constitution a written plan that provides the basic framework of a government
8.5 Issue: How Should States Be Represented in the New Government?
When the convention began, most delegates believed that their task was to revise the Articles of Confederation. To their surprise, the Virginia delegation presented them with a completely new plan of government. After a lengthy debate, the delegates made a bold move. They agreed to throw out the Articles of Confederation and write a new constitution.
While the delegates—later known as the framers—agreed to design a new framework of government, they were divided on a key issue. Where should the government’s power to rule come from? The states? Or the people? Under the Articles of Confederation, the answer was the states. Madison’s answer in the Virginia Plan was that the government’s power should come directly from the people.
The Virginia Plan The Virginia Plan called for a strong national government with three branches or parts. A legislative branch, or congress, would make laws. An executive branch would carry out (“execute”) the laws. A judicial branch, or system of courts, would apply and interpret the laws.
Under the Virginia Plan, Congress was to be made up of two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The number of lawmakers that a state could send to Congress depended on its population. States with a large number of people would have more representatives than smaller states.
Delegates from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other large states liked the Virginia Plan. Having the new government represent people, not states, would give them more representatives and more power in both houses of Congress.
The New Jersey Plan Not surprisingly, delegates from the small states disliked the Virginia Plan. Just as the convention was about to vote on it, William Paterson of New Jersey introduced a rival proposal.
Like the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan called for a government with three branches. However, the legislative branch would have just one house, not two. And each state would have an equal vote in Congress, no matter how big or small. This plan, Paterson argued, would keep the small states from being “swallowed up” by their more populous neighbors.
A major issue that confronted the Constitutional Convention was how to determine representation in the new government. Should each state have the same number of representatives, or should representation be based on population? Looking at this chart, which states would want equal representation for each state?
8.6 Resolution: The Great Compromise
The New Jersey Plan was warmly received by delegates from small states. The majority of delegates, however, saw Paterson’s plan as little improvement over the Articles of Confederation and rejected it. But they could not agree on what should replace it.
Tempers Rise The debate over who Congress should represent continued into July, with tempers rising day by day.
To most delegates from large states, representation based on population seemed both logical and fair. “Can we forget for whom we are forming a Government?” asked James Wilson of Pennsylvania. “Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?”
To Wilson, the answer was obvious. But his logic could not overcome the fears of small-state delegates. One hot Saturday afternoon, Gunning Bedford of Delaware tore into the delegates from large states. “They insist,” he said, “they will never hurt or injure the lesser states.” His reply was, “I do not, gentlemen, trust you!” If the large states continued trying to “crush the smaller states,” Bedford warned, “the small ones will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith who will take them by the hand and do them justice.”
Rufus King of Massachusetts was shocked at this reference to foreign powers. He shot back that he was “grieved, that such a thought had entered into the heart.” Still, every delegate knew that Britain, France, and Spain were just waiting for the United States to fall apart so that they could pick up the pieces.
A Compromise Is Reached Finally, a compromise was proposed based on a plan put forward earlier by Roger Sherman of Connecticut.
The compromise plan kept a two-house Congress. The first house, the House of Representatives, would represent the people. In this house, the number of representatives from each state would be based on the state’s population. The second house, the Senate, would represent the states. Each state would have two senators, to be elected by their state legislatures.
The vote was very close, but the compromise plan was approved. This plan saved the convention and became known as the Great Compromise.
Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, helped construct the Great Compromise that called for a Congress of two houses. Each state had equal representation in one house and representation based on population in the other house.
compromise an agreement in which both sides in a dispute agree to give up something they want in order to achieve a settlement
8.7 Issue: How Should Slaves Be Counted?
The Great Compromise kept the framers working together. But having agreed to base representation in one house of Congress on state population, they faced a new and difficult question. As Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania put it, “Upon what principle shall the slaves be computed in the representation?”
People or Property? By the time of the convention, nine tenths of the slaves lived in the South. Like everyone else, southerners wanted as many representatives in the House as possible. They argued that slaves should be counted the same as any other people in determining representation.
Delegates from the North challenged this idea. Were slaves to be considered people with a right to be represented in Congress? Or were they property?
“Blacks are property and are used to the southward as horses and cattle to the northward,” argued Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Most northern delegates agreed. Slaves should be counted only as property that could be taxed like any other property. If slaves were to be counted as people in determining representation in Congress, said Morris, “then make them citizens and let them vote.”
New Thinking on Slavery This argument signaled a growing division over slavery among white Americans. As you read in Chapter 7, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War forced many whites to reexamine their views on slavery. Some became active in trying to end what they now saw as a great evil. Benjamin Franklin, for example, became president of an antislavery society in 1787. In the North, this new thinking led one state after another to pass laws ending slavery.
Although many southerners were uneasy about slavery, they were not yet ready to abolish it. The South’s economy was still too dependent on the labor of enslaved African Americans. But some southern states did pass laws making it easier for owners to free their slaves.
The question facing the framers was how far they could take this new thinking in a nation that was becoming half-slave and half-free.
How would representatives from the states shown in this chart want slaves to be counted? Would they want slaves to be counted as population for determining representation in Congress, or would they want slaves to be counted as property that could be taxed?
8.8 Resolution: The Three-Fifths Compromise
After a bitter debate, Madison proposed a compromise. Count each slave as three fifths of a person, he suggested, when determining a state’s population. The delegates approved this idea, known as the three-fifths compromise.
The three-fifths compromise made a mockery of the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Still, the delegates adopted the compromise because it seemed the only way to keep the convention moving forward.
The Slave Trade A dispute over trade raised another question about slavery. To help business in the North, northern delegates favored giving Congress broad power to control trade between the states and other countries. This proposal made southern delegates nervous. They worried that Congress might try to tax southern export crops such as rice and tobacco. Southerners also worried that Congress would use its power over trade to outlaw the slave trade—the importing of slaves from Africa.
Southerners had reason to be fearful. By 1787, several states had outlawed the slave trade within their boundaries. And a majority of the convention’s delegates favored ending the slave trade completely.
South Carolina and Georgia, however, objected that their economies would collapse without a constant supply of fresh slaves. Neither state would agree to any constitution that threatened the slave trade.
Again, the delegates settled on a compromise. Congress would have the power to control trade, but with two limitations. First, Congress could not place any tax on exports going to other countries. Second, Congress could not interfere with the slave trade for 20 years, or until 1808.
To satisfy southerners, the delegates also agreed to a provision known as the “fugitive slave clause.” This clause said that escaped slaves had to be returned to their owners, even if they were caught in a free state.
Without such compromises, the states might never have come together in a single union. Still, the compromises only postponed the day when Americans would have to resolve the terrible contradiction between slavery and the ideals of liberty and equality. Meanwhile, generations of African Americans would spend their lives in bondage.
Northern and southern delegates agreed to a compromise regarding the slave trade. Congress could control trade but could not tax exports or interfere with the slave trade for 20 years.
8.9 Issue: How Should the Chief Executive Be Elected?
Another major question facing the delegates concerned who would head the new government’s executive branch. Early in the convention, Charles Pinckney urged the creation of a “vigorous executive.” James Wilson followed with a proposal that a single person serve as the chief executive.
A sudden silence fell over the convention. A single executive? Just the words brought to mind unhappy memories of King George III.
Wilson broke the silence by explaining that good government depends on clear, timely, and responsible leadership. Such leadership, he said, is most likely to be found in a single person.
One Executive or Three? Edmund Randolph of Virginia disliked this proposal. He preferred a three-member executive drawn from different parts of the country. Three people, he argued, could lead the country better than one.
Benjamin Franklin opposed a single executive for different reasons. “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” said Franklin, thinking of George Washington. “Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” The next chief executive, he warned, might be overly ambitious or too “fond of war.”
In spite of these objections, the framers agreed to a single executive, to be called the president. To keep this leader from becoming too kinglike, they limited the president’s term to four years. A vice president was also to be elected to fill that term if the president died in office.
Choosing the Chief Executive Equally troubling was the issue of how to choose the chief executive. Some delegates wanted Congress to appoint the president. Gouverneur Morris objected. The president “must not be made a flunky of the Congress,” he argued. “It must not be able to say to him: ‘You owe your appointment to us.’”
Several delegates thought that the people should elect the president. Madison, however, argued that voters would naturally vote for someone from their own state. As a result, this method would not be fair to candidates from small states.
Still others suggested that the president be elected by a specially chosen group of “electors” from each state. Such a group, they felt, would be able look beyond state interests to make a wise choice for the entire country.
Many delegates felt that ordinary citizens, such as those pictured above, were not suited to elect the president. Roger Sherman stated, “The people should have as little to do as may be about the government. They want information, and are constantly liable to be misled.”
8.10 Resolution: The Electoral College
After some 60 votes on the issue of how to elect the president, the framers reached another compromise. Neither Congress nor the people, they decided, should choose the president and vice president. Instead, a special body called the Electoral College would elect the government’s leaders.
The Electoral College System The Electoral College is made up of electors who cast votes to elect the president and vice president every four years. Each state has as many electors in the Electoral College as the number of senators and representatives it sends to Congress.
The delegates left the method of choosing electors up to each state. Before 1820, state legislatures chose electors in most states. Today, the people choose their state’s electors when they vote in presidential elections. The electors then cast their ballots for president and vice president on a date chosen by Congress.
Originally, the electors voted for two candidates without saying which one they preferred for president or vice president. The candidate receiving the most votes became president. The runner- up became vice president. As you will read in Chapter 11, this system caused great confusion in the election of 1800 and was later changed.
Political Parties and Elections The Electoral College system looks very odd to most Americans today. In our age of instant communication, it is hard to appreciate the framers’ concern that voters would not know enough about candidates outside their own state to choose a president wisely.
The delegates could not have predicted how quickly communications would improve in the United States. Nor could they foresee the rise of national political parties. Within a few years of the convention, political parties were nominating candidates for president and educating voters in every state about those candidates.
The Electoral College system still affects presidential elections today. In most states, the candidate who gets the most votes—even if less than a majority—gets all of that state’s electoral votes. As a result, a candidate can win a majority in the Electoral College without necessarily winning a majority of the votes cast across the country. In fact, in the election of 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency over Al Gore, even though more voters nationally chose Gore.
This is a copy of the Electoral College vote for the election of 1789. At that time, which states had the most electoral votes?
Electoral College The group established by the Constitution to elect the president and vice president. Voters in each state choose their electors.
8.11 The Convention Ends
By the end of summer, the hard work of designing the Constitution was finished. But the new plan still had to be accepted by the states.
Approving the Constitution The first question was how many states would have to ratify, or approve, the Constitution before it could go into effect. Should ratification require approval by all 13 states? By a majority of 7 states? The framers compromised on 9 states.
The second question was who should ratify the Constitution—the people, or state legislatures? Ratification by state legislatures would be faster and easier. Madison, however, argued strongly that the people were “the fountain of all power” and should decide. The majority of delegates agreed. The Constitution would be ratified at special conventions by delegates elected by the people in each state.
Signing the Constitution On September 17, 1787, the delegates declared the Constitution complete. As this last meeting began, Franklin shared his final thoughts, which would be printed in more than 50 newspapers.
“I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution,” he began. But no convention could produce a perfect plan. “It therefore astonishes me,” he continued, “to find this system approaching so near to perfect… and I think it will astonish our enemies.” Franklin added that he approved the final plan “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.” He urged “every member of the convention” to “put his name to this instrument.”
Not everyone was won over by Franklin’s words. Fourteen delegates left the convention before it ended, and three other doubters—Edmund Randolph and George Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts—did not sign the Constitution either. Mason felt it gave too much power to the national government. Gerry refused to sign because he believed the new plan did not protect the rights of the people.
When the signing was over, Franklin confessed that he had often looked at the sun carved on the back of George Washington’s chair and wondered whether it was about to rise or set. “But now,” he said, “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” A new day was dawning for the United States.
Only 38 of the original 55 delegates signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Fourteen delegates had returned home before the conclusion of the convention, and three others also refused to sign.
ratify To formally approve a plan or an agreement. The process of approval is called ratification.
8.12 The Constitution Goes to the Nation
Newspapers in every state printed the Constitution as soon as they could get it. What readers found was a plan that would create a “federal” system of government, in which a strong national government shared power with the states. Before long, the entire country was debating the same issues that had kept the convention in session for four long months.
The Federalists Supporters of the Constitution called themselves Federalists. The Federalists argued that the Constitution would create a national government that was strong enough to unite the quarreling states into a single republic.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay led the Federalist campaign for ratification. In a series of newspaper articles, they recalled the weaknesses of the government under the Articles of Confederation. They showed how the Constitution would remedy those weaknesses by creating a stronger, more effective Union of the states.
The Federalist leaders also addressed the fears of many Americans that a strong government would threaten their freedom or take away their rights. The powers given to the government, they pointed out, were strictly limited. In addition, those powers were divided among three branches so that no one branch could become too powerful. The influential articles written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were later collected and published as The Federalist Papers.
The Anti-Federalists Opponents of the Constitution were known as Anti-Federalists. They found much to dislike about the new plan. Congress, they feared, would ruin the country with taxes. The president had power enough to rule like a king. And the judicial branch would swallow up state courts.
The Anti-Federalists also complained about what was missing from the plan. Their main complaint was that the plan listed the powers of the government but not the rights of the people. Most of all, the Anti-Federalists feared change. The idea of giving up any state power to form a stronger Union made them uneasy.
After listening to the arguments, Madison wrote that the question facing the nation was “whether the Union shall or shall not be continued. There is, in my opinion, no middle ground to be taken.”
The Constitution had to be approved by 9 states. This political cartoon shows 11 states, pictured as columns, supporting the Constitution, while 2 states are hesitating.
8.13 Chapter Summary
In this chapter, you read about the Constitutional Convention, the historic meeting that replaced the Articles of Confederation with a new plan of government for the United States. You used an annotated drawing of the Assembly Room at Independence Hall to organize information about the convention.
Both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution that replaced it were attempts to realize the ideals of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Americans wanted a government that would protect their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The challenge was to create a government that was strong enough to guarantee these rights, yet not so strong that it could take them away.
The Articles of Confederation, which were America’s first attempt at self-government, created a loose union of states under a weak central government. This government saw the new nation through the Revolutionary War. It also established a procedure for settling western territories. But, as Shays’s Rebellion showed, it was too weak in peacetime to keep order or protect its own property.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention quickly agreed to create a new constitution. For four long months, they argued in secret over a number of issues that often threatened to destroy the meeting. In the end, the framework they created included a series of compromises.
One of these agreements, the Great Compromise, established how the states were to be represented in the legislative branch of government. The three-fifths compromise settled how slaves were to be counted in determining a state’s population. A third set of compromises created a single chief executive, to be chosen by the Electoral College.
The labors of the framers were only the beginning. Their new Constitution had to be ratified by the people through special state conventions. Federalists, who supported the Constitution, were opposed by Anti-Federalists, who feared the power of the proposed national government. Now it was up to the people to decide.
During the convention, Benjamin Franklin wondered if the sun painted on the back of George Washington’s chair was rising or setting. At the conclusion of the convention, Franklin optimistically concluded it was a rising sun.
The Constitution: A More Perfect Union
What are these buildings?
When the delegates left Independence Hall in September 1787, they each carried a copy of the Constitution. Their task now was to convince their states to approve the document that they had worked so hard to write.
As you read in the last chapter, writing the Constitution involved many compromises. Most of all, the framers, or writers, wanted a central government that would be strong and lasting, but not so strong that it endangered people’s freedoms. In this chapter, you will see how the Constitution meets these goals.
The delegates wanted ordinary citizens to understand and support the Constitution. For this reason, they organized its contents very clearly. After a short introduction, they divided the Constitution into parts called articles. Then they split each article into numbered sections that present topics in a careful order.
This structure can help you find information in the Constitution. For instance, the first section in the article on the president describes how the president is chosen. The second section lists the president’s powers. The third section lists presidential duties, and the fourth explains how the president can be removed from office. If you wanted to find out whether the president can sign treaties, where would you look?
One of the marvels of the Constitution is the way it combines a strong framework for the government with flexibility. In general, the delegates allowed Congress, the president, and the courts to add details to the basic framework. They also included procedures for changing the Constitution.
This combination of strength and flexibility makes the Constitution a “living document.” Like a plant or an animal, the Constitution keeps its basic nature, yet it also changes with the times. The “living” quality of the Constitution helps to explain why it has survived for so long.
The delegates did their work well. More than 200 years after the Constitution was created for a new nation, a vastly different United States is still governed by this ingenious document.
Graphic Organizer: Illustration
You will use an image of the original parchment Constitution to record information about the organization and powers of the federal government.
9.2 The Preamble Tells the Goals of Government
The delegates who crafted the Constitution chose each word carefully. Some of their best-known words come in the introduction, called the Preamble. The Preamble explains the reasons for the new government.
The Constitution begins with the memorable phrase “We the People.” With these words, the delegates announced that the Constitution based its authority on the people themselves. The power to form the government did not come from the states or from the existing government. It did not come from a sovereign (ruler) appointed by God. Instead, the power came from ordinary Americans. This concept is known as popular sovereignty.
The Preamble then lists the goals of the new government. First, the delegates wanted to “form a more perfect Union.” This meant building a country that could take advantage of the strengths the states gained from working together.
The Constitution also aims to “establish Justice.” Americans wanted to be ruled by laws, not by the might of soldiers or the decisions of kings. The same laws would apply to all people.
The delegates hoped that the new government would “insure domestic Tranquility.” By “tranquility,” they meant peace and order. If the new system worked well, people would not fight the government or each other.
The new government would “provide for the common defense.” In other words, the national government would be responsible for protecting Americans from foreign invaders. This would allow for stronger protection than if each state had its own army and navy.
The delegates wanted the new government to “promote the general Welfare.” This means that it could support an economy and society in which people could prosper.
Finally, the delegates hoped to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” By “posterity,” the delegates meant the generations that would come after them. They wanted Americans to enjoy freedom then and in the future. We are their future, their posterity.
The delegates knew that these goals required a national government, but many people were suspicious of a strong central government. For this reason, the delegates tried to create a balanced framework that people could trust.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in secret at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1787. Ordinary citizens got their first look at the Constitution in newspapers like the Pennsylvania Packet, pictured above.
popular sovereignty the idea that the authority of government comes from the people
9.3 The Legislative Branch Makes Laws
F or the framers of the Constitution, the first step in building a trusted government was to create a fair way to make laws. Article I of the Constitution gives the power to make laws to the legislative branch of government.
The Structure of Congress The Constitution creates a bicameral (two part) national legislature, called Congress. The two parts, or “houses,” of Congress are the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Members of the Senate serve six-year terms so that they can enjoy some independence from the day-to-day opinions of voters. In contrast, members of the House serve two-year terms. As a result, they have to face the voters much more often. In this way, the framers tried to balance the independence and thoughtfulness of the Senate with the House’s responsiveness to the changing wishes of the voters.
The framers also designed Congress to balance the rights of large and small states. Thus, while every state gets two senators, representation in the House is based on population. States with more people have more House representatives. To determine the number of representatives for each state, the Constitution calls for a census (a count of the population) every ten years. In time, the number of representatives in the House was set at 435.
The framers considered the Senate to be the “upper house” of the legislature. Its members are supposed to be wiser and more experienced than members of the “lower house.” Senators must be at least 30 years old, while House members must be 25. Senators must have been citizens for nine years, House members for just seven years.
Originally, the Constitution allowed state legislatures to choose the two senators to represent their state. Today, however, senators are elected by popular vote (direct vote by the people).
Senators and members of Congress listen to a speech given by the president in the chambers of the House of Representatives. The president must get congressional approval for his ideas before they can become law.
legislative branch The lawmaking part of government, called the legislature. To legislate is to make a law.
bicameral Having two lawmaking parts. Bicameral comes from Latin words meaning “two rooms.”
How Congress Passes Laws The primary job of Congress is to make laws. Any member of the House or Senate can submit a proposal for a new law, called a bill. However, only the House can propose new taxes. If a majority in one house votes in favor of the bill, it is sent to the other house for debate. If both houses approve the bill, it goes to the president. The bill becomes a law if the president signs it.
The president can veto (reject) any proposed law. Congress can override the president’s veto, which means passing the bill over the president’s objections. But to do so requires a two-thirds majority in both houses.
The Powers of Congress Article I spells out other powers of Congress. For example, only Congress can decide how to spend the money raised through taxes. Other congressional powers include the power to raise an army and navy, to declare war, to pay government debts, and to grant citizenship.
In addition, Congress may “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” to carry out its other powers. This power, known as the “elastic clause,” gives Congress the flexibility needed to do its job. Over the years, the elastic clause has been stretched to allow Congress to do many things that were never listed among its powers in the Constitution.
bill a proposed law
veto To reject a proposed law or a bill. Only the president can veto bills.
How a Bill Becomes Law
The House of Representatives
The House introduces a bill and sends it to a committee.
The Senate introduces a bill and sends it to a committee.
The House committee approves the bill.
The Senate committee approves the bill.
The House debates and passes its form of the bill.
The Senate debates and passes its form of the bill.
The House and Senate committees compromise on differences between the two versions.
The House and Senate pass the revised bill.
Enactment: The president signs the bill into law.
9.4 The Executive Branch Carries Out the Laws
A government needs people to carry out, or execute, the laws passed by the legislature. For instance, when Congress approves a tax, someone must collect the money. When Congress appropriates, or sets aside, money for low-cost housing, someone must build and manage the housing.
Article II of the Constitution describes the branch of government that fills this role, theexecutive branch. The head of the executive branch is the president. The president is often called the Chief Executive.
Electing the President As you read in Chapter 8, delegates at the Constitutional Congress were not prepared to let the people elect the president directly. Instead, they decided that the president would be selected by a group of “electors.” Each state would have the same number of electors as it had representatives and senators. To win the presidency, a candidate needs a majority of the “electoral vote.”
The president serves a four-year term. Under the Twenty-second Amendment, a president may be reelected only once. A new president makes a solemn promise called the oath of office. The Constitution gives the exact words of the oath. Notice that the president promises to “defend the Constitution.” These words reinforce the importance of the Constitution as the basic law of the land.
A president must be a natural-born American citizen and at least 35 years old. The Constitution always refers to the president as “he.” The delegates to the Constitutional Convention probably assumed that only men would ever vote or hold office. But nothing in the Constitution prevents a woman from being elected president.
Presidents are at the center of the American political stage. Here we see President Bush meeting with his cabinet and other close advisors.
executive branch the part of government that “executes” (carries out) the laws
The Powers of the President The president does more than carry out laws passed by Congress. The president is commander in chief of the nation’s military forces. He or she can, with the consent of the Senate, make treaties, or formal agreements, with other nations. The president nominates, or recommends, ambassadors (official representatives to other countries) and Supreme Court justices (judges). Finally, the president can grant pardons to people convicted of violating federal (national) laws.
The framers expected that the executive branch would need organizations called “departments” to carry out its duties. For example, the State Department handles relations with other nations. The Justice Department is involved in law enforcement as well as in court actions. The heads of executive departments are members of the president’s cabinet, a formal group of advisors.
Today, the executive branch has over a dozen departments. Each department contains smaller, specialized agencies. For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services contains the Food and Drug Administration. This agency works to ensure that foods and medicines meet safety standards that have been set by Congress.
Removing the President The Constitution gives Congress the power to remove a president or other officials from office if they commit certain crimes related to their duties. The House of Representatives can vote to impeach the president. To impeach means to formally accuse the president of the crimes specified in the Constitution. These include “Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” If the House votes to impeach, the Senate puts the president on trial, with the senators serving as the jury. If found guilty, the president is removed from office.
9.5 The Judicial Branch Interprets the Law
The framers intended the Constitution to be the “supreme Law of the Land.” That means no other laws or actions by the government or by any state can conflict with the Constitution. Protecting the Constitution is one of the principal responsibilities of the third branch of government, the judicial branch. The judicial branch consists of the system of federal courts and judges.
Article III of the Constitution gives the basic framework of the judicial branch. It establishes the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court. It also gives Congress the power to create “inferior” (lower) courts to meet the nation’s needs.
In addition to protecting the Constitution, federal courts have the power to resolve disputes that involve national laws, the federal government, or the states. People accused of breaking national laws can be tried in federal courts.
The Federal Court System Congress has authorized two main sets of inferior federal courts. These lower courts are called district courts and appellate courts.
impeach to formally accuse an official of a crime related to official duties
judicial branch the part of government, consisting of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, that interprets the laws
Most cases involving federal laws are first heard in district court. The United States is divided into large geographic districts. Each district covers several states. Citizens can “appeal” decisions given in district court, which means asking a higher court to review the case. Courts that review cases are called courts of appeal or appellate courts. An appellate court only considers whether the original trial was fair and legal. A decision by an appellate court can be appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Powers of the Supreme Court The Supreme Court is the last stop in the judicial system. Its decisions are final, and they are binding on all lower courts. The Constitution does not specify the size of the Supreme Court. Congress has set it at nine members, who are called justices. The Constitution says that all federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, serve for “good behavior.” Once they are appointed, the justices usually serve on the Court for life.
A dispute goes directly to the Supreme Court only if it involves a state or an ambassador from another country. Any other case comes to the Supreme Court after a trial and an appeal in lower courts. Participants in either national or state courts may eventually appeal cases to the Supreme Court.
Every year, lawyers ask the Supreme Court to review thousands of cases, but they agree to consider only about a hundred. The Supreme Court usually reviews a case only if the justices think that the decision made by a lower court might conflict with the Constitution or a federal law. After hearing statements from both sides, the justices debate among themselves and vote. Supreme Court decisions are announced and explained in writing. These decisions then guide later decisions in lower courts.
Early in its history, the Supreme Court defined the power of “judicial review.” This is the power to decide whether laws and actions by the legislative and executive branches conflict with the Constitution. Courts all over the country rely on the Supreme Court for guidance about what is constitutional. Judicial review gives the Supreme Court great power in its role of protecting the “supreme Law of the Land.”
The nine members of the U. S. Supreme Court hold very important positions in American government. Their legal opinions on such issues as gun control, the death penalty, abortion rights, and prayer in schools are enforced in every state.
9.6 Checks and Balances Between the Branches
The framers of the Constitution were very concerned about achieving a balance between a strong national government and protection for American freedoms. Dividing the federal government into three branches was one way they hoped to limit the government’s power. But what would keep one branch from dominating the others? As one delegate to the Constitutional Convention pointed out, “From the nature of man, we may be sure that those who have power in their hands…will always, when they can…increase it.”
Because of this concern, the framers developed a system that would enable each branch of the government to limit the power of the other branches. This system is called checks and balances.
Checking the Power of Other Branches “Checks” allow one branch to block the actions of another branch. For instance, Congress has the power to pass laws. But the president can check this power by vetoing a bill before it becomes law. In turn, Congress can check the president’s power by overriding the veto by a two-thirds vote in both houses.
Similarly, the judicial branch can check the actions of the other two branches. Through its power of judicial review, the Supreme Court can declare that a law, a treaty, or an executive action is unconstitutional.
Balancing the Power of Other Branches “Balances” allow each branch of the government to have some role in the actions and power of the other branches. For instance, judges, ambassadors, and cabinet members are appointed only if the president nominates them and the Senate approves the nomination. Similarly, the president has the power to sign treaties, but they take effect only if the Senate approves them.
The powers of the judicial branch are also balanced against the powers of the other branches. Even though the Supreme Court can declare laws unconstitutional, it is the president who chooses federal judges—and the Senate must approve these appointments. In addition, Congress can impeach federal judges. In these ways, the legislative and executive branches have some role in the actions of the judicial branch.
These checks and balances keep any one branch of the federal government from being too strong. This balance of powers is one of the most important features of the American system of government.
This diagram illustrates the concept of checks and balances, one of the most significant features of the Constitution. Checks and balances prevent one branch of government from gaining too much power.
checks and balances the system that allows each branch of government to limit the powers of the other branches
Can veto bills
Approves appointments of Supreme Court justices
Can reject treaties
Can override vetos
Can reject laws that are unconstitutional
Can nominate Supreme Court justices
9.7 The Amendment Process Changes the Constitution
The framers knew that the Constitution would need to be changed over time. As Thomas Jefferson said, the Constitution “belongs to the living and not to the dead.” At the same time, they wanted the Constitution to provide a lasting and stable framework for the government. To maintain that stability, the framers made changing the Constitution possible, but difficult.
Changing the Constitution Article V describes how changes, called amendments, can be made to the Constitution. Proposing an amendment requires a vote of two thirds of both houses of Congress, or a national convention called by Congress at the request of two thirds of the legislatures of all the states. Thus, either Congress or the states can start the process of amending the Constitution.
Proposing an amendment is only the first step. Before an amendment can become part of the Constitution, it must be approved by the legislatures (or by special conventions) in three quarters of the states. Once an amendment is approved, it becomes part of the supreme law of the land.
Amendments So Far Over the years, people have suggested more than 10,000 amendments to the Constitution. Only 27 of these have been approved.
The first ten amendments were added almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified (approved by the states). These amendments were demanded by many Americans in exchange for their support for the Constitution. Called the Bill of Rights, these ten amendments primarily guarantee specific rights to citizens. The Bill of Rights is so important in American history that the next chapter is devoted to it.
The other 17 amendments became part of the Constitution one at a time. Some of them changed the way certain public officials are elected. Others guaranteed the rights of certain groups of Americans. For instance, the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal. The Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote. And the Twenty-sixth Amendment gave the right to vote to all citizens over the age of 18. Ideas for other amendments are proposed from time to time, but chances are that very few of them will become part of the Constitution.
This chart shows the different ways that amendments to the Constitution can be proposed and approved. Amendments are proposed in Congress on a regular basis. The vast majority of the proposals fail.
amendment a change to the Constitution
Amending the Constitution
Amendment is proposed by two-thirds vote of each house of congress.
Amendment is proposed by a national convention called by Congress at the request of two thirds of the state legislature.
Amendment is ratified by three fourths of the state legislatures.
Amendment is ratified by three fourths of the state conventions.
9.8 The Federal System Connects the Nation and the States
The framers of the Constitution wanted a strong national government, but they also wanted the states to keep significant powers. They accomplished both goals by creating a federal system of government in which power is shared between the national and state governments.
Powers Belonging to the National Government Some powers are given solely to the national government. In general, these are powers best exercised by one central authority, such as declaring war and making treaties. The Constitution also says that only the national government can print and coin money. The framers had learned from bitter experience that having separate state currencies made no sense.
Similarly, Article I gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” Known as the “commerce clause,” this provision gives the national government the power to regulate interstate commerce. For example, a state cannot try to protect its own businesses and industries by taxing goods imported from other states. Under the Articles of Confederation, many states had done just that. As a result, interstate trade threatened to grind to a halt. In effect, the commerce clause made the entire United States a common market, or “free-trade zone.”
There were several advantages to having the states share a common market. First, goods and resources could flow more easily across the country. This is important because different regions do different things well. For example, New Englanders might be very good at making cloth, but their region is not good for cotton growing. Southerners, meanwhile, might have lots of cotton but few factories for turning it into cloth. Making interstate trade easier for cloth makers and cotton growers helps both businesses thrive.
Second, the common market made it easier to create large businesses that crossed state lines. This was very important to companies like those that built the nation’s railroads in the 19th century.
Third, the common market helped to create a single national economy. Under the Articles of Confederation, it was almost as if the country had 13 small economies. These could never have grown so diverse or powerful as the United States economy did.
Notice that the commerce clause also gives the national government the right to regulate trade with Indian tribes. In effect, the Constitution treats native tribes as foreign governments. Relations with these “nations within a nation” are the responsibility of Congress, not the states.
In the decades that followed, the national government made hundreds of treaties with different tribes, as if they were separate countries. But the promises made in those treaties were seldom kept. You will learn more about the fate of Native Americans in later chapters.
Powers Belonging to the States The Constitution does not spell out specific powers of the states. Instead, it says that the states retain any pow-
The Constitution divides power between the federal and state governments. The idea behind the separation of powers is to create a unified nation while also protecting local control.
interstate commerce trade and other business dealings that cross state lines
ers that are not given to the national government. For instance, the Constitution does not say anything about schools, marriage, establishing local governments, owning property, licensing doctors and lawyers, or most crimes. The states make the laws that guide these areas of American life.
The Constitution does, however, outline the responsibilities of states to each other. Article IV says that each state must give “full Faith and Credit” to the laws and court decisions of other states. This means accepting other states’ laws and decisions as legal. For example, a marriage or divorce legalized in one state is legal in every state. Similarly, states cannot negate contracts that people have made in other states. Like the commerce clause, the “full faith and credit” provision brings stability to business dealings.
States are also required to help each other track down fleeing criminals. Criminals cannot escape justice by fleeing to another state.
Finally, the Constitution does not allow one state to discriminate unreasonably against a citizen of another state. A state may not, for example, refuse to let a child who was born in another state attend its public schools.
Shared Powers Federal and state governments also share some powers. For example, both can raise taxes, build roads, and borrow money.
If you think federalism, or the sharing of power, sounds complicated, you’re right. Consider presidential elections. Congress sets the date for national elections, but the states register voters and run the elections. States count the ballots, but the national government organizes the Electoral College vote, which determines who will be president.
Federalism is also complicated because the Constitution provides only a general framework for the sharing of powers. Of course, there was no way for the framers to spell out rules for every possible situation. The federal system continues to evolve through new laws, court decisions, and constitutional amendments. No doubt it will continue to evolve long into the future.
The Law of the Land Americans may disagree about how to interpret the Constitution, but they may not ignore it. Article VI states that the Constitution and the laws flowing from it are the “supreme Law of the Land.” This means that a state’s constitution, laws, and judicial decisions must agree with the Constitution. They must also not conflict with any other federal laws or treaties. In addition, everyone who holds a state or federal office must promise to support the Constitution.
Under the Constitution, states make their own laws in most areas of everyday life, such as marriage. But states must honor marriages and other legal arrangements made in other states.
federalism the constitutional system that shares power between the national and state governments
9.9 Popular Participation in Government
The framers of the Constitution designed a government based on the will of the people. They expected people to take part in their own government and to hold leaders responsible for their actions.
If government is to reflect the popular will, then it makes sense for decisions to be based on what most people want. The Constitution therefore establishes the principle of majority rule. Laws are passed in Congress by majority vote, and elections are decided by a majority of voters.
It is through elections that most people have a say in what the government does. Leaders must listen to the voters, or they will not be elected (or reelected). Elections serve the vital function of expressing the will of the people.
But who exactly are “the people”? The framers did not specify who would have the right to vote. Over the years, states established various requirements for voting. It took many years of struggle to establish the principle that all citizens should have the right to vote. Women, for example, were not guaranteed this right until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Popular participation in government has evolved in other ways that are not part of the Constitution. For example, the Constitution makes no mention of political