The Constitution of the United States – Part 3
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 Articles of the Constitution (the original short 4 pages) provide the foundation. You’ve poured the concrete and built the frame (our Founding Fathers were literally called the “framers” of the Constitution!). There are only seven Articles building the framework. We’re moving through these quickly because they’re short and to the point, even though they’re critically important to the formation of our republic. The Amendments are the interesting components because they have fascinating stories behind each of them! We’ll get into those shortly.
Let this thought sink into your souls: Freedom is not the natural state of man. Without a shield in place to protect individual rights and the force to hold that shield strong, freedom becomes fleeting. . . In America, that shield is our Constitution, and the force that allows us to hold it strong is God. The purpose of the Constitution was simply to provide a structure that would protect us from anyone who thought they were greater than God. That, of course, includes the federal government itself. “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people,” Patrick Henry wrote. “It is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” (from Original Argument, pg 47)
ARTICLE II – Setting up the Presidency
To review, the Founders in Article I 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.
Setting up the Presidency was a much more difficult and delicate task because Americans had just fought a revolution to escape a monarchial form of rule and they were VERY leery of setting up another one. Most delegates to the Convention realized a strong executive was necessary but nevertheless worried about the dangers of executive tyranny. “The powers of the presidency would not have been left so loosely defined,” delegate Pierce Butler of South Carolina observed, “had not many of the members cast their eyes towards General Washington as president; and shaped their ideas of the Presidential powers by their opinion of his virtue.”
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 . . . preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (the Heritage Guide to the Constitution)
The Framers rejected direct popular election of the President because they believed that the general populace would be ill-informed about national figures (how’s that for insight!!?) and because the Framers wanted to avoid interfering with state authority. Remember that our republic was set up giving the Federal government very limited and specific powers. The bulk of the power was to remain with the states, who each had their individual state constitutions. They also rejected having the President selected by Congress because they feared the President could be “beholding” to Congress. They wanted a process that would select the wisest and most virtuous candidate, so they set up the Electoral College process where each state selects its representative delegates to form the Electoral College, who then represent the people of their state in their vote for the President. Well, that’s the way it’s SUPPOSED to work . . .
Another interesting aspect of setting up the Presidency is that the President’s salary was to be established BEFORE he took office, so that his independence from Congress was fortified and Congress could not render him subject to their will – basically holding him ransom. “They could either reduce him to famine, or tempt him by largess to surrender at discretion his judgement to their inclinations.” (The Heritage Guide to the Constitution.)
Are you beginning to see how wise and forward-thinking our Founders were to have addressed all these matters that had never before been set to paper? Our Constitution is indeed a marvel and a miracle.
Even more profound is the knowledge that all along the way, they were riddled with doubt that they were doing the right thing, so they tried to focus on doing their best . . . one word at a time.
ARTICLE III – The Judiciary
Article III sets up the Supreme Court. The Constitution’s first three Articles provide a basic framework for governmental power: 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 different from Britain’s structure: the judiciary became a distinct part of government and federal judges ultimately got their power from “the People”. The Founders recognized the need for an impartial body (as opposed to Britain’s House of Lords) to decide cases of law independent of the lawmaking and law-enforcing processes. The judiciary was critically important not only to make the law but to uphold and apply it fairly and impartially.
Most importantly, Article III makes the Constitution and the laws and treaties made pursuant to it the “supreme Law of the Land.” This means that the United States Constitution is the highest law in the United States: it supersedes all other laws, treaties and contracts — always. This is what we must take away from this lesson and why it is so imperative these days that we all understand our Constitution and the intent of our Founders.
“The full meaning of the separation of powers, however, goes beyond a parchment distinction. ‘In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this,” Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “you must first enable the government to control that governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” That meant that, in addition to performing its proper constitutional functions (lawmaking, executing and adjudicating the law), there needed to be an internal check to further limit the powers of government. The Founders not only divided power, but also set it against itself.” (from We Still Hold These Truths by Matthew Spaulding) 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 themselves for several generations from applying their own personal/political agendas to law, but eventually the temptation to substitute their own “wisdom” for that of the Founders’ increased. Just as Jefferson predicted, the court’s decisions began to transfer both political and economic power to Washington. In hindsight, there should have been some constitutional procedure to nullify their self-serving decisions.
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 commonsense regulation, the Founders turned the weakness of human nature into a strength of its government. (from Original Argument, page 57)
“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.” ~ James Madison on the Founders
Once the framework for the federal government was set up through the first three Articles, the Founders turned their sights on getting the states to cooperate together because, remember, the Union was crumbling during this period because all the states were bickering among themselves.
ARTICLE IV – Full Faith and Credit
Article IV sets forth the “full faith and credit” to their official acts and allows new states to enter the Union with the same rules and benefits of the original thirteen. This is one of the “nationalizing clauses” of the Constitution and prevents citizens from avoiding responsibilities or obligations by moving from one state to another. Article IV also guarantees to every state a republican form of government and promises to protect each state against invasion. It also outlines how territories are to be governed and what the requirements are for statehood. It kind of evens out the playing field across the board, because originally the states were like the individual countries of Europe: each had it’s own laws, regulations, constitutions, etc. so the Constitution sought to get everyone on the same page as one Union.