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Origins Of The United States Constitution

The American system can only be understood by a study of the experiences of the early colonists in the “New World” of the 18th century.

The New World attitude was one of seeing the American colonies as places of freedom from persecution and as environments in which people could build their own independent lives. From the very beginning, America has been seen by its immigrant settlers as a land of opportunity and individual freedom. Some early settlers sought, for instance, to escape religious persecution in Europe.

The Divine Right of Kings was the doctrine of the British monarchs that held that kings were divinely appointed and thus were incapable of being challenged. King George III was seen by the colonists as dictatorial and arbitrary.

Taxation Without Representation

  • Sugar Act 1764
  • Stamp Act 1765
  • Quartering Act 1765
  • Tea Act 1773 (Boston Tea Party)

These various Acts imposing taxation on the colonists were much resented and contributed to hostility towards the British government and George III. They ultimately led to The Declaration of Independence in 1776, followed by The War of Independence.

Following the victory of the colonists over the British, The Articles of Confederation were drawn up and lasted from 1777-89. This was an early attempt at establishing a national government, but it floundered during the 1780s.

This led to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, attended by such notables as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, which had the aim of drawing up a constitution for a new federal republic.

There was considerable disagreement amongst the Framers (Founding Fathers) at the Philadelphia Convention. Various plans were put forward, each offering different views of the powers that should be given to the legislative, executive and judicial arms of the new Federal Government. In particular, the smaller states wanted some form of protection against domination by the larger states.

The Convention considered a plan put forward by delegates from Virginia and then one from New Jersey, before settling on what is known as The Great Compromise or The Connecticut Compromise.

This plan involved a system whereby there was a Separation of Powers. This meant that the Executive (President), Legislative (Congress) and Judicial (Supreme Court) arms were separate from each other. No member of congress could be a member of the executive branch and vice-versa. Similarly, no member of the judicial branch could simultaneously be a member of the other two arms of the government.

Unlike the Westminster system, the American system separates the legislative arm from the executive government. Whereas all Australian government ministers are required to be members of parliament, the American system separates the two. Whereas in Australia the government is drawn from the party or parties that control the lower house, in the US it is quite possible for the legislative and executive arms to be controlled by opposing parties. This is the case at the moment with a Democrat president and a Republican congress. At other times the congress has been split, with control of the two houses in different hands.

Moreover, there was to be a division of power within the congress. There would be a House of Representatives composed of representatives from the various states according to population. Hence, California has the most members (52) in the current House, whilst Wyoming has only one member. However, there would also be a Senate in which each of the States would be represented equally regardless of population. Hence, California and Wyoming each have two senators.

For a law to be passed it would require the approval of both houses of the congress.

But the Connecticut Compromise did not stop there. In addition to the separation of powers, the Framers instituted a system of Checks and Balances. This means, for example, that a law passed by the two houses of the congress must also be signed by the president. A veto by the president may be overturned by a two-thirds vote of the congress. It also means that nominations by the president to the Supreme Court must be confirmed by the Senate, as do nominations for Cabinet positions.

The complex web of checks and balances coupled with the separation of powers illustrates much about the political values of the Founding Fathers.
Malcolm Farnsworth
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