"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." So starts the oath of office of the US Senate. But what does it mean to defend the Constitution? This lesson discusses the significance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in US history and in contemporary US society. Basic Principles of the Constitution The Founding Fathers were firmly committed to the principle of popular sovereignty. They disagreed with any government system that ignored the people's voice and will. However, the Framers also feared a government system built on majority rule because a larger group could unfairly control smaller groups. For this reason, the Constitution provides protections for minority rights. These provisions ensure that even though a majority of people may agree on a certain issue, they cannot take basic rights and protections away from those in the minority. Democracy with Limits The Founding Fathers understood that direct democracy was impractical in a country as large as the United States. They also did not trust the mass of common people to vote directly on important political decisions. Thus, they made the United States a representative democracy in which the people elect respected citizens to make decisions on their behalf. The Constitution created regular elections in which citizens choose representatives for the national government. However, the original rules allowed the public to directly elect only members of the House of Representatives. State legislatures selected the senators, and the president would choose federal judges with Senate approval.
For the presidential election, the Framers devised the Electoral College.Instead of electing the president directly, citizens vote for presidential electors, officials who represent their state and select the president. This system is still in effect today. Today, with a few minor exceptions, nearly all adult US citizens can vote.Even now, however, the United States has not perfected democracy. In many presidential elections, barely half of those with voting rights actually cast a ballot, and there are frequent reports of people being erroneously disqualified from voting. In congressional, state, and local elections, even fewer people bother to vote. Limited Government Thomas Jefferson once stated, "When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty." This quote illustrates the Founding Fathers' mindset: protecting the liberties of citizens was vital. Guarding the civil liberties of citizens provides one of the most effective ways to limit the power of the government. The Bill of Rights, drafted alongside the Constitution, names and protects US citizens' civil liberties. These liberties include freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, and the right to a fair trial. Later Constitutional amendments granted more civil liberties to citizens.