After fighting a long and costly war to unshackle themselves from a tyrannical government headed by an out-of-touch king, the framers of the Constitution had no intention of establishing another tyrannical government to take its place. Rather, one of their principal goals in developing the Constitution was to ensure limited government. To this end, the framers established a complex governance structure intended to prevent the abusive exercise of power by the federal government. Key among the provisions for limiting government the framers built into the Constitution were the following:
- Elections. The framers gave the power to select those who would hold public office to the American people. Americans were to choose those who would govern on their behalf.
- Separation of powers. The framers were determined that power would not rest solely in the hands of one individual or even one government institution. For this reason they divided government powers among three separate branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. These three branches were empowered in specific ways that established checks and balances so that no branch could become all-powerful and dictatorial.
- Federalism. To ensure that the federal government did not become an all-powerful behemoth (which it has in spite of the framer’s vision), government authority was divided between the federal and state governments. The federal government was assigned certain specific responsibilities—responsibilities that were purposefully limited—and the remaining governmental responsibilities were assigned to the states. The framers envisioned strong state government and a limited federal government. They were clear in granting only specific powers to the federal government and not just delegating all remaining powers to the states, but denying those powers to the federal government. Unfortunately, the framers vision of a federalist system of government and the granting of powers is just the opposite of what now exists.
- Denial of power. In addition to assigning specific powers to the federal government and delegating the bulk of government power to the states, the framers specifically denied certain powers to the federal government and to government in general.
- Judicial review. To guard against government actions that fall outside the boundaries of the Constitution, the framers established the concept of judicial review, which gives the courts the power to declare legislative and executive actions unconstitutional and therefore illegal.
- Bill of Rights. There was strong opposition to the Constitution during the ratification process. In fact, this opposition—particularly in New York—is what motivated Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to draft the Federalist Papers; a collection of essays defending the Constitution. Part of the opposition to the Constitution was the fear of some that it did not include safeguards to protect personal freedom and individual liberty. The Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—were enacted in 1791 to protect specified rights of life, liberty, and property. In other words, the Bill of Rights was put in place to protect individual Americans from their government.