The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?
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
- 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.