Because of the recent shutdown of the Federal government in the United States, the U.S. Constitution has been in the news lately. This speaks of a limited republic style government, but also makes provisions for preserving and protecting individual liberties and lays out a course of action for preserving and governing the new nation.
The founders were fairly clear that they wanted a limited Federal government. The Federal government would do only those things necessary to ensure the defense of the new nation, deal diplomatically with foreign nations, provide for the common good, and provide standardizations for things such as the monetary system and patents and copyrights, the ability to erect forts, post offices (another ability given to the new nation), and, later, was given more authority through the so-called civil rights amendments to enforce legislation regarding civil rights.
While there are many limitations that cede rights both to individuals and to the states, most notably the original Bill of Rights for individuals and the Tenth Amendment ceding powers not vested in the Federal government to the states, the founders were not naïve about the needs of the government. The founders did realize that the government would have to play some role in the society partially through the failures of the Articles of Confederation. Proponents of limited government often focus on the limited government side of the Constitution. While limited government certainly does play an important part in the Constitution, this focus sometimes narrows its focus on places where the Federal government ought to leave citizens or states alone, but ignores or downplays the places where the founders did state government had a role.
While the founders did envision a limited government, they were not naïve about the realities of a need for at least some government reserved for the Federal government. The U.S. constitutional framers in Article I, Section Six delegated to Congress the power to collect taxes, to regulate commerce with foreign nations and indigenous tribes, to regulate interstate commerce, to coin money, to promote science and the useful arts via the patent and copyright system, to declare war and punish piracies on the high seas, to maintain organize, discipline, and train a militia and navy, to exercise authority over the capitol district, authority to build post offices, roads, forts, and other public buildings, and to make laws needed to execute these powers and in support of the Constitution of the United States.
The President of the United States, under Article Two, Section Two, is given the authority to execute the laws, to pardon, to make treaties with the “advise and consent” of the Senate, to appoint Federal judges and Cabinet level officers, again with the “advise and consent” of the Senate, and to serve as Commander-and-Chief of the armed forces. The powers given to the President and the executive branch as a whole are again national in scope, but in many cases not so broad as to avoid oversight from Congress. The President can be effective and, certainly, has authority to carry out the laws and shape policy, but the President also has to rely on Congress to actually pass legislation. While the President, in able to accomplish more than one might otherwise think, given the constitutional limitations on the presidency, any instinct of the President, outside of what might be prescribed to the executive branch as commander in chief is dependent on Congress if only for approval. The President, of course, has input, especially on what bills might win signatures and what legislative actions will not win approval, but Congress is still the ultimate authority on legislative issues.
The Judicial Branch, under Article III, Section Two, has the power to try cases arising from the Constitution and laws of the United States, to try cases involving Ambassadors and Consuls, cases involving maritime jurisdiction, cases where the United States is a party, and cases between two or more different states or citizens of those states.
All of these powers, regardless of the branch of government, are designed to promote things specifically in the national interest. These items are ceded to the national interest because these are things the states cannot necessarily do for themselves and/or they reflect items that are interstate in nature, so more conducive to Federal regulation than state regulation because standardization is required in such cases.
Under Article IV, Section 1, states are to give “full faith and credit” to acts, records, and judicial proceedings in other states. States have the obligations to deliver fugitives from justice as well (the understanding of which changed when slavery became prohibited). States cannot regulate the Treasury and Property of the United States. The amendment also establishes a republican form of government under section 4. This is designed to protect the states against violence either foreign or domestic. Mainly, this amendment is designed to provide standardization to interstate interests and to provide for a national defense.
The tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that those powers “not delegated to the United States” to the individual states. This recognition provides states with a wide degree of latitude outside those powers recognized by the Federal government.
Subsequent amendments to the constitution narrowed somewhat the powers of states with regards to laws which might hinder civil rights. The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. This amendment came about shortly before the end of the U.S. Civil War, a war fought over states’ rights with slavery being a particular catalyst in that fight. The thirteenth amendment further ceded the power to enforce this amendment directly to Congress.
The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended citizenship rights to citizens born or naturalized in the United States. This right extended not just to the United States, but also to individual states. The fourteenth amendment prohibits states from making laws that “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” It also prohibits states from “denying any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The fifteenth and nineteenth amendments guaranteed the vote to Black men and to women respectfully. Of course, the fifteenth amendment was not always utilized correctly until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, due to the Jim Crow laws, but technically it was in the constitution. These amendments show that the Constitution could expand to fulfill the promises of liberty in a changing society.
The Constitution also has great fondness for individual liberty. The Bill of Rights, most notably, recognizes individual freedoms. This reflected the importance that the founders put on individual liberty in an attempt to prevent government from unnecessarily restricting liberty.
The constitution’s ability to be changed by amendments reflects its ability to change with society and to confront new challenges. However, it is also true that society can change very rapidly as well. There have certainly been many changes from the fairly self-contained agrarian communities of the 18th century. We live in a more interconnected world. Federal power has increased accordingly. Does this reflect a need to change the entire Constitution? Not necessarily. Amendments have given the nation authority to amend the constitution when needed.
What is perhaps more of a challenge to the integrity of the Constitution are societal needs, the outgrowth of ideological thinking, and diminishing knowledge about its importance and substance. Societal needs, for instance, play a very big role in the interpretation. When times get tough, such as during wartime, it can be more difficult to find a way to blend the idealism behind the Constitution with a way to fit practical needs. In addition, society has changed dramatically since the 18th century.
Different camps think differently about the Constitution. Some are strict constructionists who believe the Constitution should only be interpreted through a narrow lens around wording and intent. Others believe that the Constitution has an expanding definition and can expand in order to fulfill a need. This sharp divide leads to many fights over its meaning. This can be productive, but at some point, politicians have to reach an agreement in order to accomplish things for the American people.
Finally, preserving and extending actual respect and knowledge of the Constitution is important to its success. It is important that all citizens read and familiarize themselves with the Constitution. It is also helpful to have knowledge of secondary documents such as the Federalist Papers. Knowledge of American history is also significant. Its importance helps us explain the need to change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitutional System and explains much about the rationale behind amendments.
The Constitution is a document that has served as a symbol of liberty despite the blemishes, such as slavery and the Jim Crow laws, that have been inflicted upon the nation. It is up to the citizenry to preserve and defend its integrity striving toward the ideals within the document even during challenging times and strive toward liberty and justice for all.