Utah People's Party

…proclain liberty through out all the land….(Leviticus 25:10)

Roles of the Federal Government

on October 18, 2012

During the years leading up to the war for independence, the British people living in the North American Colonies became increasingly alienated from the British King and the Parliament back in England. The colonists felt that the British government was oppressing them with unreasonable taxes and trampling on other key rights that the people living in the British Empire had traditionally enjoyed and which they considered protected by the British Constitution. For example, those accused of wrong doing had traditionally been tried by a jury of their peers but King George and his parliament found jury trials a problem because a jury consisting of follow colonists would often refuse to convict a colonist accused of violating a law when the jurors believed the law unconstitutional.  The British government responded by excusing itself from the jury trial requirement in the types of cases where juries most often rejected the government’s authority. The colonists rejected the notion that the government could wave constitutional limits on its powers. What is the purpose for a constitution if not to limit the powers of government? What effect could limits on the powers of government have if government could wave those limits at will? This dispute escalated over time until a shooting war erupted in 1775 and while the war continued, the colonists declared independence.

In 1777, as the war still raged, the former colonists, now citizens of the new United States of America, approved a new constitution called the Articles of Confederation. The new U. S. government replaced the British Empire which the former colonists had rejected. The old empire had provided the following services to the North American colonies: defense and foreign policy, regulating commerce among the entities comprising the empire, and settling disputes among the entities comprising the empire. The Articles of Confederation gave these roles to the new federal government. In addition, while the Articles of Confederation were in effect, U.S. territories came into being that were not part of any of the states and the federal government started performing all the governing functions in these territories. Each state government performed all other governing functions for the citizens living within its own borders. After years of trying to force the Americans to surrender, the British government finally gave up. By the year 1787 Americans had experienced both war and peace under their new federal government. When the war with the British government began, Americans were not worried about being oppressed by their state governments, but as time pasted people began to worry about state level abuses of power. Based on this experience, the people concluded that the division of roles between their federal and state governments under the articles of confederation was close to optimal but that they needed to give their federal government more power so that it could consistently succeed in fulfilling its assigned roles.

A federal government with more power could succeed better at providing services like national defense, but the more power the government had, the more harm that government could do by abusing its power. In 1787, a convention met to consider changes to the Articles of Confederation. In addition to making the federal government more effective at performing its existing roles, to protect against abuses, the delegates at the convention designed a new system of checks and balances and for the first time set in the federal constitution, a very few limits on the powers of state governments.  With the expansion of the federal powers and the incorporation of many new protections against the abuse of those powers, and the new restrictions on the state governments, the changes were so extensive that the delegates wrote a whole new constitution instead of making a huge number of individual amendments. That second Constitution, written by the 1787 convention, is what we call the constitution today.

The notion that the federal government is responsible for solving any problem of any kind  did not come along until approximately another century and a half past after the adoption of the Constitution. At the 1787 constitutional convention, such a notion was so inconsistent with the History of the United States up to that time that no one that we know of imagined it. Thus we argue that the Constitution really was intended to delegate only a few, limited powers to the Federal Government because that is all the government would need to fulfill its few, limited roles.


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