People have feared tyranny and abuse of power for centuries. As the world moved past the Dark Ages into a democratic future, numerous systems were created to prevent the return of absolutism. The Constitution of the United States, presented in 1787, included several articles that would ensure separation of power. This paper aims to analyze the United States Constitution as the framers’ ultimate desire for a limited government.
The Constitution divided the American government into three branches: judicial, executive, and legislative. The relations between them are regulated by a set of constraints, known as the system of checks and balances. Its primary purpose is to prevent the concentration of power. It was the framers’ idea to separate the power, thus creating a limited government, in which the branches must work together and take into consideration others’ views. The framers based this principle on the ideas of philosophers across centuries. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself” (Hamilton et al., 2018, p. 360). This self-control served to limit the power of the government.
Generally, James Madison is considered to be the one who introduced the idea of the limited government in the United States. When drafting the Constitution, Madison’s greatest challenge was to prove that it would not “violate the fundamental maxim,” according to which the three powers were to be kept separate and distinct (Rakove, 2010, p. 10). Madison used his political wisdom to alter the general principle rather than overturn it. His idea was that each branch of the government must have “the constitutional means and personal motives to resist the encroachments of the others” (Hamilton et al., 2018, p. 360). Madison was convinced that it was impossible to compose the government of exclusively decent people, none of which would try to extend their power beyond reasonable limits. Madison’s principles became the foundation of the limited government, as described in the Constitution.
The first three articles of the Constitution of the United States introduced the separation of power, vesting the legislative, executive, and judicial powers in Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court, respectively. While the Constitution describes the responsibility of each department of the government, there are also several constraints for each branch. For example, every law passed by Congress is to be verified and signed by the president, who, in turn, has the right to veto legislation. On the other hand, it is Congress that may impeach the president, while the Supreme Court has the right to declare presidential acts unconstitutional. One department is not able to influence another directly, so, the president cannot disband Congress, and Congress cannot impeach the president without a solid reason within the law. This way, the system exercises self-control, as envisioned by Madison: each branch has its distinct responsibilities, as well as tools to oversee the actions of others.
To summarize, the framers looked to create a government that would be able to exercise control over the territory of the United States, while overseeing itself. The traditional principle of separation of power was modified by the framers. The United States Constitution allows the government branches to fulfill their distinct responsibilities, but, at the same time, it reflects the framers’ desires for a limited government.
Hamilton, A., Jay, J. & Madison, J. (2018). The Federalist Papers. BOD – Books on Demand.
Rakove, J.N. (2017). A Political Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.