Constitutional History of the United States
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 Updated 7/3/18         Please link to and   


Our Founding Fathers Feared Direct Democracy        
Republic Maintenance Required Compromise
The Power Grab Begins     
Five Recurring Political Themes

Three Continuing Questions Developed
Did You Know

Our Founding Fathers Feared Direct Democracy

17th-century Liberalism came from John Lock and other Age of Enlightenment philosophers like. He argued that each man had natural rights of equality, liberty, property, the necessity of consent, and limited government. These beliefs began a U.S. political discussion which centered on minimal state liberalism (today's conservatism) vs. active state liberalism (today's liberalism).

The US constitution was seen as very important because republican government had not succeeded due to an inability to limit majority power. Our Founding Fathers designed the constitution to promote political stability and control majority factions. Change would not be easy.

Controls included Separation of Powers in that authority was divided among three branches of government, the legislature, the President, and the courts. Within the legislature, power was again separated such that the Senate could stop a bill passed by the House of Representatives which initiates all revenue legislature. The President could veto a Congressional bill, Congress could override said veto with a 2/3 vote, and the Supreme Court soon found it could could stop the President and Congress by declaring a law unconstitutional.  See Marshals 1803 Power Grab which created a third separate power. These checks and balances among government branches were to protect minority rights from majority factions.

The Electoral College was another control over concentration of power. Some founder/delegates to the Constitutional Convention feared Direct Democracy. What became known as the Electoral College was a compromise between a true Republican election by the people and an electorate consisting of citizens that are more qualified. However, there were other reasons. Slave states with large populations but far fewer eligible voters wanted a compromise like the one used to determine state House of Reprehensive representation. This 3/5 comprise counted some slaves as population for representation purposes.  High population states such as Virginia which had many House of Representative members would also have a large number of Presidential electors. House members were not used as electors because maintaining presidential independence would be difficult if a small continuingly elected group like Congress electing the President. See Americans Are Poorly Informed About Basic Constitutional Provisions



Republic Maintenance Required Compromise

Americas Democracy had a difficult political beginning because of the violence and anarchy of the 1789-99 French Revolution. Many Americans were uneasy about their republican democracy. This helped Federalist and their active state liberalism ruled to control national politics.

A new tax was the first of many major controversies. It came when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton orchestrated the 1789 import  tax. Many believers in minimum state liberalism were unhappy. The tax revenue was needed to pay Revolutionary War debt of both state and federal governments. Relative to GDP, it was the largest federal debt to exist until 1933 when revenue collapsed causing D3 (deep-do-do). Thus Hamilton began the continuing practice of increasing taxes (though not enough) to pay for war. Repayment of resulting long-term debt was spread over many years allowing repayment in cheaper inflated dollars. This minimized, some would say postponed, the Nation's financial sacrifice.

A new practice of refinancing principal with new bonds to pay  maturing bonds began after WWI. Some call this passing debt to our children but it has been seventy-five years and none has been paid. In terms of today's dollars, the WW2 created debt could be considered minimal.

The practice of lowering taxes during war began when Bush II cut taxes while starting two wars. He also expanded the social safety net by creating Medicare Part D. This added to our large future liability compared to Social Security because changing demographics will solve potential SS liabilities.

Hamilton to the dismay of Jefferson, also began the practices of the federal government paying state debt. Source      

Philosophical change, which would happen often, began with Jefferson when he purchased Louisiana even though he believed in minimal state liberalism. Others, Jackson being the most notable, followed minimal state liberalism. Then Lincoln used a strong federal government to preserve the Union. This lasted until the end of reconstruction when limited government helped by the Supreme Court fostered the Jim Crow Laws and the Gilded Age. The court did so by making owner property rights more important than worker personal liberties.

The new century brought Progressivism from Teddy Roosevelt and Windrow Wilson. Both believed in active state liberalist. The First Red Scare and unionism following WW I brought back minimal state liberalism. The Great recession allowed FDR to use active state liberalism to tame our Greatest Depression. Active state liberalism ended with the Second Red Scare. We need guns not butter. The Korean War and The Cold War contributed to the feeling  we needed security more than individual liberty. The 1962 Kennedy assassination gave LBJ the support needed to pass The Great Society anti-poverty programs. Active state liberalism was back. Stagflation of the 1970's allowed Ronald Regan to reverse course. He blamed active state liberalism for creating  excess government regulation which slowed the economy.

A new century brought back Active State Liberalism. First another Scare, this time from terrorism made maximize public safety more important than. Active State Liberalism returned to solve the Great Recession which required government corporate bailouts and health care expansion. 


The Power Grab Begins
Nine Supreme Court Rulings Allocated Political Power from John Marshall Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation by H.G. Unger

Rulings Established Power Centers

1 Sovereignty of Federal Government Over Sates Governments

a. 1809 U.S v. Peters  Supreme Court (SC) voided a State Law
b. 1816 Martin v. Hunter Lessee Treaties supreme Law of Land SC could void state court decisions
c. 1819
McCulloch v. Maryland limited state power by granting implied power to federal government

1834 Gibbons v. Ogden declared state sponsored monopolies involving interstate commerce illegal
2) Protection of Individual Rights From  Arbitrary Governmental Actions
a. 1810 Fletcher v. Peck affirmed inevitability of contracts between individual and between governments and individuals.
b. 1819 Dartmouth College v. Woodward protected contractual property rights from arbitrary governmental seizure
1821 Cohens v. Virginia extends SC protection to every citizen in every court of the land.
3) Recognizes Supreme Court as "supreme in the exposition of constitution"  
a. 1803 Marbury v. Madison granted Judicial Review  power to the Supreme Court
b. 1832 Worcester v. Georgia President uses federal troops to back SC decision concerning Georgia's Cherokee laws.

Some Just Took Power

Presidential Power Grab
1789 Washington let Treasury Hamilton borrow without the required Congressional authority.
1991 Washington
used Federal troops to fight Indians without Congressional declaration of war.
1791 Washington
use an unauthorized proclamation and then troops to put down Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion.
1803 Jefferson
ignored Constitution when buying Louisiana.

Congressional Power Grab   
1798 Alien and Seditions Act attacked anti-federal government activist by eliminating their Bill of Rights.
1801 Judiciary Act ignored the Constitution and removed Federal judges. Reversed by 1802 Judiciary Act.

Judicial Power Grab
1803 Marbury v. Madison decision granted Judicial Review  Power to the Supreme Court.


Political Discussion Had Five Recurring Themes return to top

1) American Exceptionalism exists because the country was formed at a unique time and place. This allowed America to be special with a responsibility to provide an appropriate government example

2) The dynamic flexibility of America Liberalism has allowed concepts concerning individual rights to adjust as required by evolving circumstances.

3) The reconstitution of American government first with Jefferson, then after  the Civil War, and following the New Deal though other less significant though important reconstitutions have been beneficial though controversial. Think Kennedy, Reagan, and Trump.

4) An expansion of "we the people"   from white men of property, to white men, to all men, to all citizens, and recently continued with the addition sexuality. 

5) Geographic Space
allowed for the separation of individuals from oppressive government, religion, and other potentially tyrannical organizations. Some feel modern America has lost some of this space. Source Cycles of American Political Thought  
The Founders Constitution
 for writings about the U.S. constitution.


Three Continuing Questions Developed return to top

1) Property vs. individual rights was won by property until excesses of the Gilded Age caused much public reaction leading to worker protection.

2) To what degree should government be involved with the protection of protecting individual's natural rights. Which Rights?

3) What amount of property taken through taxes should be used to foster individual economic and social equality?


Did You Know  return to top

Democracy and a Republics are often used interchangeably though they represent two different political philosophies. A Republic has "power controlled by the people." A "Democracy begins with Majority Rule." Minority rights are protected against factions by a separation of powers and a constitution.

Founding father Madison ...defines a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community".

Federalist George Cabot of Massachusetts feared "...the terrible evils of democracy..." and felt Jefferson was unstoppable..." From p368 of Thomas Jefferson:

5 Times the Electoral College Went Against the Popular Vote video