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2. The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible, Readings
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources





Readings Unit 2

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 2 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 2 Readings, The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible

  • Introduction—The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “History of the Federal Constitution”

  • The Declaration of Independence (Jefferson’s Draft)

  • The United States Constitution and the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

  • Federalist Papers: “Federalist No. 51”


  1. What two opposing tendencies arose in the United States after the revolution, according to Tocqueville?

  2. What truth did Jefferson assert as self-evident?

  3. Who ordained and established the United States Constitution?

  4. Fully explain what “Federalist No. 51” says is “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department.”

Introduction—The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?

Imagining that government should be a creature of the law and obedient to law was one of the significant intellectual accomplishments of the British colonists in North America; this accomplishment went a long way toward turning them into Americans. The development of a sophisticated understanding of American democracy, politics, and citizenship requires attention to the importance of the Constitution, the law superior to the government, as a template for debate within the United States—virtually all political issues in America resound with constitutional import. “In America,” wrote Tocqueville, “the Constitution may therefore vary; but as long as it exists, it is the origin of all authority, and the sole vehicle of the predominating force.”

The Constitution was widely perceived—eventually—as a protection against government expansion (though by some it was perceived as a tool for government expansion) and was the product of American disagreement with the British conception of limited government. Britain greatly angered the British citizens in America when Parliament taxed them to help fund the French and Indian War. They responded, as all American school children know, with the slogan, “No Taxation Without Representation.” When Parliament refused to relent on what appeared to the British in Britain to be a fair sharing of the burden and expense of protecting the colonists during the war, the British colonials eventually decided to secede. The colonists argued that it was illegal for Parliament to tax them—that is, they argued that it was a violation of the British Constitution. It was unconstitutional, they said, for Britain to tax them since they had no representation in the British Parliament. For the British, the Parliament was an essential part of the Constitution, so that it made no sense to imagine that the Constitution could violate the Constitution. Around this struggle the colonists began to conceive of a government created and limited by law, especially by a written law. The belief that the government itself is created by law means that government is ostensibly limited and controlled by law. It also means that many political issues in the United States become constitutional issues in which Americans look to the Constitution for answers and directions.

Understanding the life of the Constitution and of conceptions of constitutionalism requires some fairly common readings: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and “Federalist No. 51.” The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are quite different documents, but they function as “founding” texts for the American Revolution and government. The Federalist Papers, for their part, explained parts of the Constitution as the supporters of the text wanted them explained, and have become very important to the contemporary debates over what the Constitution meant and means.

To understand what the framers were trying to accomplish, one can do worse than to examine the institutional arrangement the Constitution attempted to replace. Furthermore, the voices of critics should be given their due. Contemporary readers of the Anti-Federalists are often surprised to find early versions of complaints they themselves have made about the government; particularly that it is too powerful.


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