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The U.S. Constitution and the Organization of the National Government Previous Next
Digital History ID 3240

 

The U.S. Constitution created a system of checks and balances and three independent branches of government.

The Legislative Branch

Article I of the Constitution established Congress. The framers of the Constitution expected Congress to be the dominant branch of government. They placed it first in the Constitution and assigned more powers to it than to the presidency. Congress was given "all legislative powers," including the power to raise taxes, coin money, regulate interstate and foreign commerce, promote the sciences and the arts, and declare war.

The Executive Branch

Article II of the Constitution created the presidency. The president's powers were stated more briefly than those of Congress. The president was granted "Executive Power," including the power "with the Advice and Consent of the Senate," to make treaties and appoint ambassadors. The president was also to serve as Commander in Chief of the army and navy.

In delegate James Wilson's view, the presidency was "the most difficult [issue] of all on which we have had to decide." Americans had waged a revolution against a king and did not want concentrated power to appear in another guise. The delegates had to decide whether the chief executive should be one person or a committee; whether the president should be appointed by Congress; and how long the chief executive should serve.

On August 18, 1787, a Pennsylvania newspaper carried a leaked report from the Constitutional Convention. It was the first word on the proceedings that directly quoted a delegate. "We are well informed" of "reports idly circulating, that it is intended to establish a monarchical government.... Tho' we cannot, affirmatively, tell you what we are doing, we can, negatively, tell you what we are not doing--we never once thought of a king."

The conflict with royal governors had made the public deeply distrustful of powerful executives. Alexander Hamilton argued for a chief executive to be given broad powers and elected for life. Edmund Randolph of Virginia thought executive power should not be put into the hands of a single person since a single executive would be "the fetus of monarchy."

To ensure a check on presidential power, Congress was given the power to override a presidential veto and to impeach and remove a president. Congress alone was given the power to declare war.

The Judicial Branch

Article III of the Constitution established a Supreme Court.

The Constitution does not specify the size of the Supreme Court. Over the years the designated size of the Supreme Court has varied between six, seven, nine, and even ten members. Nor does the Constitution explicitly grant the courts the power of judicial review--to determine whether legislation is consistent with the Constitution.

Today, no other country makes as much use of judicial review as the United States. Many of our society's policies on racial desegregation, criminal procedure, abortion, and school prayer are the product of court decisions. The concept of judicial review was initially established on the state level and in the debates over the ratification of the Constitution.

In contrast to Britain, American judges do not wear wigs. When the Supreme Court held its first session in 1790, one justice did arrive wearing a wig. But the public expressed derision at wig wearing, and the justice decided that republican judges should not wear wigs.

Voting Rights
The Constitution included no property qualifications for voting or officeholding like those found in the state constitutions drafted between 1776 and 1780. In a republican society, officeholding was supposed to reflect personal merit, not social rank.

The Constitution did not bar anyone from voting. It only said that voting for members of the House of Representatives should be the same in each state as that state's requirements for voting for the most numerous branch of the legislature. In order words, qualifications for voting were left to the individual states. The New Jersey constitution allowed women to vote if they met the same property requirements as men.

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