2001-2002 First Place Essay
Ms. Stephanie Condon
Withstanding the Test of Time
Sponsored by: the California Society
Withstanding the Test of Time.
According to legend, as the exulted Benjamin Franklin stepped out of the last session of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in September of 1787, a curious woman queried, "What kind of government have you given us, Dr. Franklin?" Franklin answered, "A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it."1 Remarkably, over 200 years later, the United States has kept its constitution, and the republic for which it was created has flourished. While fledgling democracies across the continents have modeled the frameworks of their governments after the U.S. Constitution, America's system of democracy remains spectacularly unique and successful, largely due to its constitution. The framers of the Constitution created an adaptable instrument of government which withstands the test of time through a system of checks and balances and separation of powers.
At the Constitutional Convention, the framers set out to develop a form of government stronger than a confederation; it could not be unitary though, otherwise the states would not ratify it. They borrowed ideas from both of these forms of government to form a federal republic. Once federalism was decided upon to unify the states without constraining them, the next step in developing a lasting constitution was creating a separation of powers. James Madison wrote in The Federalist, No. 47, "No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value, or is stamped with the authority of more enlightened patrons of liberty, than that ... the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."2 The framers ingeniously wove into the Constitution three ways to ensure a clear separation of powers among the three branches of government. First, the leaders in the different branches come to power in different ways; the president is elected through a national election, the congressmen are elected on a state level, and the federal judges are appointed to their positions. Next, the bureaucracy is appointed by the president but only by the consent of the Senate. Also, each power serves for a different amount of time. This keeps the powers separate by ensuring that a majority party can only take control over part of the government at one time.3 For instance, the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives after the election in 1994, but President Clinton would represent the Democrats in the executive branch for at least two more years. By separating powers between the states and the federal government, and by separating the federal powers among three equal and independent branches of government, the framers of the Constitution laid the foundations of a durable democracy.
The framers further developed this foundation of democracy through a system of checks and balances. They were aware that "the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others ... Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."4 Though