Wednesday, March 07, 2007

'We the people'

(If you click on the image above, you will be able to read the enlarged text.)

There is a good general discussion of the United States constitution in J. M. Roberts, The Pelican History of the World (1983). Here are some of the points Roberts makes.

Following victory in the War of Independence a handful of American politicians had to thrash out a constitution in the face of huge uncertainties. The colonies were divided over the question of slavery. But they did not have the incubus of an illiterate peasant population, they had ample territory (the extent as yet undecided) and huge potential economic resources. They were also able to draw on the intellectual resources of European civilization and apply them to a new state and a virgin continent.

In 1781 the former colonies had agreed Articles of Confederation in which they took the name United States of America but these articles were judged inadequate to the demands of a new nation. Accordingly delegates from the states met at a constitutional convention in Philadelphia in May 1787. By September they had agreed on a new document drafted largely by James Madison. When nine states ratified it, it came into force in the summer of 1788. In 1789 George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the new republic.

The constitution was determinedly republican - something that was not normal in the eighteenth century. Secondly, its roots lay largely in the British political experience. The Americans inherited English Common law principles, the idea of a bicameral chamber and a head of state (though of course the American head of state was elected).

The doctrine of the separation of powers was at the heart of the American constitution. Government was divided between an executive (the President who was to serve a four-year term), Congress (the Senate, six year term, the House of Representatives (two years) and the judiciary (the Supreme Court).

One way in which the United States differed markedly from Britain was in the principle of federalism. There was no central government with strong powers of coercion. This principle was to be tested again and again over the next eighty years.

The Founding Fathers did not intend to establish a democracy but the principle of popular sovereignty was enshrined in the opening words of the constitution: 'We the People'. This was derived from John Locke's principle that governments held their powers in trust and that the people could overthrow governments that abused their trust. But this Lockean principle was hardly mentioned in eighteenth-century Britain. For the Americans to adopt it into their constitution was epoch-making.

In 1791 the first ten amendments to the constitution were added. This was the Bill of Rights (the title taken from the British Bill of Rights of 1689) which established principles of individual liberty beyond the reach of statute law.