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Let’s Study The U.S. Constitution – Part 3

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If you approach the study of our Constitution with the mental image of building a house, it’s easier to comprehend and retain what you are learning. The original four short pages that make up the seven Articles of the Constitution provide the concrete foundation and the framework. The authors were literally called the “framers” of the Constitution. These are short, to the point, and critically important in understanding the foundation of our republic.

Patrick Henry said, “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people. It is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” 

To review Article I, the Framers divided Congress into two chambers:  the House of Representatives, each member being elected by their respective districts and serving two-year terms, and the Senate, whose members serve staggered terms of six years each.  The House is based on popular representation and the Senate is based on equal representation of all the states.

Article II sets up the Presidency, which was a much more difficult and delicate task. Americans had just fought a revolution to escape the rule by a monarchy, so they were wary of living under another king.  Most delegates to the Convention realized a strong executive was necessary, but nevertheless worried about the dangers of executive tyranny. 

Every member of Congress as well as every federal judge takes an oath to “support the Constitution” but it is the President’s exclusive oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The Framers rejected direct popular election of the President because they believed that the general populace would be ill-informed about national figures and they wanted to preserve state authority. Remember that our republic was formed by giving the Federal government very limited and specific powers in Article I, Sec 8.  The bulk of the power was to remain with the States, each having an individual state constitution of their own. They also rejected having Congress select the President because they did not want the President to be controlled by Congress. They set up an Electoral College process where each state had fair representation regardless of population, based on their number of Congressional districts, plus the designated two Senators. This way, highly populated cities would not dictate who the President would be to the rest of the nation.

Another interesting yet important detail is that the President’s salary was to be established before he took office, so that his independence from Congress was fortified. Congress could not render him subject to their will – basically holding him ransom.  Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #73, “They could either reduce him to famine, or tempt him by largess to surrender at discretion his judgment to their inclinations.”

Are you beginning to see how wise and forward-thinking our Framers were to have addressed all these matters? They observed successful elements of building a new government by studying failed governments throughout history. Now they had the chance to set their wisdom to paper. Our Constitution is indeed a marvel and a miracle.

The Constitution’s first three Articles provide a basic framework for governmental control. The three branches set forth were Legislative (to make law), Executive (to administer law) and the Judicial (to interpret law). This separation of power structure gave life to two novel Federalist ideas differing from Britain’s structure. The judiciary, set forth in Article III, became a distinct branch of government with only one responsibility – to interpret the law. The Framers recognized the need for an impartial body to decide cases independent of creating the law and executing the law, as opposed to that of Britain’s House of Lords.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to CONTROL ITSELF.” Matthew Spaulding writes, “This means that, in addition to performing its proper constitutional functions, there needed to be an internal check to further limit the powers of government. For that purpose, the Founders not only divided power, but also set it against itself.”  Is that brilliant, or what?

The “fly in the ointment” for the judiciary appeared early. It became apparent to Thomas Jefferson that this judicial body had the potential power to circumvent the intent of the Constitution through judicial review by twisting the meaning of the Constitution, as we see frequently today. The justices refrained from applying their own personal or political agendas to law for several generations but eventually the temptation to substitute their own “wisdom” for that of the Framers’ increased. Just as Jefferson predicted, the court’s decisions began to transfer both political and economic control to Washington, and away from the States and the People.

Once the framework for the federal government was set up through the first three Articles, the Framers turned their sights on getting the states to cooperate together. Remember, the Union was struggling during this period because all the states were bickering among themselves.

Article IV set forth “full faith and credit” to their official acts and outlines the requirements for statehood, with the same rules and benefits of the original thirteen upon entering the Union. This is one of the “nationalizing clauses” of the Constitution. It guarantees to every state a republican form of government and protection against invasion. It also prevents felons from avoiding legal consequences by fleeing from one state to another. 

Originally, the states were like individual countries. Each had its own laws, taxes, regulations, and the like, which could conflict with other states or preclude a national government. The Constitution sought to create one Union while each state retained its local control, sovereignty, and individuality.

From The Original Argument, the author describes the unique genius of the Constitution: “America’s Founders sought neither to “fix” human nature nor to deny its predictable ends.  Instead, by devising a republican government based on checks and balances and an economy functioning as a free market with common sense regulation, the Founders turned the weakness of human nature into a strength of its government.” 

James Madison wrote in Federalist #14, “They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of government, which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.”

This week’s assignment: Read Articles I through IV. Use your copy of The Federalist Papers In Modern Language by Mary E. Webster, indexed to the Constitution, as your guide.

*Article by Susan Frickey

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