The genius of the Constitution in organizing the federal government has given the United States extraordinary stability over the course of two centuries. And the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments have placed fundamental human rights at the center of the U.S. legal system.
In moments of national crisis, it has been tempting for governments to attempt to suspend these rights in the interest of national security, but in the United States such steps have always been taken reluctantly and under the most scrupulous safeguards. During wartime, for example, military authorities censored mail between the United States and foreign countries, and especially from the battlefronts to families back home. But not even in wartime has the constitutional right to a fair trial been abrogated. Persons accused of crimes – and these include enemy nationals accused of spying, subversion, and other dangerous activities – are given the right to defend themselves and, under the American system, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights cover a wide range of subjects. One of the most far-reaching is the fourteenth, ratified in 1868, which establishes a clear and simple definition of citizenship and guarantees equal treatment under the law. In essence, the Fourteenth Amendment required the states to abide by the protections of the Bill of Rights. Other amendments have limited the judicial power of the national government, changed the method of electing the president, forbidden slavery, protected the right to vote against denial because of race, color, sex, or previous condition of servitude, extended the congressional power to levy taxes to individual incomes, and instituted the election of US senators by popular vote.
The most recent amendments include the twenty-second, limiting the president to two terms in office, the twenty-third, granting citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote; the twenty-fourth, giving citizens the right to vote regardless of failure to pay a poll tax; the twenty-fifth, providing for filling the office of vice president when it becomes vacant in midterm; the twenty-sixth, lowering the voting age to 18; and the twenty-seventh, concerning the compensation of U.S. senators and representatives.
It is of significance that a majority of the 27 amendments stem from continued efforts to expand individual civil or political liberties, while only a few are concerned with amplifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.
The Federal System
The framers of the Constitution had several clear-cut objectives in mind. They set these down with remarkable clarity in a 52-word, six-point preamble to the principal document.
The problem of building a “more perfect Union” was the obvious issue facing the 13 states in 1787. It was quite clear that almost any union would be more nearly perfect than that which existed under the Articles of Confederation. By developing another structure to replace it involved critical choices.
“…To Form a More Perfect Union”
All the states were covetous of the sovereign power they had exercised since the break with England 11 years earlier. Balancing states’ rights with the needs of a central government was no easy task. The makers of the Constitution accomplished th8is by letting the states keep all the powers necessary to regulate the daily lives of their citizens, provided that these powers did not conflict with the needs and welfare of the nation as a whole. This division of authority, which is termed federalism, is essentially the same today. The power of each state over local affairs – in matters such as education, public health, business organization, work conditions, marriage and divorce, local taxation, and ordinary police powers – is so fully recognized and accepted that two neighboring states frequently have widely differing laws on the same subject.
Ingenious though the constitutional arrangement was, the controversy over states’ rights continued to fester until, three-quarters of a century later, in 1861, a four-year war broke out between the states of the North and those of the South. The war was known as the Civil war, or the War between the States, and the underlying issue was the right of the federal government to regulate slavery in the newer states of the Union. Northeners insisted that the federal government had such a right, while southerners held that slavery was a matter for each state to decide on its own. When a group of southern states attempted to secede from the Union, war broke out and was fought on the principle of the preservation of the republic. With the defeat of the southern states and their reentry into the Union, federal supremacy was reaffirmed and slavery abolished.
“…To Establish Justice”
The essence of American democracy is contained in the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing phrase, “All men are created equal,” and the follow-up statements “that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Constitution makes no distinction as to the wealth or status of persons; all are equal before the law, and all are equally subject to judgment and punishment when they violate the law. The same holds rtue for civil disputes involving property, legal agreements, and business arrangements. Open access to the courts is one of the vital guarantees written into the Bill of Rights.
“…To Insure Domestic tranquility”
The stormy birth of the United States and the unsettled conditions along the American western frontier convinced Americans of the need for internal stability to permit the new nation to grow and prosper. The federal government created by the Constitution had to be strong enough to protect the states against invasion from the outside and from strife and violence at home. No part of the continental United States has been invaded by a foreign nation since 1815. The state governments have generally been strong enough to maintain order within their own borders. But behind them stands the awesome power of the federal government, which is constitutionally empowered to take the necessary steps to preserve the peace.
“…To Provide for the Common Defense”
Even with its independence secured, the new nation faced very real dangers on many sides in the late 18th century. On the western frontier, settlers faced a constant threat from hostile Indian tribes. To the north, the British still owned Canada, whose eastern provinces were jammed with vengeful American Tories, who had remained loyal to the British Crown during the Revolutionary War. The French owned the vast Louisiana Territory in the continental Midwest. To the south, the Spanish held Florida, Texas, and Mexico. All three European powers had colonies in the Caribbean Sea, within striking distance of the American coast. Moreover, the nations of Europe were embroiled in a series of wars that spilled over into the New World.
In the early years, the constitutional objective of providing a "common defense" focused on opening up the territory immediately beyond the Appalachian Mountains and negotiating a peace with the Native American tribes who inhabited the area. Within a short time, however, the outbreak of war with England in 1812, skirmishes with the Spanish in Florida, and war with Mexico in 1846 underscored the importance of military strength.
As America's economic and political power increased, its defensive strength grew. The Constitution divides the defense responsibility between the legislative and executive branches: Congress alone has the power to declare war and to appropriate funds for defense, while the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and bears primary responsibility for the defense of the country.
“…To Promote the General Welfare”
At the end of the Revolution, the United States was in a difficult economic position. Its resources were drained, its credit shaky, and its paper money was all but worthless. Commerce and industry had come to a virtual halt, and the states and the government of the confederation were deeply in debt. While the people were not in imminent danger of starving, the prospects for economic development were slim indeed.
One of the first tasks the new national government faced was to put the economy on a sound footing. The first article of the Constitution provided that: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes… to pay the debts and provide for the … general welfare of the United States.”
The tax power enabled the government to finance its war debts and to put the currency on a firmer basis. A secretary of the treasury was appointed to look after the fiscal affairs of the nation, and a secretary of state to handle relations with other nations. Also appointed were a secretary of war to be responsible for the nation’s military security, and an attorney general to act as the chief law officer of the federal government. Later, as the country expanded and the economy became more complex, the well-being of the people necessitated the creation of additional executive departments.
“…To Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity”
The emphasis on personal liberty was one of the salient features of the new American republic. Coming, as many of them had, from a background of political or religious suppression, Americans were determined to preserve freedom in the New World. The framers of the Constitution, in giving authority to the federal government, were careful to protect the rights of all persons by limiting the powers of both the national and state governments. As a result, Americans are free to move from place to place, make their own decisions about jobs, religion, and political beliefs, and go to the courts for justice and protection when they feel these rights are being infringed upon.