Establishing a New Nation: 1783-1792

U.S. Constitutional Principles

Checks and Balances

The Constitution establishes the separation of powers between three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judiciary—and outlines checks and balances that prevent any one branch of government from exercising too much power.

The Constitution was drafted to avoid the centralization of power in any one of the three branches of the federal government. This separation of powers involves the division of the judicial, executive, and legislative functions of government into distinct, independent bodies.

  • Legislative branch: the branch of the government responsible for making laws and appropriating money to fund the government
  • Executive branch: the branch of the government that carries out, or executes, laws
  • Judicial branch: the branch of the government that reviews and interprets laws
The separation of powers employs checks and balances to prevent any of the branches from seizing and exercising too much power. The term checks and balances refers to the principle that ensures these different branches of government have the ability to stop actions of the other branches under defined conditions. This means that no one branch of government can act unilaterally. For example, the legislative branch can pass laws. The president, who is in charge of the executive branch, can veto a law Congress has passed. However, Congress may then override that veto if two-thirds of the members of both houses of Congress vote to do so. The judicial branch can deem laws passed by the legislative branch unconstitutional.

Checks and Balances

The system of checks and balances prevents unilateral actions by any one branch of the federal government.

State and Federal Jurisdictions

The Constitution establishes the federal government as the supreme authority in the United States, as well as outlining federal, state, and concurrent powers.

Federalism is a system of government in which power is divided and shared between two entities. Federalism is the basis for the government of the United States established by the Constitution. The federal government is the supreme authority in the United States, but power is shared with the states. The Constitution outlines the powers reserved for the federal government, and any powers not expressly given to the federal government are reserved for the states.

The Constitution also expressly denies certain power to states. States cannot enter into treaties with foreign nations, coin currency, or impose tariffs on imports or exports. States cannot pass laws that violate laws established by the federal government or the Constitution. States have their own legislative, executive, and judicial branches. These branches of government function at the state level in the same way their counterparts do at the federal level.

Concurrent powers are those that are given to both the state and federal governments. Federal government and state governments each have the power to levy taxes, hold and regulate elections, and establish courts. Concurrent powers can be exercised by both the federal government and the state government in the same area of legislation. For example, both the state and the federal government can compel citizens to pay taxes. States might have election regulations that differ from federal election regulations, but citizens are required to abide by both state and federal laws.

Significant Principles

Popular sovereignty, republicanism, and limited government were guiding principles for the framers of the Constitution.

The preamble, or opening statement, of the Constitution begins, "We the People of the United States." In these words, the framers of the Constitution proclaimed popular sovereignty by declaring the government they were working to establish would belong to its citizens.

Popular sovereignty is the political doctrine that the power of government lies in the hands of the people governed and that a government is legitimate only if it has the consent of the governed. The framers of the Constitution communicated popular sovereignty not only in the preamble, but also in other parts of the document. Article 7 stipulates that nine states must ratify the Constitution before it would go into effect. Popular sovereignty also appears in Article 5, which announces Congress had authority to amend the Constitution.

The framers of the Constitution believed that when a government does not have the consent of its citizens, it violates the principle of popular sovereignty. In such an event, the citizens should be able to overthrow and replace the government. This Constitutional principle was tested in the following century when determining whether territories that became states would allow legal slavery. The people living in the states were allowed to vote on the issue, and violence sometimes broke out between the antislavery and proslavery factions. This happened, for example, after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Numerous individuals from both sides of the slavery issue moved to Kansas to sway the popular sovereignty vote for their side. Conflicts broke out, lasting from 1856 to 1860. This period of violence became known as "Bleeding Kansas."

Another founding principle in the Constitution is republicanism. Republicanism is the principle that dictates that people elect representatives to carry out their will. Although the elections that place representatives in power are democratic, the Constitution does not allow for direct, or "pure," democracy, by which the majority always rules. The framers of the Constitution understood the dangers of majority rule, which can override the rights of the minority. In other words, a majority 51 percent in a vote will always win over the minority 49 percent, rendering their wishes and their rights inconsequential. The framers of the Constitution believed in certain natural and inalienable rights as well as privileges of the individual that must be protected. Therefore they put in place restraints that took the shape of a representative government.

Limited government is the principle ensuring that the government is only able to do what the law allows. The government can only take actions permitted by the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, specifically the 9th and 10th Amendments, limits the power of the government to interfere with the rights of individuals and the states. Limited government prevents government from encroaching on the rights of the people and seizing too much power.

The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

The preamble contains the most famous words in the U.S. Constitution. The first three-"We the People"-reflect the Founders' belief in the principle of popular sovereignty.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 1667751