Constitution of the United States

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Identify some key characteristics of the U.S. Constitution.

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The ideas and characteristics of the Constitution are largely derived from the Age of Enlightenment.  Two important philosophers provided many of the ideas that made the Constitution unique from any known government of the time.  John Locke and Charles Montesquieu, while decades away from the Revolutionary War and the creation of the Constitution, founded the structure of the United States government.

John Locke in his document the Second Treatise on Government (1690) proposed several ground breaking ideas for creating an ideal government:

a) A king is not necessary to rule

b) People can and should govern themselves

c) Separation of Powers

d) All people have basic rights that cannot be taken away

e) The government works to protect the people

f) All men are created equal

g) When people participate in their government it makes the country better  

The ideas that were presented in Locke's treatise presented a new idea of government that philosophers had postulated but never put in a document as a concise premise for an ideal government.  

Charles Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws was written fifty years after Locke's treatise.  Being a fan of Locke's treatise, Montesquieu expounded on ideas that Locke presented.  Notably Montesquieu expanded on the idea of a Separation of Powers.  While Locke only presented the idea of an Executive and Legislative Power, similar to the British governmental structure of King and Parliament, Montesquieu theorized that a third branch was necessary to ensure the protection of the people from possible tyranny--the Judicial Branch.  

Montesquieu also expounded on Locke's philosophies concerning basic rights, stating that there must be a structure in the government to provide securities for the rights of the people, specifically inalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property.  Montesquieu's unique contribution to the document was regarding his philosophy that a truly just government must provide a means for the government to change laws or the government itself due to necessity.  Montesquieu felt that a government that was willing to adapt throughout time would have the best chance of enduring the centuries. 

With the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the creation of the Articles of Confederation, the stage was set to put in place a new experimental government.  James Madison studied the philosophies of Locke and Montesquieu during the months when he was developing the ideas for what would become the Virginia Plan.  Consequently, the United States contains many characteristics, which are specifically attributed to Locke and Montesquieu.

Thomas Jefferson, a student of Locke and Montesquieu, contributed to Madison's pursuit to create a new government by providing him with the books for his research.  Jefferson's most famous document, The Declaration of Independence, shows his devotion to Locke's philosophies.  Several passages in the Declaration of Independence are taken word for word from Locke's Second Treatise on Government.  Following Jefferson's example, Madison studied Locke's and Montesquieu's works and many of the United States's most significant characteristics can be attributed to the two works.

a) Government by the People. At the time in the world, the idea that the general public could rule themselves was considered unthinkable.  The Divine Authority granted to monarchs was an established principle in leadership.  The two philosophies. A king is not necessary to rule, and People can and should govern themselves, set the stage for the new Democratic-Republic established by the Constitution.

b) Separation of Powers. The idea of breaking apart the government into two branches let alone three branches was unique even to the United States.  Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States was Unicameral and contained only one branch of government.  By following Montesquieu's advice, the U.S. Constitution established a Bicameral Legislature composing of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and split the government into three branches: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial.  

c) Checks and Balances. This is a subset of Montesquieu section on Separation of powers.  This concept of providing the means of a branch of government to police the other two branches established a system to protect the citizenry from a possible tyranny.  

 c) Inalienable Rights. Maintaining the rights granted to an individual by nature or God is a founding principle of the United States legal system.  During the ratification of the Constitution, opposition arose because many representatives in the Constitutional Congress felt that the rights of the citizens were being ignored.  These rights were more clearly defined in the Bill of Rights.

Some of the unique characteristics provided through the Bill of Rights are: 

  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of the Press
  • Separation of Religion from the Government/No Government influence in Religion.
  • Right to Peaceful Assembly
  • Right to Redress Grievances with the Government.
  • Right to Bear Arms
  • Right for State Militias
  • Protection from the Quartering of Troops
  • Right to privacy
  • Right to a warrant for search and seizure of property
  • Right not to testify against yourself
  • Right to have an attorney
  • Right to know and cross examine witnesses against you.
  • Right to compel witnesses for you
  • Right to a trial by your peers
  • Right to a judge and jury that does not know you
  • Right for the States to determine policy and law unless the power is specifically provided to Congress by the Constitution.

Many of the rights listed above are not strictly from Locke and Montesquieu.  The Magna Carta and injustices felt by the founding fathers contributed to the list.  However, Locke's writings must be acknowledged as a fundamental influence in the structure that provided for these rights.  Many of these fundamentals of the US Government are unique in the world even today.       

d) The Elastic Clause. The belief that laws must be appropriate but changeable is clearly established in the Elastic Clause of the Constitution (Article 1: Section 8).  Through this clause the United States Government has the means to expand or retract based upon need.  For example, the United States government expanded during the Great Depression in order to help the widespread economic devastation.  Once the economy of the United States stabilized, many of the programs were ended and the government shrunk back.  

e) All Men are Created Equal. While the history of the United States has had a rocky history regarding Equality; the fact that it is a foundation of the American society is separate all governments during the writing of the Constitution and is a unique characteristic in the world today.  

f) The Government's Responsibility to Protect the People. This philosophy does not simply mean military protection.  It requires that the government is responsible for maintaining the rights of its citizens. 

While John Locke and Charles Montesquieu provided many of the unique characteristics of the U.S. Government, many were created through the debates of the Constitutional Convention.  One of these is Federalism--the Balance of Power between the Federal Government and the State Governments.  

Prior to the creation of the Constitution, there were only two philosophies regarding the balance of power:

1. Unitary--all the central government had all the power

2. Confederalism--the local provinces had all of the power, as used in the Articles of Confederation.  

The Founding Fathers established a new governmental form whereby power was evenly distributed between the Federal and State Governments. While indicated in Article 4 of the Constitution, the power was officially guaranteed through the 10th Amendment.  

References Below: 

1st: Project Gutenberg copy of Locke's Second Treatise on Government

2nd: Project Gutenberg copy of Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws.

3rd: The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights (Annotated)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
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When we talk about key characteristics of the Constitution, we are really talking about the characteristics of the government that it sets up.  Some of the key characteristics of this government are:

Separation of powers.  The Constitution creates a government with three separate branches.

Checks and balances.  These separate branches also have the ability to exert some power over the other branches.

Federalism.  The Constitution sets up a system in which power is divided between the national government and the state governments.  Neither can really take power from the other.

Limited government.  The Constitution sets limits on what the government can do.

All of this is meant to protect the people by making the government less able to oppress them.  This could be seen as a fifth characteristic. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
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