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Constitutionalism in the United States of America and Abroad

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The foundation of the United States under the federal Constitution of 1787 has been a landmark for all traditions of federalist thinking—national, European, and world. The 13 states were legally independent after the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the Articles of Confederation (unanimously ratified and in force only by 1781) were, strictly speaking, a treaty in international law between sovereign states. So their “moreperfect union” under a federal government has exerted a powerful example on other peoples seeking to establish peace, even though the American states were far less diverse and riven by national jealousies than those of Europe.

The Founding Fathers at Philadelphia were acutely conscious that the eyes of monarchical Europe were upon them. James Madison, chief architect of the Constitution, once remarked at the convention that the delegates were “deciding forever the fate of Republican Government,” and he contrasted a union based on law, as was being proposed in America, with mere treaties based on voluntary compliance, as had been tried for centuries without success in Europe. Benjamin Franklin, after the Constitution was signed, wrote to a friend in France:

If the Constitution succeeds, I do not see why you might not in Europe carry the project of good Henry IV into execution, by forming a Federal Union and One Grand Republick of all its different States and Kingdoms by means of a like Convention, for we had many interests to reconcile.

The essential elements of the U.S. Constitution drafted at Philadelphia were:

• A strong central government (as opposed to a continued association of sovereign states);

• Legislation for individuals (as opposed to pretended legislation for states);

•  Popular representation in at least one house of the legislature to bring “energy” into the government (as opposed to state representation, though this was eventually accepted for the Senate, in the great “federal” compromise);

• Majority rule of popular and state representatives to determine the “public interest” for enactment of the laws (as opposed to the rule of unanimity in the old unicameral Congress of the Confederacy);

• Enforcement of the laws by courts on individuals (as opposed to use of the army or military force against states);

• Delegation of enumerated powers from the states or the people to the common government (as opposed to reservation of all powers by the sovereign states);

• Separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers (as opposed to the highly unitary system that had evolved in the British Parliament);

• Checks and balances to set special interest against interest so that, even in the absence of republican virtue, only the general interest would prevail (as opposed to the supremacy and corruptions of Parliament);

• The federal structure representing states in the Senate and the people in the House of Representatives (as opposed to a unitary state); and a

• Bill of political and civil rights demanded during the ratification conventions and designed to protect the people from any abuses of power by the federal government.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2007

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