The Framers' Intent
To understand the Constitution, it is desirable to look back to when it was drafted to see what the Framers were trying to accomplish.
The American colonists paid dearly for their freedom. But there was much concern that it might slip away from them or from their posterity. The Framers' intent in drafting the Constitution was to design a system of government that would make it as difficult as possible for the American people to be deprived of their freedom.
Dangers To Freedom
The Framers saw two principal dangers threatening their newly won freedom:
The first danger was that unless the powers granted to the central government were sufficient to enable it to perform its functions, the United States could not endure as a strong and united country.
The second danger was that unless a way could be found to protect the people against the human nature tendencies of government officials, freedom would eventually be destroyed by the very government intended to protect it.
Framers' Attitude Toward Government Officials
The Framers' attitude toward government officials is similar to that expressed in the Doctrine and Covenants in these words:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little [p. 8] authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.(1)
This same attitude was expressed by Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic Party and third President of the United States, in this manner:
It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotismfree government is founded in jealousy and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions; to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power. . . . In questions of power, then, let not more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.(2)
Constitution Based on Human Nature
Further evidence of how solidly the Constitution is rooted in human nature, and particularly the human weaknesses of those entrusted with the power of government, is found in The Federalist, a series of essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in support of adoption of the Constitution.
It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? . . . If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.(3)
The last two comments quoted above help bring into sharp focus a fact that should be strikingly clear to every [p. 9] student of the Constitutionthe fact that instead of being outmoded because applicable only to a particular time, the Constitution is founded on human nature which has not changed since the Constitution was drafted.
The Supreme Compulsory Power of Government
One matter that should be kept firmly in mind in any discussion of the Constitution is a consideration which constituted a basic underlying premise in all the deliberations of the Framers. That fact is the clear realization of the fearful power of governmentthat by its very nature the government must have supreme compulsory power in all areas committed to its authority. This recognition of the power inherent in the nature of government was expressed by George Washington in these oft-quoted words:
Government is not reason, it is not eloquenceit is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.(4)
The following is a brief summary of some of the main principles worked into the Constitution to protect freedom against human nature tendencies which might otherwise destroy it. Most of the technical provisions of the Constitution involve devices designed to implement these principles.
Local Self Government Preferable To Centralized National Control
One of the great underlying principles of the Constitution is that local self government is preferable to centralized national control.(5) It was intended that the federal government be as small as possible so that government officials furthest from the people would have a minimum [p. 10] of power to misuse, and so that it would be relatively easy for the people to check on whether their officials properly perform their functions.
Pursuant to this attitude, the Constitution was drafted in such a way that federal authority would extend only to those functions which, because of their nature, could not be satisfactorily administered by the people themselves or the separate states. An example of such a function is making treaties with foreign nations. The Framers felt that treaties must be made by a single agency representing the entire United States.
Since most people's ordinary activities could be well administered by the people themselves or the states, the federal government would have no authority over the daily lives of the people. Instead, authority over the people's ordinary daily activities would be vested in local officials most familiar with local problems and most easily checked on by the people.
The Powers of Government Must Not Be Controlled by Any Single Group
Another basic principle of the Constitution is that governmental power must be divided among different groups so that the government is not controlled by any one group.
Many people are aware of the constitutional provision for separation of the powers of the federal government among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. But more emphasis should be placed on the fact that the Constitution also provides for another aspect of separation of powers. This other aspect is separation between the federal government itself on the one hand and the separate states on the other. Those who launched this free republic felt that this separation of powers between the federal government and the states was so important that the Tenth Amendment which reads as follows was adopted to confirm it unmistakably. [p. 11]
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.(6)
It is of interest that the Tenth Amendment not only confirms the fact that there are reserved powers not granted to the federal government, but also reiterates the fact that the only powers the federal government has are those specifically delegated to it in the Constitution.
There Must Be Built-in Provisions for Automatically Checking Unauthorized Usurpations of Power
In addition to their belief in the importance of the principle of separation of powers to the preservation of freedom, the Framers strongly felt that mere separation of powers alone was not sufficient. There must also be a device for maintaining the separation. Each department must be prevented from encroaching on the jurisdiction of the others, and perhaps ultimately attaining effective control of the government.
To prevent encroachment of one department on another, the Framers incorporated what is known as a system of checks and balances under which it was intended that the several departments, themselves, resist any attempted encroachment by others on their sphere of authority. The objective sought was to be sure that each department and each official has not only a duty, but also a personal motive to resist any such encroachment by others. This objective was expressed in The Federalist in these words.
But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of others. . . . Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. . . . that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.(7) [p. 12]
Summary of Essential Principles To Be Built Into Constitution
In framing the Constitution, the Framers felt that at least the following three areas had to be built into the proposed government structure to protect freedom.
1. The federal government must be given sufficient power and authority to perform those functions which, because of their nature, cannot be performed by the people or by the states. However, it must not be given greater power than this, and even this power must be clearly defined and limited. It was felt necessary to keep the federal government as small as possible in order to keep it the servant instead of the master.
2. The powers of government must be divided among different groups and a system of checks and balances must be worked in so that the human nature tendencies of government officials to usurp power would collide with and be checked by those same tendencies in other officials.
3. There must be an amendment procedure sufficiently rigorous to prevent even an ordinary majority of the people from changing the basic structure with its safeguards of liberty. [p. 13]