The Founders, the Articles of Confederation and their Fears of the Constitution

By Bill Moore

Everyone in school was taught about the Articles of Confederation.  We were taught how they were written to govern the 13 colonies after they won their independence from Great Britain.  It was explained that the Articles were ineffective and were actually thrown out in favor of our Constitution. Keep in mind that they did not decide to this quickly.  In fact there were 10 Presidents officially titled  “Presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled“.  In fact they had no power and their positions were mostly ceremonial though the President occasionally signed documents  on behalf of Congress. Started in 1781, the Articles of Confederation (AOC) were finally replaced by the Constitution in 1789.

We all know that they had just won independence from a tyrannical government and feared concentration of similar power in the hands of a central government or one man such as a King. They had experienced the effects of an absolute concentrated power and knew that it could be a life-threatening experience.  Because of this, the AOC were written to keep power at the state or colonial level.  When writing and ratifying the Constitution, the Founders and later the State Legislatures were careful to limit the power of a central government.  Let us look at some of the issues addressed by the Constitution in order to keep  from having an over powering central government.

Again in fear of too much power centralized in any one person or part of government, the Founders created 3 equal branches of government to balance that power.  In order to again create some sort of organized chaos, they had each branch achieve their positions differently.  The Supreme Court is appointed for life, while the Congress and the President are elected.   As the Constitution was originally designed, Senators, were not elected but appointed by each individual State legislature.  In addition   those elected positions did not have the same terms of office.  Again the brilliance of the Founders had the  President elected for four years, the Senate appointed for 6 years and the House Of Representatives elected for 2 year terms.  The idea was to keep new blood entering the Government in part to keep it off balance.  Remember, the Founders saw Congress as part time and the President as the care-taker while Congress was not in session.

The Founders also put in place a system of “Checks and Balances”(C&B) to ensure that no one branch could overstep its powers.  The Court was controlled by the fact that The President nominates its members but the Senate must approve the nominations.  The Congress passes all laws but the President can veto what he considers a bad law.  To control Presidential vetoes the Congress was/is  given the power to override a veto with a 2/3’s majority.  Over Congress, the Supreme Court has the power to declare a law “unconstitutional”.  In a similar manner, the Court can declare Presidential acts to be also “Unconstitutional.  Part of the C&B included that all spending must start in the House and be approved by the Senate and signed into law by the President.  In addition, they put into place the ability of the Congress to Impeach a President or a member of the Courts for specific acts.  Again an attempt to limit abuse of power.

In another attempt to limit Federal abuse of power, they specifically outlined the enumerated powers of the Federal Government and retained all else to the States and the people.  With all that said where are we as a people in this “Constitutional Republic”?

We currently live in a country where the Federal Government continues to absorb as much power as possible.  As early as Jefferson and Hamilton the debate over enumerated powers was raging.  Though the debate was over a national bank the principle was the same.  Jefferson argued that the Constitution did not enumerate as a power the ability of the Congress to establish a National Bank.  Hamilton argued that the Constitution did not forbid it.  The basic question was and is “Does the Constitution limit what you can do or what you cannot do?”  Today we have evolved to the point that the Constitution allows the Feds to do anything not listed in the Constitution.  Thus we have government involved in health care and many other social issues that should have been reserved to the States.

We also have the Checks and Balances system severely limited.  We have a Court that now makes laws rather than interpreting them.  An Executive Branch rules through Executive Order rather than passed laws.  The Congress is basically paralyzed and has given most of its power to the bureaucracy within the Executive Branch, consisting of unelected officials not accountable to anyone.  Spending is out of control. In 1913 the 17th Amendment was passed allowing for direct election of Senators.  This further reduced the power of the states since they no longer appointed Senators.

Though the Founders saw government service as a part time position, today we have Career Politicians that deliver enough “Pork” to just about guarantee re-election. They draw voting lines that ensure their reelection.

The Constitution is seen by Politicians as a dated document that hinders what they choose to do. They often ignore it and are rarely called for those actions.  We have reached a point where the Constitution is not relevant to the establishment class in power in Washington.  It is no coincidence that 6 of the richest counties surround Washington.

What can we do about it?  We can start by realizing that the Constitution was written for us- the people.  We can stop expecting politicians to do the right thing. They have no reason to as it would limit their power and/or influence. The Constitution belongs to the American People. It is up to us to enforce it.  We do that by carving out time in our busy schedules to pay attention to what is going on. We must find and support candidates for office.  We must hold elected officials accountable.  We must attend town meetings, write them expressing our pleasure or displeasure.  We must withhold support both financially and by not volunteering at the Party level until we get parties and candidates responsive to our wants and needs.