ELEMENTS OF THE CONSTITUTION - Vision and Challenge
Our Founders had a vision. That vision was a society where the individual members were free to pursue their own desires, keep the fruits of their labors and pursue happiness for both themselves and their posterity(D). Their vision was a result of their understanding that these desires were universal among all peoples and, in this manner, all people were created equal. You can "insert" any particular definition of "creation" that you desire - religious, scientific, chance - and not change the fact that, no matter what definition you use, these desires are universal and the right to pursue them is inherent in that creation.
The same knowledge of human desires and behavior that led our Founders to conceive of such a vision also gave them the wisdom to understand that each person's values, beliefs and goals were a product of their own, individual, history. As such, it was inevitable that the desires of any individual would, eventually, conflict with those of other individuals and that some form of "government" would be necessary to prevent, or resolve, these conflicts.
With a millennia of human history to draw from our Founders knew that the only form of government that could allow their vision to exist and endure was a republic, in which the power of government was limited and the freedoms of the people protected, by the law. They had a deep understanding of human imperfections and, as government is composed of people, the founders knew that the drive to acquire power and control over others was a deeply rooted part of it's nature.
With this understanding in mind, our Founders wrote the document that authorized the creation of our Federal Government, The Constitution. Within this document they, very specifically, identified the limits of the powers given to this government and the powers, rights and freedoms reserved for the states or the people alone. They also deliberately designed a certain degree of inefficiency into our government and divided it into three parts, giving to each only the minimum amount of power needed to perform it's functions, and, by this design, giving each some ability to act as a restraint on any tendency of the other two to overstep, or expand, the powers allowed to them, by The Constitution.
The full text of The Constitution is available in many places and a listing of the "checks and balances" can be found here. For our discussion here, the following is a summary of the powers and checks:
To the Legislative Branch our Founders gave the greatest amount of power. It has the sole power to make federal law, the power to establish or eliminate federal courts and to act as a check on the Executive, by impeachment and veto overturn. The Legislative Branch also has several tools to check the power of the Judicial Branch. Appointment to the Supreme Court must be approved by Congress who also has the ability to determine the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, it's composition and even the time(s) and duration of the court's sessions. The Founders also built in the greatest amount of accountability to the people by requiring the members of the legislative branch to, periodically, face the people they represent, for an accounting of their actions, by the process of election. The legislature was also divided into two bodies, the House and the Senate, to provide both proportion and uniformity of representation.
To the Executive Branch was given the power to appoint federal judges and other officials, implement federal law, make treaties, pardon, command the military and act as a check on the Legislative by veto and on the Judicial by selection of judges. While having less power than the Legislative, the Executive also must, periodically, face the people, for an accounting of it's actions, by the process of election.
To the Judicial Branch was given - originally - the least amount of direct power. The Judicial Branch was given no power of the "sword" or the "purse", only the "The judicial Power of the United States...". The Founders gave the Judicial branch original jurisdiction only in certain, specific cases. In all other cases, the Judicial Branch had only appellate jurisdiction - and - congress had the power to make "exceptions" to appellate jurisdiction. In other words, Congress could deny jurisdiction, to the Supreme Court, "under such Regulations as the Congress shall make". Our Founders, from long experience with courts in history, considered the Judicial branch to be the most dangerous branch of government and, therefore, made it the weakest of the three. As many of us have already seen and, as the evidence will soon show, their fears were justified!
NOTE: Many "myths", concerning the powers and design of the three branches of our government, have been bandied about for years. Two of them are that the three braches are "co-equal" and "independent". As the brief descriptions, above, and the volumes of documentation from our Founders show, the three branches are far from equal in their powers. Additionally, when you understand that our Founders used the word "independent", with respect to the branches of government, they meant not directly accountable to the people. As you can see, both the Legislative and Executive branches are directly accountable to the people, through the election process, and the Judicial Branch is indirectly accountable to the people as it was - originally - designed to be greatly dependant on the good will of the other two, elected, branches. Representative Steve King ([R], Iowa 5th district) put it rather succintly when he stated, “Constitutionally, Congress can reduce the Supreme Court to nothing more than Chief Justice Roberts sitting at a card table with a candle” - something that the Supreme Court has no ability to do to Congress.
The wisdom of our Founders is reflected in the structure of our constitution and the fact that it has endured for almost a quarter of a millennia. From this wisdom they also knew that they left us with a challenge. As you might remember, from the section on government, Benjamin Franklin told us that we had been given "A republic...If you can keep it".
Our fledgling nation was settled and built by a diverse cross section of people, from all parts of the "old" world. These settlers, came to this land for many different reasons but all brought with them a very personal knowledge of the faults and persecutions that had been the norm in the governments they had left behind. Here they set out to design a new government, on a "clean slate" that could only exist in a new land having no "history" of the past evils of the European governments.
The success of their vision has resulted in a people who have never known the conqueror's heel and who have built the greatest industrial nation in the history of the world with a standard of living that is the envy of much of the world. Because of this, however, we have become what the Founders feared - and tried to prevent - an army of the complacent.
This land was born in battle - a battle of arms in defense of a principle, individual freedom. The people of our new nation understood that, although the battle of arms had - for the moment - been won, the threat to this principle had not been eliminated. There would always be those individuals who would attempt to steal our freedoms and that the greatest threat came, not from without, but from within ourselves. If we lose our republic, it will not come from foreign arms but from our own inattention to the enemies within our own government!
We have looked at several elements of our Constitution; original intent, ideas and ideals, the vision and the challenge left to us by those who crafted it. This evidence is based on the four "corner stones" I mentioned in the previous segment. In the next segment of The Constitution, The Religious Foundations of American Law, we will look at these four elements.
NEVER FORGET !