Article I, Section 1 : All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives
The Constitution of the United States established three separate branches of the federal government, namely the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch. Superficially, therefore, one might think that it was a matter of chance as to the order in which each branch would be outlined and defined in this founding document. Such thinking, however, would be incorrect. The Founding Fathers did not write the Constitution without careful reference to the prior scholarship of Great Men, and without reference to the history of all prior republican forms of government. James Madison of Virginia, in particular, drawing heavily upon materials sent to him from Paris by Thomas Jefferson, made certain that the Constitution evolved from the past experience of all the republics that had failed, and would not be written out (as would later be the case with the disastrous French constitution) as an act of constructivist rationalism.
John Locke’s seminal book, Two Treatises of Government – the book that provided the intellectual justification for England’s Glorious Revolution of 1689 – provides the rationale for placing the legislative branch of government at the very beginning of the Constitution: ‘The great end of Men’s entering into Society, being the enjoyment of their Properties in Peace and Safety, and the great instrument and means of that being the Laws establish’d in that Society; the first and fundamental positive Law, which is to govern the Legislative it self, is the establishing of the Legislative Power;…This Legislative is not only the supream power of the Commonwealth, but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the Community have once placed it; nor can any Edict of any Body else, in what Form soever conceived, or by what Power soever backed have the force and obligation of a Law, which has not its Sanction from that Legislative, which the publick has chosen and appointed.’ (Locke, II, para. 134)
The Founding Fathers wisely embraced Locke’s argument establishing the legislature as the central pivot of any social contract through which individuals would consent to place their lives, liberties and properties under the protection of a civil or political society. It is no accident that Article I of the United States Constitution deals first with the legislature. Although commentators frequently describe the three branches of government as ‘separate but equal’, the Constitution is silent on that issue. Although the Founders designed the three branches to be inter-connected, each branch checking the power of the others, they surely relied on Locke’s Second Treatise in recognizing the legislative branch as the fulcrum of the social contract.
The decision to separate the three branches, as defined in Articles I-III, by no means was set in stone when the Convention first assembled in Philadelphia. James Madison, in particular, was deeply impressed by the 1765 Commentaries of William Blackstone, who favored a single unified branch system: ‘It is highly necessary for preserving the balance of the constitution, that the executive power should be a branch, though not the whole, of the legislature. The total union of them, we have seen, would be productive of tyranny; the total disjunction of them for the present, would in the end produce the same effects, by causing that union, against which it seems to provide. The legislature would soon become tyrannical, by making continual encroachments, and gradually assuming to itself the rights of the executive power.’ (Blackstone, Commentaries, 1, 149)
Following up on this argument, James Madison while awaiting the arrival of other delegates, etched out a Virginia Plan that envisaged one branch only – the legislative branch. This branch would be responsible for appointing the executive and the judiciary, although these legislative agents jointly would be empowered to veto legislative decisions under certain circumstances. However, even such vetoes would be subject to legislative override by some unspecified super-majority.
According to the Virginia Plan, there were to be two chambers of the legislature (a bicameral legislature). Each state would be represented in each chamber in proportion either to its financial contributions or to its number of free inhabitants. The small states perceived such an arrangement to constitute an inordinate potential threat to their liberties by some effective coalition of the more populous states. In the Connecticut Compromise of June 29, 1787, the delegates abandoned the Virginia Plan in favor of a bicameral legislature in which the lower chamber (The House) would be based on state populations and the upper chamber (the Senate) would have equal representation. In reaction to this Compromise, James Madison etched out an ultimately successful case for separating the three branches of government as added checks and balances against the greatly-feared forces of faction.
The question whether the legislature should be composed of a single chamber (unicameral) or two chambers (bicameral) was far from fully resolved at the outset of the Convention. When George Mason proclaimed to the gathered delegates that ‘the mind of the people of America’ was ‘well settled’ in its attachment to the principle of having a legislature with more than one branch, he was not truly asserting that the matter was beyond contention. True, eleven of the thirteen states enjoyed bicameral legislatures. However, the Continental Congress consisted of but a single chamber and Pennsylvania, host to the Convention (and the home of the First American, Benjamin Franklin), operated with a unicameral legislature.
Ironically, the major forces in favor of bicameralism at the Convention were the example provided by Britain on the one side and the colonial experiences of the People on the other. On the one side – and despite the War of Revolution – there lingered a long-standing admiration for the British constitution, at least in its mythic, uncorrupted, form. From this perspective, the vision of a truly balanced legislature, government, and society gave special authority to the British model. On the other side, most of the colonies had already developed an upper legislative chamber out of their governors’ councils, which typically represented the concentrated power of great landlords and wealthy merchants.
For persons of property, as all the delegates to the Convention assuredly were, an upper chamber that might check the predations both of a covetous popular assembly and of an aggrandizing executive was especially attractive. For the populist-minded, the check provided by the upper chamber on executive powers was also not without its attractions. Thus, the case for bicameralism could be argued both from a quasi-aristocratic and from a profoundly-republican point of view. Thus it came to pass that discussion of a second upper chamber presumed that its’ membership would be smaller, that members would hold longer terms of office, and that members would be more select, than in the case of the lower chamber.
The lower chamber (the House of Representatives) thus came to be viewed as an embodiment of the popular will, an assembly of representatives who would come close to being reflexes of the people. Such a body was widely viewed as a necessary foundation of popular government based upon consent. Standing alone, however, the reflexes of such a body might become as passionate, tyrannical and arbitrary as those of the people that it represented. An upper chamber (the Senate), capable of checking the foolish or irrational impulses of the population at large, could be viewed as an essential safeguard to the lives, liberties and properties of those who otherwise might be exposed to the untrammeled excesses of the popular will. The later descent of the French Revolution – with its over-simplified constitutional settlement – into tyranny, bloodshed, and ultimately into the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, would amply justify these reservations advanced so serendipitously in 1787 by delegates to the Philadelphia Convention.
Eventually, the grand design fell into place in Philadelphia and, following a great national debate, was ratified into a magnificent social contract. Article I, Section 1 of the United States Constitution merely sets the stage. The full play unfolds in the remainder of this most precious of all constitutional documents.
Charles K. Rowley, Ph.D. is Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. He is author of Liberty and the State (The Locke Institute 1993) co-author (with Nathanael Smith) of Economic Contractions in the United States: A Failure of Government (The Locke Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs 2009) and the author of Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste (The Locke Institute 2010). For further details see www.thelockeinstitute.org
22 Responses to “February 22, 2011 – Article 1, Section 1 of the United States Constitution – Guest Essayist: Charles K. Rowley, Ph.D., Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia”
- Ron Meier says:
There are some excellent points in this essay to keep in mind as we watch events develop in the Middle East. We can see the passion of the people at work, but are there checks in place that will “safeguard the lives, liberties and properties of those who otherwise might be exposed to the untrammeled excesses of the popular will.” Also interesting to watch is how the checks in the state systems work to constrain the passions of the populace in Wisconsin and other states that will follow in Wisconsin’s footsteps as state budget problems are addressed. Very timely that we should be starting this study at this historical moment.
- Shannon_Atlanta says:
Thank you Dr. Rowley. It amazes me that these men created our government in a timely and relatively quick manner. Compare that to today where it takes months and months for our “leaders” to pass a budget; I am always amazed at what all they accomplished-filled with God’s will in my humble opinion!
- Susan says:
I found it interesting the evolution of the Senate. Out of the House of Lords via the wealthy to a voice of the States as a corporate entity as a counter balance to the tendency of democracies to devolve into mob tyranny.
- Shannon_Atlanta says:
Sue, good points. I think many of us feel that our Founders hated the British system. From what I have read, they actually admired many aspects of the government-thus they borrowed from it. They also were well read on the Anglo-Saxon political system, which England had slowly gotten away from; thus men like Jefferson wanted to get some of their ways back-free will, republican government, etc.
- Cutler says:
The relatively novel idea of having the legislative power invested in two distinct houses shows the genius (God’s?!) at work when the Founding Fathers created the House and the Senate.
- steve b says:
I did not know Pennsylvania originaly had a unicameral legislature. Our Founding Fathers were indeed true statesman. I fear we will never again have the leadership and vision our Founding Forefathers had.
- Charles K Rowley says:
It is indeed quite remarkable how well educated and knowledgable many of the Founding Fathers truly were. At a time when books were scarce, distances hard to travel, and in a country that had experienced a major internal war, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and others somehow made the effort to read and understand why past republics had always failed. On that basis they were able to craft a Constitution that would survive at least for two centuries, though now, of course, it is tattered and torn. In 2011, when books are easily available and the internet immediately accessible, how many American politicians, from the President down, are well read in such literature. Until January 2011, how many elected politicians had actually read the Constitution? Sadly, knowledge appears to regress as the opportunities to access it expand. I am sure that Benjamin Franklin would have had an amusing way of making that point!
- Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:
Part of the end run of the bicameral system came out of the right of sufferage. It became a grand principal that it is unjust to demand citizens to obey laws that they have no say in the writting and amending of such laws. So it was that the rights of land owning free-holders that were 90% in the majority at the time balanced against the future influx of non-land holding immigrants that was expected to come. The Founders thought it best that the bicameral system would be predominant land-holders in one house and populist commoners in the other house. This also did away with the “mixed government” feature of Parliament where the caste system of seats designated to caste members of society to represent the various interests of society. Congressmen now are elected upon full popular vote of the electorate in their district regardelss of class.
As for the presupposition that that the THREE branches of government are separate and EQUAL, the legislature is actually the most powerful branch of government. In Federalist #51 James Madison said: “But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”
The legislature indeed is the most powerful branch for it has more checks on the other branches of government than any other branch. First, it passes statuatory law. The executive cannot act nor the judiciary pass judgement without laws to act on. And if the judiciary makes an opinion that is in a quandary with the law, Congress simply can pass more statuatory law. Congress consents to appointments of officers in the other branches; and has the power to impeach and remove the same. Congress has the power to tax and appropriate funds and so can effectively defund any operation of government and is another form of congressional oversight on the other branches of government. At the last, Congress has the power regulate the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court such that Congress may deny the SCOTUS of hearing particular cases among the states. And contrary to popular opinion: judges do not make or repeal laws. Judges simply decide whether or not one party in a case suffers harm from another party and then gives an opinion why they decide as such. Court decisions are not law therefor they are called OPINIONS.
- Debbie Bridges says:
It is interesting to watch the three branches of Government in today’s political arena. Health Care for instance. This was originally passed in the Legislative but with the change of political power in the House and the will of the people the House has voted to defund it. Hopefully the Supreme court will hear the case and rule it unconstitutional. At the same time though, I worry because the President seems to circumvent the Legislative Branch through Executive Orders and appointing Czars not subject to the normal Advise and Consent process of the Senate.
- zac allen says:
This is an interesting discussion at this very moment in time in this country. We have educators, media pundints, and all sorts of people talking about democracy in action. Our Founders knew through the lens of history, that true democracy , mob rule, was no way to run a government. It eventually destroys the individual, as does collective bargaining.
Representative democracy with a republican form of Government is what they created…. and now we have Progressives trying to undermine that principle. Bi-Cameral houses with each a distinct role. Incredible… isn’t it….. sorry for the skipping around
- Charles K. Rowley says:
Ralph, Debbie and Zac all make great points on the issue of checks and balances and the role of the legislature. Before FDR, the constitution worked well. Then the legislature began to divest regulatory powers to the President and the Supreme Court buckled under the threat to increase its numbers with progressive appointees. In consequence, the balance shifted. Now the President is far more powerful than was ever envisaged, and the Supreme Court offers excessive deference to the legislature when reviewing laws for their constitutionality. Yet, save for a few bad amendments, the Constitution’s wording has not changed. That is the problem. How can America move back to the true Constitution under such circumstances?
- Janine Turner says:
Dr. Rowley, I thank you for your most informative essay!
It is worth noting how our founding father’s based their decisions, regarding the drafting of the Constitution, on two basic principles: knowledge and history.
They were well read and acquainted with what had worked and what had not, in regard to government, in the past. They also were well acquainted with superb political and philosophical works of great minds throughout history. Their prudence was based on practical precedents.
The checks and balances and bicameral legislature are of brilliant design and most relevant to today as we: 1) still practice it today 2) need to vigilantly maintain these principles.
Only with a keen knowledge of our Constitution’s contents can we preserve our liberties. I thank you for your generosity of time, as it helps me to understand more clearly my call to action!
- Ron Meier says:
re Dr. Rowley,
And, add to that the significant increase in the number of Czars in the current White House. This seems to be adding even more power within the office of the President. Should the Congress do something to disallow power to these czars?
- Jon says:
May I offer a few items in response to “How can America move back to the true Constitution under such circumstances?”
Thomas Jefferson, 1825 in response to William B. Giles who expressed his concern over encroaching federal power.
“I see, as you do, and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our Government is advancing toward the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power. Take together the decisions of the federal court, the doctrines of the President, and the misconstructions of the constitutional compact acted on by the legislature of the federal branch, and it is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of that department are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them…”
“And what is our resource for the preservation of the Constitution? Reason and argument? You might as well reason and argue with the marble columns encircling them. The representatives chosen by ourselves? They are joined in the combination, some from incorrect views of government, some from corrupt ones, sufficient voting together to outnumber the sound parts…”
“We must have patience and longer endurance then with our brethren while under delusion; give them time for reflection and experience of consequences; keep ourselves in a situation to profit by the chapter of accidents… meanwhile, the States should be watchful to note every material usurpation on their rights; to denounce them as they occur in the most peremptory terms; to protest against them as wrongs to which our present submission shall be considered, not as acknowledgments or precedents of right, but as a temporary yielding… This is the course which I think safest and best as yet.”
William B. Giles took Jefferson’s advice; he ran for and won the Governorship of Virginia in 1827.
Jefferson alluding to our success, the law of nature IE; Locke.
“A great revolution has taken place at Paris. The people of that country having never been in the habit of self-government, are not yet in the habit of acknowledging that fundamental law of nature by which alone self government can be exercised by a society. Of the sacredness of this law, our countrymen are impressed from their cradle, so that with them it is almost innate. This single circumstance may possibly decide the fate of the two nations.”. 1800 Thomas Jefferson
Adam’s regarding education, including the law of nature IE; Locke
“Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature…” John Adam 1765
- Ray Simoneaux says:
Janine, I found out about Constituting America by watching Freedom Watch. Thank you and your organization taking on the project. I am truly amazed of just how many people I talk with daily, who have never read the Constitution ( I personally have three pocket size editions; home, office and vehicle). I look forward to learn more of the analysis of OUR Constitution!
Dr Rowley, your reply to Ralph, Debbie and Zac is exactly how I feel about the Constitution! I really get frustrated when talking with friends or co-workers who “believe everything the see or hear on the news.” I often get strange looks/comments when those people close to me, hear me make the statement, “Where in the Constitution does it give them (the politicians) the authority to do that?” I have come to the conclusion that they have never read/understood the Constitution, therefore they don’t know what our politicians can/can’t do. Thank you for your assistance to the Constituting America Organization in their project.
- Shelby Seymore says:
Again, I agree with Cutler. They actually set up this government out of the Bible in Leviticus. This wasn’t a just a remarkable appearance of a government that worked. It’s not the big bang theory! There was Divine Providence and they knew it.
- Charles K Rowley says:
The insights offered by Janine and Jon are very important at this time. The checks and balances written into the Constitution serve a great purpose in slowing down the popular impulse. But this works both ways. When the political situation becomes bleak, as it surely was prior to November 2010, the checks and balances slow down constitutional recovery. The good constitutionalist acknowledges this and bides his time. Any true reversal of fortune must await November 2012, a change in President and a change in Senate majority. This can only occur if key actors understand the Constitution and work cautiously to reinforce constitutionalism rather than to skirt around it. This will irritate the impatient, but the long-run objective must always be kept in mind. In the meantime, some Republican Governors are performing well in their attempts to re-assert states’ rights.
- Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:
Chares K Rowley said: How can America move back to the true Constitution under such circumstances?
Tom Woods has an answer to the question: State Nullification
The premise of the State of Virginia ratifying the U.S. Constitution was on the very question of what if the general government department assumes powers not given in Art 1. Sec 8? The answer was that the State of Virginia is a sovereign state free to disregard such federal acts.
- Charles K. Rowley says:
Ralph’s point is exactly correct. But the principle was overriden by the War of Northern Aggression and the victory of the North over the South. Since then nullification has not proved to be an attractive option for States even when the rights of their citizens have been seriously eroded by the federal government.
- Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:
My new favorite phrase for townhall meetings is:
“3/4ths the states never ratified such a measure!” More astonished looks.
@Charles K. Rowley,
Another remedy is another Constitutional Convention. Three times we came rather near to having one. Just the imminence of a ConCon can make Congress react. There is a lot of anxiety about having one as there really is no agenda that can be enforced on a ConCon. On the other hand, much of the “horse and buggy” provisions in that 1787 instrument is exploited by political graft no matter whose administration is in office. I have a draft instrument coined “Congress 2.0″ of nearly two dozen amendments which includes a confederate vote measure where a 1/5 dissent on germaneness of a bill, or a bill riding measure, in both federal houses then remands the measure to the states for a confederate vote of 2/3rds majority. A compact soveriegnty of states measure. I also have a lame duck provisional legislation and adjournment/recess appointment and pocket veto bypass amendments, and measures to assure members of Congress spend more time with their constituents; and for Senators, the constituency is the state capitol, affording remote visual conferencing be allowed for members to vote. It sure could use more scrutiny and maturation with tweaks and polished.
- Seth Richardson says:
This section, in conjunction with Article II, Section 1 and Article II, Section 3, delineating the powers and duties of the President are of particular interest at this moment, what with the President deciding all on his own that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is “unconstitutional” and his directing Attorney General Eric Holder not to further defend it in court.
The question of a President’s authority to refuse or fail to enforce duly-enacted laws of Congress is a serious one which I address in some detail at my blog, The Broadside.
The essence of the problem is that if the President has authority to decide for himself what laws are constitutional and what laws are not, he is usurping both the legislative authority of Congress and the judicial authority of the Supreme Court.
It is my view that this comprises an impeachable offense. This very matter was the subject of an impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. Johnson only survived removal by the Senate by one vote.
As for Holder, he is employed by the United States, which is the People, to represent our interests in court, and to zealously defend ALL laws duly enacted by the Congress, not just the ones he wants to defend or that the President tells him to defend.
He should therefore be disbarred and fired.
- Charles K. Rowley says:
Ralph’s suggestion about a constitutional convention has been discussed recently with respect to the balanced budget amendment proposal. As yet, it falls short of the number of states (two-thirds) required to call the convention. Ralph is correct that even the threat of such a convention tends to bring Congress to heel. The risk is whether a convention – once called – can be constrained to the issue it is supposed to address. After all the 1787 convention ignored its mandate, which was to reform the Articles of Confederation.
Seth’s concern about Presidential overreach is really important. If the United States enjoyed an independent judiciary that is precisely where the federal courts should intervene. But they are filled with inadequates who will not challenge a President. Impeachment is now an entirely political issue and the Congress does not have the votes to impeach and convict a Democratic President. So, such an attempt would be a huge waste of time. Holder holds his position pretty much at Obama’s discretion. And there is not a snowflake’s chance in Hell that Obama will remove a carefully selected ‘brother’ at this time.