Constitution of the United States

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Which of the six basic principles of the Constitution is the most important? 

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One could argue that of the six basic principles of the Constitution, the most important is popular sovereignty. This is the notion that the people are the ultimate source of political power in the nation. What makes this principle contentious, however, is that the definition of what constitutes the people has changed considerably over the course of American history.

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The six foundational principles of the United States Constitution are generally held to be those of limited government, republicanism, federalism, a system of checks and balances, separation of powers, and popular sovereignty.

It is clear that two of these principles, the system of checks and balances and the separation of powers are primarily a means of achieving one of the others—limited government. Similarly, one might regard another two, republicanism and federalism, as ways of protecting popular sovereignty. The principles of limited government and popular sovereignty, therefore, are more important than the other four.

If one asks why limited government and popular sovereignty are important, the answer is substantially the same in both cases. Both protect the freedom of the people. However, they do this in different ways. Popular sovereignty guarantees that the people rule, rather than a tyrant. The United States is not ruled by a ruler, but presided over by a president. Power, at least in theory, remains with the people and is exercised by the institutions of government on their behalf.

Limited government, however, restrains even the power that is actually or ostensibly employed on behalf of the people. It is, therefore, more important than popular sovereignty, since it prevents even the people, or those claiming to act for the people, from acting tyrannically towards the individual. Limited government does more than any other constitutional principle to preserve freedom.

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When the American colonies broke free from Great Britain, they did so on the basis of popular sovereignty, the idea that ultimate political authority resides with the people—“We, the People,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

Though quite commonplace today, this notion was fairly radical at the time. In most European countries, it was widely believed that political power was conferred by divine right; in other words, it was given by God. And such power was conferred upon monarchs, each one of whom was a little God in his or her own kingdom.

The idea of popular sovereignty challenged this notion and found its clearest expression in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution holds that all political power belongs to the people and that the just exercise of that power can only come from the consent of the people. The importance of popular consent is woven into the very fabric of the Constitution, making it arguably the most important of the Constitution's six principles.

Even so, popular sovereignty has been a source of contention right throughout American history. This is mainly because so many groups such as slaves, women, and free African American citizens have been excluded at one time or another from the category of “We, the People”.

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Indeed, limited government is an important principle in the Constitution, but I would argue that if we consider the context in which the Constitution was written and ultimately ratified, federalism is perhaps the most important of its principles. This is because the Philadelphia Convention was called by those who wished to establish a central government that was much stronger than that under the Articles of Confederation. The debates at the Convention reflect significant, even bitter, differences over the extent of the powers of this new national government, but most agreed that it needed to be strengthened. Yet many sought to preserve at least some of the powers of the state governments, which were essentially sovereign under the Articles. The compromise they developed was a system that has become known as federalism. Under this system, the national government established by the Constitution was supreme (the Constitution itself was the "supreme law of the land") and invested with significant new powers and the ability to accrue more through the expansive interpretation favored by some of the founding generation. Indeed, some delegates, including James Madison, wanted a federal "veto" power over state laws. Yet the states retained some powers, a concession to those who feared the federal government would not be able to rule such a large country without becoming tyrannical. This system is the foundational principle of the Constitution, and the extent of state and federal powers within it have been a major source of political debate and conflict ever since. 

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The most important of the six basic principles of the Constitution is the principle of limited government.  The other five principles of the Constitution are largely meant to ensure that government remains limited.

Limited government is the idea that the government cannot simply do whatever it wants.  There are limitations that are placed on what the government can do so that it cannot take away the rights of the people.  For example, the First Amendment explicitly prevents the government from depriving us of our freedom of speech.  There are many other areas in which the government is not allowed to interfere.  The point of this is to prevent the government from tyrannizing us.

All of the other basic principles of the Constitution are arguably meant to ensure that government will not be able to tyrannize us.  We have popular sovereignty, which allows us to control the government so that it will not abuse us.  We have separated the powers of government between the various branches and we have given them checks and balances over one another, including the power of judicial review.  In addition, we have divided powers between the federal government and the state governments.  All of these things are devices to make sure that no one part of the government becomes too powerful.  A part of government that was too powerful could tyrannize us.

In short, the other five principles of the Constitution are all meant to strengthen the principle of limited government.

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