US Government: The Constitution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

Collective action theory provides the underlying rationale for why the US government has the set-up that it does. Read on to learn more about how the US Constitution came into existence.

Inage shows a copy of the US Constitution placed on top of US flag.
To resolve the collective action problem of creating an effective central government, a new US Constitution was developed in 1788. (Image: Mark Hayes/Shutterstock)

US Colonies

Before independence, the US colonies were ruled by England, which was a monarchy. The system of law in England was known as a common law system and it was—and still is—based on fundamental principles like trial by jury, due process of law, and private property ownership.

As the colonies grew, England needed to exert more and more control over them in order to protect the government revenue it was receiving, primarily from American crop exports. So, England enacted a series of laws meant to constrain the colonies. Before too long, the colonists rebelled.

The Articles of Confederation

Cover page of the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation were the first constitution of the United States. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

After the Revolutionary War, in 1781, the colonies ratified the Articles of Confederation—the first constitution of the United States. The government designed under the Articles of Confederation was highly reflective of the times.

The colonists had just fought a long and bloody war against a monarch they saw as unjust, and they were highly fearful of creating a government that put too much power into the hands of a single person.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had all the powers. The central government had no power to levy taxes or even raise an army.

There was a genuine need to develop public goods, but there was no central way of doing so. As a result, there was a good deal of tension between the states that could not be resolved. Under the Articles of Confederation, the government was ineffectual.

Learn more about how congressional elections work.

Collective Action Problem

The states faced a collective action problem. Each state would be better off if they gave some power to a central authority, yet there was no incentive to do so. But by not creating a strong executive, the states were left with an untenable vacuum of power.

The Articles of Confederation was an inadequate institution since it could not create the public good that everyone desired—effective government.

The United States Constitution

To resolve the collective action problem of creating an effective central government, a convention was convened in 1787 to develop a new institution: The United States Constitution.

Painting depicting the signing of the US Constitution.
A number of significant compromises had to be struck in developing the new US Constitution. (Image: Junius Brutus Stearns/Public domain)

A small group of attendees—led by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others—drafted a whole new document and they convinced others that it should be ratified, which it was in 1788.

Even though this new institution created the public good of effective government, the process of developing the new US Constitution was fraught with tension. A number of significant compromises had to be struck in order to ratify the document.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Great Compromise

The Great Compromise was the agreement that the founders made to resolve their differences about how to allocate representation in the national legislature, resulting in the bicameral Congress there is today.

When the compromise was reached, there were two proposals being considered. One was known as the Virginia Plan. At the time Virginia had a very large population and a significant number of slaves. Those who supported the Virginia Plan argued that the national legislature should represent states according to the size of their total population.

Alternatively, some supported what became known as the New Jersey Plan, in which each state would receive equal representation.

As a result of the inability to resolve their differences over this issue, the framers agreed to create a national legislature with two chambers. The lower chamber, or House of Representatives, would have a number of representatives proportional to the state’s population; while the upper chamber, or Senate, would have equal representation for each state.

Learn more about the functioning of Congress.

Separation of Powers

Another compromise struck in order to build the support to ratify the Constitution in 1788 was the idea of a separation of powers.

According to this, the government is divided up into three separate branches, each with its own jurisdiction and responsibilities, as well as the idea of checks and balances, with each branch having the ability to curb the power of the other two.

Federalism

Another compromise, that was novel at the time, was the idea of federalism. The federalist structure that the United States created ensured that each state retained a certain amount of sovereignty over its citizens, its taxation, and its laws, while still surrendering a fair amount of authority to the national government.

This division of power was both novel and awkward, but strongly characterizes the American system of government that is still present today.

Learn more about civil liberty protections.

President of the United States

A final compromise was the one about the president. The founding fathers had great debates over what the chief executive should be called, how much power the office should hold, and how to select its occupant.

Part of the negotiations over these dilemmas resulted in an agreement to use an electoral college to officially elect a president of the United States, an executive who would have almost no legislative authority.

The electoral college is designed to have the same number of electors as there are representatives in Congress (House plus Senate).

Like the Great Compromise, the electoral college is a part of a series of concessions that attempts to balance the sovereignty of states with the powers of the national government.

The US Government

The United States Constitution is an immensely important document that creates the framework of the US government. It also serves as a lasting example of a representative, democratic government on which many other countries have modeled their institutions. To explain the origins of government in the United States, one needs to explain how the US Constitution came to be.

Government is intertwined with politics, and politics is about solving problems. Politics interacts with government to help produce the social and political world.

Common Questions about the US Constitution

Q: Under the Articles of Confederation, who had control of the power?

Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had all the powers.

Q: What was the Great Compromise?

The Great Compromise was the agreement that the founders made to resolve their differences about how to allocate representation in the national legislature, resulting in the bicameral Congress there is today.

Q: What was the idea of federalism in the US Constitution?

The federalist structure that the United States created ensured that each state retained a certain amount of sovereignty over its citizens, its taxation, and its laws, while still surrendering a fair amount of authority to the national government.

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