During the Grand Jury examination of the August 8, 2014 shooting of 6’4” eighteen year old Michael Brown by the 6’4” police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri the question was asked by one of the jurors as to which predominated, the state laws or the Federal laws. The Assistant District Attorney never really answered that question for the Ferguson Grand Jury. The Constitution gives that power to the Federal Government and the issue was ultimately resolved by the Civil War which solidly placed power in the hands of the Central Government of all the states.
The basic document for the organization of the Federal Government is the Constitution of the United States which defines all aspects of our government. Initially, during and directly after the American Revolution, this country was ruled by the Articles of Confederation of the 13 states with most of the power resting within the governments of each of the 13 states. The central government was run by a Congress of the States and had very little direct power. Any measure that it passed had to be agreed upon by all the states involved. It had to no power to tax and had to rely on the states for anything it needed. To fill its monetary needs it had request funds from the states which would simply and individually send money or not.
For these and other reasons this system of government did not work well. A meeting was called to have elected representatives come to Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, from May 25 until September 17. Its purpose was to amend the Articles of Confederation. This assembly occurred nine years after the start of the new nation. Not all the states sent representatives and not all the representatives stayed the full hot summer to work upon the reform.
George Washington, probably the most trusted man in the new nation, was elected chairman. They met during a very hot Philadelphia summer and had to be done when the meeting place would again be used by the state legislature. It was early determined to keep no record of the meetings and to keep the results secret until they were done.
They very early concluded that the Articles of Confederation were completely inadequate and could not be reformed to form a proper government. They determined that they had to start from scratch and develop a totally new government with the power to run the new nation. What emerged at the end of the summer was the United States Constitution. It required 9 of the 13 states to vote approval for the document to come into being. Not all the states initially voted to join.
Interestingly the one issue never resolved at this time was where did the ultimate power rest, with the states or with the new Federal Government? That issue was not resolved until the end of the Civil War. The power rests with the Federal Government.
Virtually everyone has heard of the Constitution but many people don’t quite know what is contains or how it works. They have not read it or remember what they learned in school about it. This lack of knowledge has caused all sorts of confusion and, at times, a lack of voting.
The Constitution begins with a statement of its purpose: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”. This statement is highly important; it explains the reason for the government.
The document itself contained seven articles. The first establishes the government’s legislative powers, establishing a bicameral law making body, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House was to be elected directly by the People for a period of two years while the Senate was to be elected for a six year term at the rate of 1/3d of the Senate reelected every two years by the state legislatures. The House represented the people directly and the Senate represented the States. The minimum age for the House was 25 and the Senate, 30. House representatives were apportioned by population with each state having a minimum of at least one, while each state had two Senators. The Vice President headed the Senate with no vote except in cases of a tie with the second in command being the President pro tempore, the leader of the majority party. The House had to sole power of impeachment while the Senate served as the jury in such cases. All tax bills were to originate in the House of Representatives allowing the people to indirectly tax themselves.
Every bill after being passed in both Houses of Congress had to be signed by the President in order to become law. The President can sign the bill, veto the bill, or ignore it. After ten days an unsigned bill automatically becomes law.
Article 1 also enumerates the powers of Congress: lay and collect taxes, regulate commerce, coin money, declare war, raise and support a military, and establish the primacy of the Federal Government over the states.
It is important to keep in mind that only Congress can pass laws. The President can issue executive orders but generally they last only during his tenure in office. Another president can cancel them by a stroke of the pen.
Article 2 deals with the executive power, establishing a President and Vice-President for a four year period. The means of election is stated, requiring that the individual be a natural born citizen, at least 35 years of age. The people vote for electors whose total number equals that of all the Senators and members of the House of Representatives. Upon the removal of the President by death or for any other reason the Vice-President succeeds him.
The specific oath of office is stated. He is commander and chief of the military and can grant pardons. His appointments and treaties require the advice and consent of the Senate. He is to give Congress the State of the Union information and recommendations from time to time. The President can be removed from office on Impeachment for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
From what has been stated the overall powers of the President have been specifically defined over the years by the way the men who have held that position have acted.
Article 3 deals with the judicial power of the United States. It requires a Supreme Court and such other Federal Courts that Congress establishes. It sets the judges tenure as lifetime and the Constitution as the basis for all court decisions. The document defines the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the specifics and structure of the Supreme Court and the entire court system is left to be defined by Congress.
Article 4 deals with citizens and state’s rights throughout the nation and with new states coming into the Union.
Article Five has to do with amending the Constitution.
Article Six Pertains to business contracts, the supremacy of Federal law over state law, and having all elected and judicial officials taking an oath to support the Constitution.
Article Seven deals with ratification of the Constitution. It required nine states to ratify the Constitution for it to come into being.
While the process of ratification was going on some of the states complained that there was no Bill of Rights within the document. The founders promised to add one after the Constitution was ratified.
James Madison wrote twelve Amendments to the Constitution. Following Article Five, it required a 2/3d vote for the Amendment to become part of the Constitution. Twelve states had ratified the Constitution. Nine states approved ten of Madison’s twelve Amendments and they became the first ten Amendments to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
Seventeen additional Amendments have been added to the Constitution since its inception making the total present number 27.
In 1865 the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
In 1868 the 14th Amendment was passed. It extended civil rights making all people equal.
In 1870 the 15th Amendment specifically extended Black suffrage.
In 1913 the 16th Amendment legalized the income tax.
In 1913 the 17th Amendment authorized the direct election of Senators by the people.
In 1913 the 18th Amendment authorized the prohibition of liquor and the 21 Amendment in 1933 repealed prohibition.
In 1919 the 19th Amendment gave women the vote throughout the United States.
In 1951 the 22nd Amendment limited future Presidents to two terms.
In 1965 the 24th Amendment made poll taxes illegal for anyone to vote.
In 1971 the 26th Amendment moved initial voting from 21 years of age to 18.
The Constitution of the United States is, with some exceptions, a general document. The interpretation of what it means has shifted over the years as the country has gone from a rural nation with some cities to an industrial one with some agriculture. It is a flexible document whose interpretation has been largely defined by the way it was run and by the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, which has the final say upon what it means. And what it means has changed over the years.
By being flexible the Constitution remains as valid today as it did in 1789 when it was first put into existence.
This document was originally set up with a system of checks and balances. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives serve as a check upon each other since both have to pass the exact same bill in order for it to become law. The President by signing or vetoing the bill serves as a check upon the Congress. The President is essentially an administrator and can only suggest that certain bills be passed by Congress. The Supreme Court has, among other things, the power of judicial review which was created by its third chief justice, John Marshall, in the case of Marboro v. Madison and has functioned ever since. Also the Supreme Court can make the final decision about what a law or any part of a law means.
In addition it is important to remember that only Congress can make and pass a law. The President is the Chief Administrator in the government. He can issue an Executive Order but he cannot make laws only Congress or the People can do that. Congress by passing a law and the People through Amending the Constitution.