Why did the framers of the U.S. Constitution limit the national government power, and how do those limits affect the way government functions today?
The Founding Fathers, in drafting the Constitution, sought from the beginning to prevent the establishment of a tyranny similar to that from which they were struggling to be free, in effect, the British Crown. Concerned that, over time, the American government could evolve into an autocratic system with serious restraints on individual freedom, the individual articles and later amendments were oriented toward ensuring that the federal government’s powers would be limited. The Preamble to the Constitution, of course, begins with the words “We the People.” That was not intended as an empty sentiment devoid of substance; on the contrary, it went to the heart of what the framers were seeking to accomplish: a government directly answerable to the people it would serve.
In Federalist Paper #45, James Madison wrote, “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
In fact, beyond the clearly delineated separation of powers set forth in the first several articles, the Constitution is comprised mainly of provisions intended to check the power of the federal government and to protect the liberties of the American people. This sentiment is reflected in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
The American colonies had been ruled by a king in a distant land. That king wielded tremendous power over the freedoms bestowed upon the colonials.
The Founding Fathers wished to ensure that the new nation they were planning would be governed not by a distant dictator, but by the citizens of the new nation themselves, through their elected representatives. The Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of the rights of U.S. citizens to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” was a direct reaffirmation of the inalienable rights the individual was intended to enjoy as a citizen of the United States.
How the concept of limited government has affected the federal government today is the subject of considerable debate in the halls of Congress, in the media, and in courtrooms across the nation. Illegal and certainly morally questionable activities by the government in monitoring American protest movements during the 1960s and early 1970s, and the debate raging today over the Obama Administration’s domestic intelligence-gathering activities have renewed concerns about the extent of the powers that should be wielded by the federal government.
With advances in surveillance technologies and ongoing concerns regarding the threat of terrorism, the federal government’s powers have expanded considerably. It is highly questionable, therefore, whether the Founding Father’s vision of limited government has proven a hindrance to the ability of the government to conduct activities in the name of national security. Evidence strongly indicates otherwise.