The American Constitution and Its Critics
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By Hamed Mousavi
The American constitution ratified in 1789 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is one of the most successful constitutions in the world since it has remained almost unchanged to this day while at the same time remaining a major source of authority in the United States . However there has been some serious criticism of it over the years. This article will outline and address the main criticisms made to the American constitution by its critics .
The strongest criticism made to the American Constitution is that it is an undemocratic constitution. Critics point to the fact that the Federalist movement was explicitly anti-democratic at the time of the drafting and ratification of the American constitution. The Federalists were initially not an official party in the early days of the republic but later on became one of the main two parties in the initial years of American independence. The Federalists believed that absolute democracy leads to the abuse of power and tyranny. Critics argue the constitution places a lot of limits on democracy like the indirect election of the president, undemocratic election of senators (later fixed by the 17th amendment) and many checks and balances on the powers of the different branches of government. They point out that the founding fathers of the constitution believed in the principles of a "Republican Government" which in reality is a sort of elite democracy. Although the critics are correct with regards to the worries of the founding fathers in establishing absolute democracy they tend to confuse the actual text of the constitution which should be the main area of concentration with the interpretations of it in the early days of the republic. Incorrect interpretations of the constitution are a completely separate matter and should be addressed in a different context. The actual text of the constitution places no major limit on elections and democracy .
The founding fathers like many other scholars in the world at the time believed that giving absolute democracy to the people will lead into chaos and eventually to tyranny. However their concern did not result in an undemocratic constitution. The fact that they placed many checks and balances on different branches of the government, such as how the President can veto legislation from Congress, does not necessarily mean that it is undemocratic. In fact, proponents argue that this approach is in tune with the real spirit of democracy in which a portion of the population cannot force its will on the entire population. Also with regards to the indirect election of the President it should be pointed out that at the early days of the republic, States enjoyed a lot of independence and power. This was natural since they had just been united and looked with suspicion and rivalry at other states. The indirect election of the president was a way to keep the power in the states and at the same time make sure that no single state took control of the country.
Another major criticism made to the American Constitution is that it places too many restrictions on the government. Critics point out that compared to the constitution of other countries, 'technically' much more restrictions are place on the American government by the constitution especially with regards to the executive branch. As an example critics point to the fact that the president needs permission for major decisions like declaring war and the signing of major treaties. As pointed our earlier, state rights were a main point of concern at the time and these restrictions were mainly placed by the founding fathers in order to preserve the power and rights of the states and thus prevent the Federal government by overrunning the power of the states. Also looking from another perspective this can be seen as an advantage rather than a disadvantage in the sense that the president cannot act alone and even though elected he or she still needs the approval of the people through their representative in congress for major decisions.
Critics also point to the fact that the constitution does not have clear boundaries between the power and authority of the main institutions and also regarding the power of the state and federal government. They argue that this has led to many confusions and also confrontation regarding the authority of institutions like the congress and the executive branch and also with regards to the power of the states and the federal government. Some scholars and analysts however see this as a one of the key reasons the constitution has been successful over the years. They believe that the very survival of the constitution has been due to the substantial room it has left for interpretation.
These scholars believe that being vague on controversial issues was the reason the constitution was ratified in the first place at a time when difference of opinion was very strong among the founding fathers. They point out that the reason a document drafted over two hundred years ago is still in use today is the fact that it has been drafted in a way that can be interpreted differently based on the time period and the circumstances otherwise it would have become gradually obsolete. To prevent misinterpretation and drastic changes in the path of the country the Supreme Court was given the exclusive task of interpreting the constitution.
In conclusion the US constitution remains one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. At the time of its ratification it was truly revolutionary in terms of providing equality and liberty for all its citizens. Even though there are has been some criticism to it in the past century most scholars agree that the US constitution with all its strengths and weaknesses is one of the most successful constitutions when compared to the constitution of other countries. The fact that it has remained almost unchanged to when it was ratified bears witness to its success.
1- Kelly, Alfred and Herman Belz, 'The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development', Volume II, 1991
2- Dahl, Robert A., 'How Democratic is the American Constitution?', Second Edition, 2003
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