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...

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