Saturday, September 17, 2016

The United States Constitution: The secret of America’s success




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

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

The legislative branch: Two houses of Congress limited by a presidential veto



"All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."

Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution


United States Capitol, the building where the Congress meets

The Congress is divided into two houses

The division of the legislature is one of the most important "balances" in the Constitution; because like the British Parliament it was modeled on, the legislative body of the United States is divided into two separate houses - analogous to the "House of Lords" and the "House of Commons" in British parliamentary government. This "bicameral" (or two-house) legislature is a big part of the reason why the Congress's power is as limited as it is, because it is sufficiently divided among multiple members to make it hard for any one "special interest" to gain control of it. (More on how each one is elected here, and how representation is determined here; if you seek further information on the subject.) The Constitution says that "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member." (Source: Article 1, Section 5, Paragraph 2)


Parliament of Great Britain, the model for the U. S. Congress

The executive branch: A single president subject to impeachment and removal



"The Executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold office during the term of four years ... "

Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution


The White House, where every president of the United States has lived (excepting the first)

Unlike the Congress, the executive branch is controlled by a single individual, who is usually referred to in the masculine in the linguistic style of that time; although there are no prohibitions on a feminine president anywhere in the Constitution, so it is possible to have a female president (although I should note that at the time I write this, it has not happened yet). With this gender clarification in mind, I will give the portion of the Constitution establishing the executive branch: "The Executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold office during the term of four years" (Source: Article 2, Section 1) There is usually also a Vice President of the United States, who is first in line to become president. The Constitution says that "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided." (Source: Article 1, Section 3, Paragraph 4) However, the Senate does have some power to elect its own leaders, because the Constitution says that "The Senate shall choose their other officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the office of the President of the United States." (Source: Article 1, Section 3, Paragraph 5)

The judicial branch: The power of the courts (and its limits)



"The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may, from time to time, ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office."

- Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution

The part here about "good behaviour" is effectively a lifetime appointment, since it means that the judges can hold their offices for life unless convicted of a crime (which is fairly rare for American judges, possibly because of their being subject to removal in this way). Just as the executive branch is subject to impeachment, so is the judicial branch; and judges can be removed by the exercise of this power.


Alexander Hamilton

De facto lifetime appointment

The de facto lifetime appointment here is among the most criticized parts of the Constitution, but was defended by the Founding Fathers as making them independent of having too much influence from the other branches (which could erode the separation of powers), or the popular prejudices of the people, who might otherwise have the power to retaliate against those who enforce laws against them - even when those laws are just and have actually been broken by the people who were judged against. In the words of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, "The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments" (Source: Federalist No. 78) Hence, the radical mechanism of a de facto lifetime appointment, to protect against the improper influence of the other branches.


Supreme Court of the United States

The Constitution: The “supreme law of the land” (which is difficult to amend)



"The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importations, not exceeding 10 dollars for each person."

- Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 1 (a. k. a. the "Slave Importation Clause"), which contained one of the few parts of the Constitution that was temporarily immune to constitutional amendments


Slave who was brutally whipped

Compromises over slavery are a thing of the past

The original Constitution included many compromises over slavery - such as the Three-Fifths Clause (Source: Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3), the Slave Importation Clause (whose full text and citation are given above), and the Fugitive Slave Clause (Source: Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3) - perhaps the most detested power of them all in the Constitution. These compromises, however, are no more; because slavery has been completely abolished in American society, by the mechanism of constitutional amendment. How are these amendments, then, to be done?


Abraham Lincoln, the president who abolished slavery by means of a constitutional amendment

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