Federal Powers and Separation of Powers

Author:Daniel Brannen, Richard Hanes, Elizabeth Shaw
Pages:859-866
 
INDEX
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Through the eighteenth century Great Britain sought to make its American colonies a key source of revenue by applying an economic concept known as mercantilism. The colonies were to send to Britain raw materials such as food, timber, and furs at low prices while importing British finished products at high prices. To make mercantilism most effective for Britain the colonies were also prohibited from trading with other countries. In reaction to Britain's heavy hand, the colonists refused to fully cooperate. Often, in defiance, taxes were not paid and trade with other countries occurred.

At the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, England had doubled its North American territory but also found itself with a huge war debt. The British government believed the colonies should help pay this debt and enacted a series of strict financial control measures. The most hated of these attempts to raise money for the British was the Stamp Act of 1765. The act required colonists to buy a revenue stamp each time they registered a legal document or bought such items as newspapers, almanacs, liquor licenses, or even playing cards. In 1767 Parliament passed the Townshend Acts which taxed paint, glass, lead, paper, and tea. Eventually, the tea tax lead to the "Boston Tea Party." To

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punish the colonists, the British passed more measures which the colonists labeled the Intolerable Acts of 1774. At this time tensions reached the breaking point.

In September of 1774, the colonists assembled the First Continental Congress which drafted a message to Britain claiming they would no longer tolerate being deprived of their life, liberty, and property. Open rebellion leading to the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) followed. During the war, the Second Continental Congress met in 1781 to create a new government. But fearful of strong central governments as Great Britain's, the colonial leaders created the Articles of Confederation which established a weak union of strong state governments. The new national government was given few powers. The national legislature consisted of only one house in which each state had one vote. No federal courts existed.

Following the end of the war in 1783, the new union experienced major difficulties. The weak central government had no tax powers to raise money, and each state coined its own money, regulated commerce (business and trade) as it saw fit, and had state courts hearing cases involving federal law. A Constitutional Convention was called in May of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation and solve the problems it created. Debate focused on the role and structure of the federal government. Federalists wanted a strong central government. Antifederalists, states' rights advocates, wanted most power to remain with the states. A compromise led to division of political power between federal and state governments. The leaders, rather than fixing the Articles of Confederation, drafted the U.S. Constitution. Those leaders, known as the Framers, created a stronger federal government consisting of three branches, the legislature, the executive, and the courts. This idea for a separation of governmental powers was largely credited to James Madison (1751–1836) who was influenced by the writings of eighteenth century French philosopher Baron Montesquieu (1689–1755). Montesquieu had contended that tyranny (political oppression) would usually result when a government, like Great Britain, had all of its power concentrated in one body.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution sought "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility [peace], provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty" for the nation's citizens. The Constitution consisted of several main sections, called Articles. The first three articles divides powers among the three branches. Article I defined the powers of the

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legislature, Congress, Article II the role of the executive branch, the president, and Article III the powers of the Supreme Court, the judicial branch. The legislative branch makes laws, the executive branch carries...

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