The Constitutional Convention

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Which branch did the Framers of the Constitution feel was the most important?  How we can tell?

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It was no accident that the first article of the Constitution of the United States, Article I, established the legislative branch of the government. The Constitution, indeed, the whole of the revolutionary movement, was born of wariness regarding the supreme authority across the Atlantic that resided in the person of...

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It was no accident that the first article of the Constitution of the United States, Article I, established the legislative branch of the government. The Constitution, indeed, the whole of the revolutionary movement, was born of wariness regarding the supreme authority across the Atlantic that resided in the person of a monarch, King George III. While the authors of the Constitution knew that they would also be creating a chief executive, their highest priority was to ensure the fullest possible representation of the populace and the prevention of the accumulation of power of any one branch of government. The concept of “checks and balances” was integral to their efforts, but it was clear that the intent was for the primacy of the legislature. The decision had been made to establish a representative democracy, a republic, rather than the more unwieldy and impractical form of pure democracy in which all voting-age citizens would vote on all matters. This newly-established legislative branch of government would be the branch closest to the public and would provide an essential check on the actions of the chief executive. As James Madison, perhaps the single most influential voice on the structure and content of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist Paper #51, “in republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”

Similarly, Alexander Hamilton devoted Federalist Paper #78 to an explanation and defense of Article III of the Constitution, which established the judicial branch of government. Again, the importance of checks and balances is emphasized. While Hamilton’s essay trumpets the third branch of government, he takes pains to reaffirm the primacy of the legislature:

Nor does this conclusion by any means suppose a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both; and that where the will of the legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people, declared in the Constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former. They ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.

In other words, the laws of the land are the provenance first and foremost of the branch of government most directly elected by and representative of the public — the legislature.

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The Framers assumed that the legislative branch would be the most important branch of the federal government. Indeed, the impetus for the Constitutional Convention was to give more powers to the Congress, which was very weak under the Articles of Confederation. Article I, which lays out the powers of Congress, is far longer and more expansive than Articles II (the executive) and III (the judiciary.) It specifically grants Congress a number of powers, where it is very vague in enumerating the powers of the executive. The judiciary was not even fully fleshed out in the Constitution, which called only for a Supreme Court and "inferior courts" to be established by Congress. Additionally, Congress as a whole as well as its respective houses, are given considerable power to check the powers of the other branches. In short, the Framers mostly adhered to contemporary beliefs about republican government, which emphasized. following the Glorious Revolution in England, the supremacy of a legislature, more representative structurally of the will of the people. The Constitution reflects this conviction.

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The Framers of the Constitution felt that the legislative branch was the most important.  We can see this because it is given the most powers, because the article that deals with it is the longest of the articles, and because the article that deals with it is the first article.  All of this implies that the Framers thought that the legislative branch would be the most important branch.

Before the Constitution was written, the US was governed under the Articles of Confederation.  This constitution did not provide for an executive branch. The only law-making body for the national government was Congress.  When the Framers wrote the new constitution, they wanted to include an executive branch.  However, they were still wary of excessive executive power and they wanted Congress to be the most important branch of government.

We can see this in three ways. The first way we can see this is by looking at the order in which the Framers addressed the three branches of government.  The Framers dealt with Congress in Article I.  From this, we can infer that the legislative branch was the most important branch in their eyes. It makes sense that you would put the most important thing first when writing out a set of rules.

There are two more related facts that imply that the Framers thought Congress was more important than the other branches. The Framers gave Congress many more powers than the other branches.  All of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is dedicated to specifying the powers that Congress has.  This is a very long section.  Because Congress is given so many powers (and because Article I also specifies what Congress cannot do), Article I is much longer than the other articles. This, too, implies that Congress is more important than the other branches.

From these three pieces of evidence, we can infer that the Framers felt that the legislative branch was the most important branch of government.

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