the national law shall take the precedent (Ginsberg et al 63). This is called the doctrine of national supremacy.
The system of government under federalism divides powers between the national government and the states to balance the political and economic equations. An essential feature of federalism as spelt out in the U.S Constitution is that both the state governments and the national government are sovereign or supreme within their stipulated sphere of power. The Framers of the U.S Constitution made conscious efforts to salvage what led to political strife and unrest due to structural and functional deficiency in the Articles of Confederation to come up with the Constitution that people refer to as one of the most brilliant creations any country has ever created.
The national government formulates legislation, based on the ideas of democracy, liberty, and equity, for equitable representation in Congress and reassurance of citizens of active participation in the national government. Citizens are assured that their interests are protected and promoted by their representatives at the Congress. In conclusion, the fundamental powers of the national government of the U.S that was founded on the ideas of liberty, equality, and democracy evolved with historical events surrounding the declaration of independence and the formulation of Articles of Confederation to present day federalism, vested with powers to defend the nation against domestic insurrection and strife, from foreign threats, to expand the nation's economy and promote commerce.
(The Foundation of American Constitution: A Lesson For All is one of the outstanding articles of a creation of Mathsthoughtbook.com called Thinking For You Series.)
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Ginsberg, Benjamin, Lowi, Theodore J., Weir, Margaret, Tolbert, Caroline J., and Spitzer, Robert, J., "We the People: An Introduction to American Politics", (9th Ed), New York:W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2013, p.2-89.