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



Topic Overview Unit 2

The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?

Learning Objectives

After completing this session, you will be able to:

  • Describe the contrasting views of the Constitution as timeless and perfect and the belief that it is a living document to be reinterpreted by each generation.

  • Describe the procedures for amending the Constitution.

  • Explain how the Constitution limits power in our governmental system.

  • Describe how the framers resolved the problem of structuring government authority within the national government itself.

Unit 2 covers basic questions regarding the role of the Constitution in American society. This session illustrates the conflicting views of the document and raises the fundamental issue of how we should treat it. A key to understanding American society is the contradictory approaches to the Constitution that we hold. Understanding these views creates a greater appreciation for the role of the Constitution in modern life.

The U.S. Constitution was forged in a time of great political turmoil in America. States were quarreling under our nation's first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which went into effect in 1781. The Articles reserved most powers for the states by creating a weak national legislature and not providing for a national executive or court system. States often disregarded laws passed by the legislature, including laws governing taxes and trade between the states, because there was no way to enforce the laws or adjudicate disputes between the states. Shay's Rebellion and other violent mob actions convinced prominent leaders, including Washington, Madison, and Adams, of the need to create a stronger national government with the ability to enforce its decisions over state resistance.

When the delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, they soon voted to discard the Articles altogether in favor of a new charter of government. Although there was agreement over the need for a new constitution, delegates at the Philadelphia Convention disagreed over the role the new constitution should play in American society. James Madison, for instance, thought that the key to effective government was for the people to develop a strong emotional attachment to its basic law-the Constitution. To that end, he urged the use of patriotic events to build veneration for the document. Thomas Jefferson, in contrast, disdained such "sanctimonious reverence," favoring instead frequent and radical changes in the constitutional system. Americans have accepted both sides of the Madison-Jefferson debate. While they treat the Constitution as "timeless and perfect," they have often considered it a living document to be reinterpreted by each generation.

Despite including the phrase "We the People" at the beginning of the Constitution, the framers questioned the ability of the people to rule themselves, and thus rejected direct democracy as a form of government. Instead, they created a republic, where decisions are made and filtered through elected or appointed officials who are ultimately accountable to the people. Madison in particular feared the power of self-serving factions, or organized interests (both majority and minority) that put their interests above the interest of the community as a whole. Because the causes of factions are basic to human nature, and thus eliminating them is impossible, government can only control their effects.

In addition to adopting a republic over a direct democracy, the framers sought to curb the self-serving factions by instituting additional safeguards including separation of powers and checks and balances. The Constitution establishes three branches of government-legislative, executive, and judicial-that exercise separate (but sometimes overlapping) powers. The legislature, which is Congress, makes all laws, while the executive (the president) must execute the laws. The Supreme Court, and lower courts created by Congress, interpret the laws.

The principle of checks and balances gives each branch of government the capability to counterbalance the authority of the other branches. In practice this makes the branches interdependent. For example, while Congress makes the laws, the president must sign or veto those laws. In the case of a veto, Congress can try to override it with a two-thirds vote in both houses. Through its appropriations powers, also known as "power of the purse," Congress can check the president and the executive branch by refusing to fund presidential programs or initiatives, and by exercising oversight of executive agencies. Supreme Court and lower federal judges can be impeached and removed by Congress, while the president and the Senate are responsible for judicial appointments and confirmation.

Through the Constitution, the framers sought to create a foundation of government that would provide a blueprint for generations to come. But they also realized that the Constitution might need modification from time to time to meet new challenges and changing societal values. The Constitution itself stipulates how the changes can be made. Amendments can be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress or by a national convention called by Congress at the request of two-thirds of the states. Once passed, amendments must be ratified by either three-fourths of the state legislatures, or by ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states.


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