Saturday, September 17, 2016

Why do we have a Constitution, and how does it work?

Great Seal of the United States

As I set out to write a general post about the Constitution of my country, I have the problem of any writer who speaks to a general audience: I speak to those familiar with my culture (including many fellow Americans), and those who know it not at all (since the Internet knows no political boundaries). Even when speaking to fellow Americans, I write to fellow adults who have the power to vote, to a rising generation not yet blessed with the opportunity to participate, and perhaps even to those yet unborn, who will run the country in a distant future. I speak to those who know these things now, to those who once knew these things (but have since forgotten), and to those who never learned them at all - often because the educational system failed to teach them the things it should have; and who, through no fault of their own, have never had the opportunity to hear the message of the Constitution.

A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

In talking about it, I would be remiss to leave out that it is the greatest success story of the United States; and may well be the greatest secret of its more than two centuries of uninterrupted democratic success - the reason for its current greatness. I will try to be (at least somewhat) brief, that I might not burden the audience with an excess of words and analysis; but I will try to be thorough as well, that I might not leave out anything that is essential to why it has worked as well as it has.

Interior of Independence Hall

Mission of the Constitution

The Constitution has a very simple mission (or rather, six missions) that it states explicitly. In the document's preamble, it says: "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." (Source: Preamble to the Constitution) The particulars of how to accomplish this mission are largely left to the people themselves, in whose hands the ultimate power over the democracy rests; but the six-fold mission of the government is explicitly stated in one of the most stirring (and memorable) passages in the country's history.

The Constitutional Convention, 1787

Principle of separation of powers

The Constitution follows a principle of separation of powers; which is the idea that bad government is best prevented by keeping any one group from getting too much power. To accomplish this mission, the government's power is divided into three branches of government (the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, to be specific); which are each given one particular kind of the government's power. One (the legislative) has the power of making laws, another (the executive) has the power of enforcing laws, and the last (the judicial) has the power of judging and interpreting laws - with as little overlap between these three kinds of power as possible. The only sharing of these powers enabled is the power each branch has to stop the encroachments of the other (which necessitates a certain power over the other branches); and to keep the other branches in their proper places - a process referred to as "checks and balances."

Title page from the original book edition of the Federalist Papers

One Founding Father (Alexander Hamilton) described this in a notable quote from the Federalist Papers, given here: "The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of courts composed of judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the legislature by deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided." (Source: Federalist No. 9)

Thus the Constitution uses these principles from the "science of politics," which received their greatest improvement in the time of this country's founding.

The legislative (or "law-making") branch

First, a few words about the legislative (or "law-making") branch: The Constitution says that "All legislative powers herein granted ... (see more)

The executive (or "enforcing") branch

Unlike the Congress, the executive branch is controlled by a single individual, who is usually referred to in the masculine in the ... (see more)

The judicial (or "judging") branch

The Constitution says that "The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts ... (see more)

Closing thoughts

The Constitution is the "supreme law of the land" (which is difficult to amend) ... (see more)

Part of a series about
The Constitution

The Constitution itself, and the story behind it

Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
Preamble: The Constitution's mission statement, with some thoughts about separation of powers
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Powers of the executive, and their being subject to impeachment
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks

Debates over the Constitution, then and since

Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The Constitution today: Some thoughts about civics education

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