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We the People Book Cover
We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics, 4/e
Thomas E. Patterson, Harvard University

Constitutional Democracy

Chapter 2 Summary

The Constitution of the United States is a reflection of the colonial and revolutionary experiences of the early Americans. Freedom from abusive government was a reason for the colonies' revolt against British rule, but the English tradition also provided ideas about government, power, and freedom that were expressed in the Constitution and, earlier, in the Declaration of Independence.

The Constitution was designed to provide for a limited government in which political power would be confined to its proper uses. Liberty has been a basic value of America's political tradition and was a reason for the colonies' revolt against British rule. The Framers wanted to ensure that the government they were creating would not itself be a threat to freedom. To this end, they confined the national government to expressly granted powers and also denied it certain specific powers. Other prohibitions on government were later added to the Constitution in the form of stated guarantees of individual liberties--the Bill of Rights. The most significant constitutional provision for limited government, however, was the separation of powers among the three branches. Powers given to each branch enable it to act as a check on the exercise of power by the others, an arrangement which, during the nation's history, has in fact served as a barrier to abuses of power.

The Constitution, however, did not describe how the powers and limits of government were to be judged in practice. In its historic ruling in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court assumed the authority to review the constitutionality of legislative and executive actions and to declare them unconstitutional and thus invalid.

The Framers of the Constitution respected the idea of self-government but distrusted popular majorities. They designed a government that they felt would temper popular opinion and slow its momentum, so that the public's "true interest" (which includes a regard for the rights and interests of the minority) would guide public policy. Different methods were established to select members of the House of Representatives and of the Senate, the president, and federal judges as a means of separating political power from momentary and unreflective majorities.

Since the adoption of the Constitution, however, the public has gradually assumed more direct control of its representatives, particularly through measures affecting the ways in which officeholders are chosen. Political parties, presidential voting (linked to the Electoral College), direct election of senators, and primary elections are among the devices aimed at strengthening the majority's influence. These developments are rooted in the idea, deeply held by ordinary Americans, that the people must have substantial direct control of their government if it is to serve their real interests.