Three essential principles are enshrined in the US Constitution and are the bedrock of our political system. These principles are separate, but like the rest of the constitution, they overlap. Constitutionalism and liberty cannot be established if only one of them exists. They must all work together to ensure that a limited constitutional republic can function. The three primary principles of the US Constitution, Federalism, separation of powers, and the rule of law, are all meant to ensure the liberty of the people is secure and that establishing a government that can govern itself.
The result of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention was a stronger federal government better able to handle crisis and bring much-needed stability to the union. However, the founders left most of the critical decisions, affecting us daily to the states. Issues such as roads, education, property rights, and gun ownership were left to the people to handle independently. The federal government only had powers that were delegated to them. KC Wheare describes federalism as “each government should be limited to its own sphere and, within that sphere, should be independent of the other” (McClellan, 2000, p. 234). This is a separation of powers that people often miss. When we think of the separation of powers and the branches of government, people think of the legislature, the executive, and judiciary branches. In reality, there are four. The state governments were left with a majority of power over the citizens of the nation.
Separation of Powers
Writing in Federalist №51, James Madison noted that to establish a proper republican government, the new government must have enough powers to control the governed. There must be a structure in place that obliges the government to control itself (Madison, 1788). Rather than expecting the federal government to act as though they are angels, the US Constitution separates the power delegated to each branch. However, the founders were not concerned with a strict separation of powers. The delegated authorities of the three branches often overlap. The British applied a strict separation of powers, which resulted in the legislature having the ability to act arbitrarily. Thomas Jefferson called the arbitrary rule by any one branch of government “the definition of despotic government” (McClellan, 2000, p. 120). The genius of the US Constitution was that authority and powers are decentralized to prevent both tyranny and anarchy while maintaining liberty and order.
Rule of Law
In the United States, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. “No man or government or branch of the government is above the law” (McClellan, 2000, p. 232). The rule of law means that people must follow the law even if they disagree with it. It also means that it must be enforced whether or not those in power want to or not. Establishing the rule of law prevents anarchy, which no community can live under. The founders believed that with the written Constitution, it would be difficult to pass laws that “may be unjust, may be unwise, may be dangerous, may be destructive” (Anderson, 2006). Today the branch of government with the most power and ability to act arbitrarily is the judiciary. Often, they make decisions that run counter to the understanding of the Constitution and its history. According to James McClellan, “such arbitrariness puts the law in a state of turmoil and uncertainty, invites political interference in the judicial process, and endangers the independence of the judiciary by encouraging legislative retaliation” (McClellan, 2000, p. 383).
In order to maintain a constitutional republic, all three principles must be protected. The principle of federalism ensures that laws that directly affect the people are decided and enforced closer to home. Maintaining the separation of powers prevents between the federal branches prevents one branch from ruling over the others and establishing an elected tyrant. Finally, the rule of law means we are all equal under the law. Whether the person is the President of the United States or a single working parent, the laws of the land will be enforced equally. These three principles act as a barstool. Even if only one principle is missing, the chair will fall.
Anderson, J. H. (2006). Learning from the Great Council of Revision Debate. The Review of Politics, 68(1), 79–100. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0034670506000015
Madison, J. (1788). Federalist No 51. The Avalon Project : Federalist No 51. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed51.asp.
McClellan, J. (2000). Liberty, order, and justice: an introduction to the constitutional principles of American government. Liberty Fund.