Leaders Favor Separation Of Powers

The 18th century statesmen who met in Philadelphia were adherents of Montesquieu's concept of the balance of power in politics. This principle was supported by colonial experience and strengthened by the writings of Locke, with which most of the delegates were familiar. These influences led to the conviction that three equal and coordinate branches of government should be established. Legislative, executive, and judicial powers were to be so harmoniously balanced that no one could ever gain control. The delegates agreed that the legislative branch, like the colonial legislatures and the British Parliament, should consist of two houses.

On these points there was unanimity within the assembly. But sharp differences arose as to the method of achieving them. Representatives of the small states, New Jersey, for instance, objected to changes that would reduce their influence in the national government by basing representation upon population rather than upon state hood, as under the Articles of Confederation.

On the other hand, representatives of large states like Virginia argued for proportionate representation. This debate threatened to go on endlessly until the Connecticut delegate came forward with able arguments 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. But almost every succeeding question 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 the national government should be given as broad a popular base 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 on such national economic questions as paper money and laws concerning contract obligations. But there was a need for balancing sectional economic interests; for settling arguments as to the powers, term, and selection of the chief executive; and for solving problems involving the tenure of judges and the kind of courts to be established.

Laboring through a hot Philadelphia summer, the Convention finally achieved a draft incorporating in a brief document the organization of the most complex government yet devised by man - a government supreme within a clearly defined and limited sphere. As the Tenth Amendment would make 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.

In conferring powers, the Convention gave the federal government full power to levy taxes; borrow money; establish uniform duties, imposts, and excise; coin money; fix weights and measures; grant patents and copyrights; set up post offices; and build post roads. The national government was also empowered to raise and maintain an army and navy and to regulate interstate commerce. It was given the management of Indian relations, of international relations, and of war. It could pass laws for naturalizing foreigners and controffing the public lands, and 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 clearly defined powers rendered the federal government sufficiently elastic to meet the needs of later generations and of a greatly expanded body politic.