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Constitution of the United States

Principles Of The Constitution

The Constitution defined a number of the fundamental and enduring principles of U.S. government, particularly the concepts of SEPARATION OF POWERS, checks and balances, and FEDERALISM.

Separation of powers refers to the division of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. Checks and balances refers to a system whereby each branch of government retains some of the powers of the other branches, which it may use to control other branches. Thus, the president may veto bills passed by Congress, the Senate may vote down presidential appointments, and the Supreme Court may strike down laws approved by Congress or regulations put forth by the executive. Such actions keep the separate branches of government in balance and prevent any one of them from becoming too powerful.

The inclusion of the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances in the Constitution owes much to James Madison, who has been called the Father of the Constitution. The U.S. system of government has often been referred to as the Madisonian Model. According to Madison, a system in which the different elements of government competed against one another, each preventing the other from becoming too powerful, was the best system to prevent the rise of a tyrannical government that would abuse the rights of the people. As he wrote in The Federalist, No. 51:

In framing a government, … the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught the necessity of auxiliary precautions. The Constitution, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, provided just such "auxiliary precautions" to be used in controlling government.

The Constitution is also guided by the concept of federalism in the way that it constructs the U.S. government. Federalism is a system in which smaller political entities—such as states, counties, cities, and localities—are united in a larger political organization. Federalism intends to protect the liberties of people in these smaller political units by providing them with a great degree of freedom in governing themselves. The federal, or larger, government is then a limited government that cedes many decision-making responsibilities—including, for example, the creation of most criminal and civil laws, municipal codes, regulations for administering school districts, and the like—to states and localities, while leaving itself other responsibilities. In short, federalism is a partnership in which a central government shares authority and power with regional or local governments.

The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government—made up of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches—power to make decisions regarding such issues as war, national defense, and trade with foreign countries. The federal government also retains the right to overrule laws or decisions of lower units of government when they are in violation of the Constitution. Thus, for example, the federal government took on responsibilities in the over-sight of local school districts after the Supreme Court, in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), ruled that segregating children in different public schools by race violated the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution, which says, "No State shall … deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws."

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