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How Does the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights Define the Scope and Structure of Government in the American Society
The United States Constitution was conceived and written in 1787 by its chief architect, James Madison, during the Philadelphia Convention. During the process of establishing the Constitution in the Convention, members proposed two alternative plans on how they should go about writing it. The Nationalists (the Federalists) proposed the Virginia Plan in which government representation was to be divided between the states according to their respective population sizes. On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists (the old patriots) advanced the New Jersey Plan, which laid down the foundation for the federal government with equal representation among the states. Following the divergence of views during the Philadelphia Convention, the participants settled on the Connecticut Compromise in which the two alternative plans were adopted. Nonetheless, the drafters were still divided on a number of issues in the original document, particularly those related to slavery and the Bill of Rights. However, the drafted Constitution was tabled in the Articles Congress, which in turn submitted it to the states for review and ratification according to the proposed constitutional method (Robertson 225).
Accordingly, a total of eleven states ratified the drafted Constitution as it was submitted by the Articles Congress while some states decided to ratify it if only some proposed Amendments including the Bill of Rights were to be effected by the new government. As a result, after eleven states had ratified the Constitution, elections were held, and the elected members formed the new government in March, 1789. On the other hand, the Articles Congress was dissolved, and the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the new Constitution accordingly. Since 1789, a total of 27 Amendments have been introduced to the original United States Constitution.
The first twelve Amendments were proposed by James Madison to the First Congress in 1789. This includes the first ten Amendments, which are collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights. The first Congress approved the Bill of Rights as a block of ten Amendments in September, 1789 (Robertson 228). The following discussions highlight specific examples from the Constitution and Supreme Court cases, which indicate the extent to which the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights define the scope and structure of the government in the American Society. More specifically, these discussions will be limited to describing, analyzing, and explaining the structure and functions of the United States government as provided for in the Constitution.
The Structure of the United States Government
As outlined in the Constitution, the structure of the United States government is based on the principle of federalism. This involves the federal government under which there is a total of 50 states, one capitol district, and a number of territories. Further, the federal government is divided into three principal branches, which include the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Moreover, the United States President is the head of government who shares powers with the Congress and the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court. The three branches of government function independently, but they can sometimes depend on each other for the smooth running of the government. For instance, the Congress defines the powers and duties of the three branches of government besides establishing different executive departments and a number of courts that function below the Supreme Court.
Most importantly, the United States is a Federal Constitutional Republic which means that the Constitution is the only supreme law of the land. Another unique feature of the United States democracy that sets it apart from other democracies in the world is that every state in the country possesses enough powers to pass a number of limited laws and make different reforms to existing laws as long as they are within their respective constitutional powers. Moreover, the country is ruled by two political parties, the democratic and republican parties (Storey 91).
On the other hand, it is essential to note that the Constitution provides structure for the formation of the United States government. In fact, the Constitution defines the relationship between the federal government and the state governments besides outlining the extent of various fundamental applications of government authority. This implies that government functions and authority cannot go beyond the limits created by the United States Constitution. Along this perspective, it is imperative to note that many constitutional scholars have looked into the primary intention of the framers of the original Constitution. Some scholars have indicated that the framers of the Constitution deliberately drafted a vague and subjective document so that it can be interpreted in such a way that it reflects the ever-changing needs of the society. On the other hand, other scholars insist that the Constitution should be upheld and strictly construed in the same manner it was originally written (Storey 62). It goes without saying that this has been a bone of contention in different spheres of the American society for many years. One of the major sources of controversy involves the authority of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution. In fact, in the early history of the Constitution, the power of judicial review was challenged in court in a variety of cases, particularly in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803) and Fletcher V. Peck, 10 U.S. 87 (1810). In the two cases, the Supreme Court indicated that the Constitution grants the Court enough powers to review and interpret the Constitution through Article III of the United States Constitution. This includes the power to review and decide on various challenges to the constitutionality of any law established by either the state or Federal governments (Storey 62).
As a result, the United States Constitution bestows the authority of interpreting the scope and applications of the Constitution on the Supreme Court of the United States. More specifically, under the jurisprudence provided in Article III, the Supreme Court of the United States has the power to review and measure any state or Federal law against the provisions of the Constitution, and if the law contradicts the letter and spirit of the Constitution, then the Court must exercise its constitutional authority by striking down the law. In so doing, the Constitution ensures that the scope and functions of the state or Federal governments are limited to activities that lie within the law of the land. Thus, it does not come as a surprise to note that the Supreme Court has overturned a number of controversial laws such as those that do not conform to the Equal Protection Clause (as in the case of Brown v. Board of Education) or the Contract Clause (as in the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward) (Storey 82). However, having considered the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution, it is equally crucial to examine the scope and effect of the Court’s authority. As stated in the Constitution, the Supreme Court’s authority in interpreting the constitutional law is binding on both the executive and legislative branches of government, on all federal courts under the Supreme Court, and all other courts whose jurisdictions lie within the states of the Union. To that effect, the United States Supreme Court is the only court known to possess the power to declare decisions advanced by the legislature as being unconstitutional. However, it is also significant to note that the Supreme Court’s Powers are limited by the principles of justiciability. Here, the Court may refrain from declaring the highest state court’s decision unconstitutional on grounds that the decision is based on independent state-law grounds. Therefore, the Court tries to avoid the constitutional question by basing its own decision on other non-constitutional matters or doctrines that surround the dispute (Storey 90).
The Scope of the United States Government
Apart from the structure of government, the United States Constitution provides for the scope of the government as far as protecting the rights of individual citizens is concerned. Under the first ten Amendments to the Constitution that were introduced after 1789, a number of pivotal individual liberties and freedoms were addressed. Other issues addressed under these Amendments include the federal relationships, slavery, election procedures, ways of financing the government, and terms of office among other things. Therefore, looking at the way the Constitution was originally conceived and written, it becomes apparent that the framers did not intend to establish an institution that will advance economic growth, but a country with full-fletched institutional structures that can check the powers of government on one hand and protect the rights and freedoms of individuals on the other (Dorn 629). In fact, looking at the manner in which the Constitution was debated and written, it is evident that the framers emphasized on individual liberty, prevention of injustices, and maintenance of social justice as the principal functions of the new government.
Moreover, the framers of the Constitution understood that by increasing personal freedom through the establishment of sound rules and protection of individual rights, the citizens of the United States will be better placed in terms of increasing their economic wealth. Therefore, the Constitution offers the citizens the opportunity to gather wealth and pursue happiness by defining the legitimate functions of the government, which include protecting persons and their properties (Dorn 630).
The United States is a federal constitutional republic with three distinct branches under which there are about 50 states and a number of US territories. As noted in the foregoing discussions, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are crucial to this country to the extent that they define the powers and responsibilities of the three branches of the federal government and the state governments. Moreover, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights define the basic individual liberties and freedoms besides aligning them with the legitimate functions of the government, which involve protecting persons and their properties. In line with the thesis of this paper, it is apparent from the discussions that the Constitution and Bill of Rights have provided structure for the establishment of a democratic government in which the powers of the government are under check, and the basic rights and freedoms of individual citizens are protected.
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