Strong vs. Weak Federal Government
Two competing forces in the early United States were Federalists and Antifederalists.
Federalists favored a strong national government. Anti-federalists favored a weaker national government and stronger state governments.
Opponents of a strong federal government argued that states should protect their independence and refuse to cede too much power to the national government. Supporters of a stronger central government recognized that a weak federal government could not effectively lead the country.
Opponents of a strong centralized government typically came from less populated farming states. Supporters of a strong centralized govern typically came from urban, mercantile states. This conflict would continue for years.
Proportional vs. Equal Representation
Americans also debated how many representatives each state should send to Congress. Should each state send the same number of representatives or should larger states send more representatives?
Smaller states favored equal representation because they were concerned that states with larger populations would dominate the national legislature and select policies that favored themselves at the expense of less populated states. Larger states opposed equal representation because they were concerned that states with smaller populations would have power disproportionate to their size. They argued that representation should be based on each state’s population.
Infuse new strength and spirit in the state governments . . .
Infuse new strength and spirit into the state governments; for, when the component parts are strong, it will give energy to the government, although it be otherwise weak. William Grayson
Key Compromises and the Constitution
Before the Constitution could come into effect, nine of the 13 states would have to ratify it. But how could the Constitution address the concerns of those who favored and those who opposed a strong federal government? How many representatives should each state send to the legislature?
The framers of the Constitution agreed on several compromises including:
- Separation of Powers & Checks and Balances
- A bicameral Congress
Federalism means that power is divided between a national government and state or provincial governments. The framers of the Constitution established a system of federalism in which the Constitution assigns some powers to the national government but reserves other powers for the states (reservation of powers).
Certain federal powers are exclusive, meaning they belong only to the federal government. Among other things, the Constitution empowers Congress with the exclusive power to regulate trade between the states and to declare war.
Shared (or concurrent) powers means power that belongs to both the state and federal governments. For example, both state and federal governments can tax and borrow money.
The role of the federal government has expanded, especially since the Great Depression. Some Americans continue to oppose large federal government programs as inconsistent with the letter or spirit of the Constitution. Others believe the federal government should play an active role in providing healthcare, stimulating economic progress, repairing infrastructure, promoting scientific research, etc.
Separation of Powers
The first three Articles of the Constitution establish the three branches of the federal government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
To each branch, the Constitution assigns certain powers. No branch of government may exceed the powers granted to it by the Constitution. By assigning powers to each branch, the Constitution limits the powers of the federal government and also tries to prevent any branch from becoming too powerful.
Below is a short video discussing the separation of powers:
Organizing the Federal Government
Article I establishes the legislative branch, Congress.
Article II creates the executive branch, the President.
Article III creates the judicial branch, the Supreme Court of the United States and the federal courts.
Keep in mind that both the legislative and executive branches also include government agencies.
Checks and Balances
The Constitution not only assigns different powers to each branch, but also enables each branch to limit the power of the other branches.
For example, Congress can pass a law but the President must sign the law before it goes into effect. By a 2/3 majority of both houses, Congress can override the President’s veto. An implied power of the judicial branch is to rule that a law or action of the government is unconstitutional.
In framing a government, which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty is this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
Play the checks and balances game:
State Representation in the Bicameral Congress
One of the most difficult conflicts the Constitution addressed was how many representatives each state should send to Congress. The framers of the Constitution agreed on a “Great Compromise,” which established a bicameral legislature, meaning a Congress comprised of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state has two Senators but representation in the House of Representatives is based on population. This structure assures smaller states that they will have the same number of Senators as larger states but states with larger populations will send more representatives to the House.
Before a bill can become a law, it must pass both houses of Congress. For example, if a bill passes in the House of Representatives, the bill is not yet law. The Senate will need to pass the same version of the bill before Congress may send the bill to the President for his signature.
Below is a short video discussing the bicameral Congress: