Government: Overview

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Government: Overview

Government is a set of institutions with the legitimate right to use coercion within a given territory, and Americans understood the need for effective government from the beginning. Americans relied on government to keep the peace, defend the land, nurture prosperity, regulate the careless, and administer justice. The British Crown gave its American colonists considerable latitude to govern themselves. Colonial legislatures laid down a diverse mixture of taxes, imposed an assortment of rules on behavior, and defended their citizens against a wide array of foes. Massachusetts began to steer its economic development in ways that mimicked mercantilism in Britain itself.

republicanism and state governments

When America's separatists totally dissolved their political connection with the British government in 1776, they were forced to remake their governments. Whig ideas dominated their political thought. Whigs in Britain and America believed that the British government had departed from its true principles and become dominated by a corrupt court in London. Americans based their Revolution on the principle of John Locke (1632–1704) that legitimate government results from a social contract among people seeking authoritative protection of the right to life and liberty. In the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere, rebel leaders listed the British government's violations of this principle to justify political independence. They set out to reconstitute their governments according to republican ideals. Republican principles stipulated, first, that public policymakers should be the agents of the people. Second, republicanism demanded the separation of government powers to prevent the possibility of a single leader, such as a king, making laws, enforcing them, interpreting them, and punishing those who disagreed.

Fueled by passionate republicanism and resentment against the crown, each colony reinvented itself as an independent, self-governing republic. Each of these self-proclaimed states drew on written charters for their authority. Most of them crafted new constitutions for the purpose. Each state assumed the power to legislate tariffs, currency systems, property regulations, and rules concerning debts. State governments took control of millions of acres of lands formerly in British hands. The new American states grew adept at taxation, the foundation power of European nation-states. While individual states found it challenging to exercise control over the territory they governed, and many had to deal with British invasion and occupation during the Revolution, each was steadily consolidating power in the 1780s.

Born of Revolutionary fervor and facing the practical necessity of establishing their legitimacy, these new governments enthusiastically implemented republican ideals. They extended the voting franchise so that from 60 to 70 percent of adult white males in the United States had the right to vote by 1790. The states placed the preponderance of power in the hands of the popularly elected legislators. Each of the new governments also leashed its legislators to the voters with short terms of office, often adding term limits. Pennsylvania's constitution of 1776 embodied Revolutionary republicanism in its purest form, vesting "supreme legislative power" in a unicameral house of representatives whose members faced annual elections and a term limit of four years. The new state governments experimented with a variety of schemes to separate powers, particularly to limit executive power. Ten states created bicameral legislatures, where an upper chamber (typically called a "senate" or "council") exercised some degree of influence over legislation from the lower house. To shield the courts and the legislature from executive manipulation, the state constitutions limited the power of the state executive (termed either a "governor" or "president"). Only four states allowed the governor substantial power to appoint public officials, and only three provided for an executive veto.

the u.s. constitution

By the mid-1780s, problems arising from state governance were building an increasingly broad constituency for fundamental reform of the national government. Without the unifying fact of British governance or the unifying spirit of Revolutionary idealism, the states' diverse cultures, religious traditions, political dynamics, and economic interests began to send them on conflicting paths of political development. The United States faced a dilemma of cooperation: the popularly elected state legislatures had strong incentives to resist imposing any sacrifice on their constituents, and each could gain more in the short term by acting independently than by cooperating to advance the long-term interests of the nation as a whole. Economic depression in the 1780s only intensified pressures on state legislatures to use their authority to protect the mass of their voting constituents, even at the expense of Americans elsewhere. Some state governments revived the paper money emissions used by their colonial predecessors, while others suspended debtors' payments. Massachusetts pursued a more conservative policy toward debts and money, but that course sparked the intense resentment that contributed to Shays's Rebellion (1786–1787). Meanwhile, states became bolder in using their power to slap fees on imports and exports from other countries or states. The thirteen states were pursuing different economic policies customized to their diverse economic and political interests, threatening economic elites and imperiling national commercial, currency, and other policies that some political elites desired.

The Confederation government. These circumstances prompted republican nationalists like James Madison to seek additional powers for the national government to make it more capable of pursuing the nation's interests. The Continental Congress assumed some of the key functions of national sovereignty in the 1770s, particularly overseeing the conduct of the Revolutionary War. This jerry-built national government, however, had no constitutional authority until the states completed ratification of written Articles of Confederation in 1781. The Articles provided little more than a whisper of sovereign power to the central government. In the Confederation Congress each state, whether large or small, cast a single vote. Congress could not exercise any exclusive power over the nation's interior, any state's economic assets, or any state commercial powers. Congress had no taxing powers, but instead depended on the states to contribute national revenues according to a schedule of requisitions; not surprisingly, the states balked at filling these requisitions, causing overwhelming fiscal problems for the Confederation government. Even when the cumbersome national policy process produced a decision, the Articles made the policy hard to implement because there existed few national administrators and no national judges. By 1786, growing anxiety had created an opportunity for pathbreaking government reform.

Madison and national powers. Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other nationalists had tried but failed to increase specific national powers incrementally in the 1780s. In 1786 they seized on the climate of opinion to engineer, first, a commercial convention at Annapolis, Maryland, and in turn the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to deliberate reforms more comprehensively. Drawing on an extensive study of past and present governments, Madison proposed a national government with broad powers, including the authority to tax, to regulate both interstate and intrastate commerce, and to veto state laws at will. Madison thought that the national government should "have powers far beyond those exercised by the British Parliament when the States were part of the British Empire." This expanded national authority would be lodged in a bicameral legislature, with a lower house elected directly by the people, an upper chamber selected by the lower house, and seats in both chambers apportioned on the basis of population. The two legislative houses would select the executive and the courts. Madison believed this process of "successive filtrations" would ensure that a national government rooted in popular sovereignty also would have the capacity to govern in the nation's interests.

Large versus small states. Because broad republican principles did not specify precisely how powers should be separated, checked, and balanced, the Constitutional Convention became a protracted battle between the smaller states' demands for rules protecting their advantages and the larger states' desire for a government effective enough to promote their interests. Madison's scheme, presented as the Virginia Plan at the start of the Convention, posed a serious threat to the interests of smaller states. Delegates from these states had supported a few specific additions to national power, such as the regulation of interstate commerce. But these delegates viewed the equality of state representation in the Continental Congress as a compensation for their economic disadvantages relative to better-endowed, more populous neighbors. Large states would gain power if legislative representation were apportioned by size of population. The small states' alternative plan, the New Jersey Plan, proposed a limited set of added national powers, vested authority in the existing Continental Congress (thus protecting their equal weight in policymaking), and added a national executive and judiciary.

The battles between these interests shaped the Convention's decisions from start to finish. A balance of power was struck between the House of Representatives, based on representation proportioned to population, and the Senate, based on equal state representation. The executive was chosen by an electoral college invented to separate presidential selection from Congress and to give the smaller states some additional weight in choosing the executive. Slavery complicated both debates. The southern states successfully demanded that their slaves be counted for both representation and the election of the president. Indeed, during one crucial debate James Madison argued that the real difference between the states was not their size, but between the states where slavery was the basis of the economy and those where it was not. Judges and administrators would be chosen by the president with the Senate's consent.

Division of powers. In defiance of the conventional wisdom among legal authorities such as Sir William Blackstone, sovereignty was divided and parceled out to both the national and state governments. The Constitution enumerated national powers, left substantial policy authority to the states, and placed the burden of proof on advocates of future extensions of national authority. The national government would exercise the powers of a sovereign nation, such as war, diplomacy, coinage, and regulation of international trade. The states would continue to do most of the governing of everyday life in America, such as the regulation of capital, land, and labor, including slave labor. The Constitution left ambiguous the boundaries between state and national power and between the powers of the national policymaking institutions.

the constitution's consequences

No other country had deliberately put its governmental contract in writing, and no other had sought to establish the legitimacy of its fundamental law through special, temporary ratifying conventions. Disarmingly styling themselves "Federalists," Madison, Hamilton and other proponents of the Constitution endeavored to persuade citizens that the proposed government was logical and coherent. "Anti-Federalist" opponents asked whether government in such a vast area as the United States could remain republican and also questioned the proposed powers of the national government, as well as specific institutional arrangements. Immediately after a sufficient number of states approved the plan in 1788, the unifying power of the Constitution and popular ratification became apparent. In spite of intense conflicts over its ratification, nearly all the Constitution's opponents quickly acquiesced when the new national government started up in the spring of 1789. The Constitution became the most fundamental source of public authority in the United States. It also structured the most important battlefields of American politics.

Much of the subsequent history of the government of the early American Republic involved struggles to bring the Constitution to life and to define its ambiguous boundaries. True to his word, Madison, as floor leader in the first House of Representatives, successfully led the fight for a set of constitutional amendments establishing a bill of rights. President George Washington's steady leadership and Treasury Secretary Hamilton's ambitions for an active national economic policy established the independent vigor of the executive branch. Hamilton's program, in turn, animated alliances of officeholders across the nation. One aligned with Hamilton and became the Federalist Party, and another, led by Madison and Thomas Jefferson in opposition to Hamilton, became the Democratic Republican Party. The peaceful transition of power to Jefferson after the bitter presidential election of 1800 proved the new government's durability.

From 1801 until Andrew Jackson's presidential inaugural in 1829, these Democratic Republicans dominated the development of American government. Rather than alter the Constitution fundamentally, political leaders experimented with institutional powers and boundaries. President Jefferson actively directed Congress, but it grew more independent under Presidents Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams. Under the strong leadership of Speaker Henry Clay from 1811 to 1825, the House of Representatives developed twenty permanent committees and more actively investigated executive branch activities. Jefferson's electoral triumph in 1800 helped push the Federalist chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, to assert its power of judicial review, strengthening its ability to check and channel other parts of government. In this period, national expenditures grew, the national military was reorganized, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers became important in civil and military construction, and post offices grew exponentially. But presidents refused to commit the national government to a broad national program of internal improvements. This task, like most other tasks of internal governance, fell to state and local governments. Many of them extended suffrage. State and local taxation, regulation, and economic development continued to expand. State projects like New York's Erie Canal (1825) set the pace for the development of public infrastructure.

The American revolution in government set new precedents for the construction of governments and of politics. It established the model of a written constitution ratified indirectly by popular approval. As implemented, it established formally separated national powers, judicial review, and a form of federalism in which states and the national government shared sovereignty. It profoundly shaped American politics by creating new arenas for political combat and making the Constitution the foundation for legitimizing political positions. Its ambiguities displaced many substantive conflicts into battles over the definition of institutional powers. In the case of slavery, the struggle to resolve ambiguities about government put America on the path to civil war.

See alsoAnnapolis Convention; Anti-Federalists; Articles of Confederation; Constitution, Ratification of; Constitutional Convention; Constitutionalism; Democratic Republicans; Federalist Party; Hamilton's Economic Plan; Judicial Review; Madison, James; Shays's Rebellion .


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David Brian Robertson

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Government: Overview

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