Leaders favor separation of powers

The eighteenth-century statesmen who met in Philadelphia were adherents of Montesquieu's concept of the balance of power in politics. This principle was naturally supported by colonial experience and strengthened by the writings of Locke with which most of the delegates were familiar. These influences led to the understanding that three distinct branches of government be established, each equal and coordinate with the others. The legislative, executive, and judicial powers were to be so adjusted and interlocked as to permit harmonious operation. At the same time they were to be so well balanced that no one interest could ever gain control. It was natural also for the delegates to assume that the legislative branch, like the colonial legislatures and the British Parliament, should consist of two houses.

On these broad, general views there was homogeneity. But sharp differences arose within the assemblage as to the method of achieving the desired ends. Representatives of the small states, New Jersey, for instance, objected to changes that would reduce their influence in the federal government by basing representation upon population instead of upon statehood, as under the Articles of Confederation. On the other hand, representatives of the large states like Virginia argued vehemently for proportionate representation. Over this question, the debate threatened to go on endlessly until finally the Connecticut delegate came forward with very able arguments in support of a plan for representation in proportion to the population of the states in one house of Congress and equal representation in the other.

The alignment of large against small states then dissolved. Almost every succeeding question, however, raised new alignments to be resolved only by new compromises. Certain members wished no branch of the federal government to be elected directly by the people; others thought it must be given as broad a basis as possible. Some delegates wished to exclude the growing west from the opportunity of statehood; others championed the equality principle established in the Ordinance of 1787. There was no serious difference of opinion on such national economic questions as paper money, tender laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts. But there was a need for balancing the distinct sectional economic interests; for settling heated arguments as to the powers, term, and selection of the executive; and for solving the problems concerning the tenure of judges and the kind of courts to be established.

Conscientiously and with determination, through a hot Philadelphia summer, the Convention labored to iron out problems. It finally achieved a satisfactory draft which incorporated in a brief document the organization of the most complex government yet devised by man-a government supreme within its sphere, but within a sphere that is defined and limited. As the Tenth Amendment made clear in 1791, "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people;" and the supremacy of federal laws is limited to such as "shall be made in pursuance of the Constitution." The states are coequally supreme within their sphere; in no legal sense are they subordinate institutions, and both the federal and state governments rest on the same broad foundation of popular sovereignty. In subsequent years, the scope of federal power has been widely extended by amendment, implication, judicial interpretation, and the necessities of national crises. The same, however, is true of the states. Even in the twentieth century, the American citizen comes far more frequently into contact with his state than with his national government. For to the states belong, not by virtue of the federal constitution but of their own sovereign power, the control of municipal and local government, the police power, factory and labor legislation, the chartering of corporations, the statutory development and judicial administration of civil and criminal law, the control of education, and the general supervision of the people's health, safety, and welfare.

In conferring powers, the Convention freely and fully gave the federal government the power to lay taxes, to borrow money, to lay uniform duties, imposts, and excises. It was given authority to coin money, fix weights and measures, grant patents and copyrights, and establish post offices and post roads. It was empowered to raise and maintain an army and navy and could regulate interstate commerce. It was given the whole management of Indian relations, of international relations, and of war. It could pass laws for naturalizing foreigners and, controlling the public lands, it could admit new states on a basis of absolute equality with the old. The power to pass all necessary and proper laws for executing these defined powers rendered the federal government sufficiently elastic to meet the needs of later generations and of a greatly expanded body politic.