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Democracy In America - Book 1 - Chapter 8 - Part 1


I have hitherto considered each State as a separate whole, and I have explained the different springs which the people sets in motion, and the different means of action which it employs. But all the States which I have considered as independent are forced to submit, in certain cases, to the supreme authority of the Union. The time is now come for me to examine separately the supremacy with which the Union has been invested, and to cast a rapid glance over the Federal Constitution.

Origin of the first Union - Its weakness - Congress appeals to the constituent authority - Interval of two years between this appeal and the promulgation of the new Constitution.


Alexis de Tocqueville

 Author Notes

Political scientist, historian, politician, author of Democracy in America (1835-1840) and other works

Books by Alexis de Tocqueville
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Democracy in America
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Old Regime & the French Revolution (1955)
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 Essay -

History Of The Federal Constitution

The thirteen colonies which simultaneously threw off the yoke of England towards the end of the last century professed, as I have already observed, the same religion, the same language, the same customs, and almost the same laws; they were struggling against a common enemy; and these reasons were sufficiently strong to unite them one to another, and to consolidate them into one nation. But as each of them had enjoyed a separate existence and a government within its own control, the peculiar interests and customs which resulted from this system were opposed to a compact and intimate union which would have absorbed the individual importance of each in the general importance of all. Hence arose two opposite tendencies, the one prompting the Anglo-Americans to unite, the other to divide their strength. As long as the war with the mother-country lasted the principle of union was kept alive by necessity; and although the laws which constituted it were defective, the common tie subsisted in spite of their imperfections. *a But no sooner was peace concluded than the faults of the legislation became manifest, and the State seemed to be suddenly dissolved. Each colony became an independent republic, and assumed an absolute sovereignty. The federal government, condemned to impotence by its constitution, and no longer sustained by the presence of a common danger, witnessed the outrages offered to its flag by the great nations of Europe, whilst it was scarcely able to maintain its ground against the Indian tribes, and to pay the interest of the debt which had been contracted during the war of independence. It was already on the verge of destruction, when it officially proclaimed its inability to conduct the government, and appealed to the constituent authority of the nation. *b If America ever approached (for however brief a time) that lofty pinnacle of glory to which the fancy of its inhabitants is wont to point, it was at the solemn moment at which the power of the nation abdicated, as it were, the empire of the land. All ages have furnished the spectacle of a people struggling with energy to win its independence; and the efforts of the Americans in throwing off the English yoke have been considerably exaggerated. Separated from their enemies by three thousand miles of ocean, and backed by a powerful ally, the success of the United States may be more justly attributed to their geographical position than to the valor of their armies or the patriotism of their citizens. It would be ridiculous to compare the American was to the wars of the French Revolution, or the efforts of the Americans to those of the French when they were attacked by the whole of Europe, without credit and without allies, yet capable of opposing a twentieth part of their population to the world, and of bearing the torch of revolution beyond their frontiers whilst they stifled its devouring flame within the bosom of their country. But it is a novelty in the history of society to see a great people turn a calm and scrutinizing eye upon itself, when apprised by the legislature that the wheels of government are stopped; to see it carefully examine the extent of the evil, and patiently wait for two whole years until a remedy was discovered, which it voluntarily adopted without having wrung a tear or a drop of blood from mankind. At the time when the inadequacy of the first constitution was discovered America possessed the double advantage of that calm which had succeeded the effervescence of the revolution, and of those great men who had led the revolution to a successful issue. The assembly which accepted the task of composing the second constitution was small; *c but George Washington was its President, and it contained the choicest talents and the noblest hearts which had ever appeared in the New World. This national commission, after long and mature deliberation, offered to the acceptance of the people the body of general laws which still rules the Union. All the States adopted it successively. *d The new Federal Government commenced its functions in 1789, after an interregnum of two years. The Revolution of America terminated when that of France began.

[Footnote a: See the articles of the first confederation formed in 1778. This constitution was not adopted by all the States until 1781. See also the analysis given of this constitution in "The Federalist" from No. 15 to No. 22, inclusive, and Story's "Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States," pp. 85-115.]

[Footnote b: Congress made this declaration on February 21, 1787.]

[Footnote c: It consisted of fifty-five members; Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and the two Morrises were amongst the number.]

[Footnote d: It was not adopted by the legislative bodies, but representatives were elected by the people for this sole purpose; and the new constitution was discussed at length in each of these assemblies.]

Summary Of The Federal Constitution

Division of authority between the Federal Government and the States - The Government of the States is the rule, the Federal Government the exception.

The first question which awaited the Americans was intricate, and by no means easy of solution: the object was so to divide the authority of the different States which composed the Union that each of them should continue to govern itself in all that concerned its internal prosperity, whilst the entire nation, represented by the Union, should continue to form a compact body, and to provide for the general exigencies of the people. It was as impossible to determine beforehand, with any degree of accuracy, the share of authority which each of two governments was to enjoy, as to foresee all the incidents in the existence of a nation.

The obligations and the claims of the Federal Government were simple and easily definable, because the Union had been formed with the express purpose of meeting the general exigencies of the people; but the claims and obligations of the States were, on the other hand, complicated and various, because those Governments had penetrated into all the details of social life. The attributes of the Federal Government were therefore carefully enumerated and all that was not included amongst them was declared to constitute a part of the privileges of the several Governments of the States. Thus the government of the States remained the rule, and that of the Confederation became the exception. *e

[Footnote e: See the Amendment to the Federal Constitution; "Federalist," No. 32; Story, p. 711; Kent's "Commentaries," vol. i. p. 364.

It is to be observed that whenever the exclusive right of regulating certain matters is not reserved to Congress by the Constitution, the States may take up the affair until it is brought before the National Assembly. For instance, Congress has the right of making a general law on bankruptcy, which, however, it neglects to do. Each State is then at liberty to make a law for itself. This point has been established by discussion in the law-courts, and may be said to belong more properly to jurisprudence.]

But as it was foreseen that, in practice, questions might arise as to the exact limits of this exceptional authority, and that it would be dangerous to submit these questions to the decision of the ordinary courts of justice, established in the States by the States themselves, a high Federal court was created, *f which was destined, amongst other functions, to maintain the balance of power which had been established by the Constitution between the two rival Governments. *g

[Footnote f: The action of this court is indirect, as we shall hereafter show.]

[Footnote g: It is thus that "The Federalist," No. 45, explains the division of supremacy between the Union and the States: "The powers delegated by the Constitution to the Federal Government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the internal order and prosperity of the State." I shall often have occasion to quote "The Federalist" in this work. When the bill which has since become the Constitution of the United States was submitted to the approval of the people, and the discussions were still pending, three men, who had already acquired a portion of that celebrity which they have since enjoyed - John Jay, Hamilton, and Madison - formed an association with the intention of explaining to the nation the advantages of the measure which was proposed. With this view they published a series of articles in the shape of a journal, which now form a complete treatise. They entitled their journal "The Federalist," a name which has been retained in the work. "The Federalist" is an excellent book, which ought to be familiar to the statesmen of all countries, although it especially concerns America.]

Prerogative Of The Federal Government

Power of declaring war, making peace, and levying general taxes vested in the Federal Government - What part of the internal policy of the country it may direct - The Government of the Union in some respects more central than the King's Government in the old French monarchy.

The external relations of a people may be compared to those of private individuals, and they cannot be advantageously maintained without the agency of a single head of a Government. The exclusive right of making peace and war, of concluding treaties of commerce, of raising armies, and equipping fleets, was granted to the Union. *h The necessity of a national Government was less imperiously felt in the conduct of the internal policy of society; but there are certain general interests which can only be attended to with advantage by a general authority. The Union was invested with the power of controlling the monetary system, of directing the post office, and of opening the great roads which were to establish a communication between the different parts of the country. *i The independence of the Government of each State was formally recognized in its sphere; nevertheless, the Federal Government was authorized to interfere in the internal affairs of the States *j in a few predetermined cases, in which an indiscreet abuse of their independence might compromise the security of the Union at large. Thus, whilst the power of modifying and changing their legislation at pleasure was preserved in all the republics, they were forbidden to enact ex post facto laws, or to create a class of nobles in their community. *k Lastly, as it was necessary that the Federal Government should be able to fulfil its engagements, it was endowed with an unlimited power of levying taxes. *l

[Footnote h: See Constitution, sect. 8; "Federalist," Nos. 41 and 42; Kent's "Commentaries," vol. i. p. 207; Story, pp. 358-382; Ibid. pp. 409-426.]

[Footnote i: Several other privileges of the same kind exist, such as that which empowers the Union to legislate on bankruptcy, to grant patents, and other matters in which its intervention is clearly necessary.]

[Footnote j: Even in these cases its interference is indirect. The Union interferes by means of the tribunals, as will be hereafter shown.]

[Footnote k: Federal Constitution, sect. 10, art. I.]

[Footnote l: Constitution, sects. 8, 9, and 10; "Federalist," Nos. 30-36, inclusive, and 41-44; Kent's "Commentaries," vol. i. pp. 207 and 381; Story, pp. 329 and 514.]

In examining the balance of power as established by the Federal Constitution; in remarking on the one hand the portion of sovereignty which has been reserved to the several States, and on the other the share of power which the Union has assumed, it is evident that the Federal legislators entertained the clearest and most accurate notions on the nature of the centralization of government. The United States form not only a republic, but a confederation; nevertheless the authority of the nation is more central than it was in several of the monarchies of Europe when the American Constitution was formed. Take, for instance, the two following examples.

Thirteen supreme courts of justice existed in France, which, generally speaking, had the right of interpreting the law without appeal; and those provinces which were styled pays d'etats were authorized to refuse their assent to an impost which had been levied by the sovereign who represented the nation. In the Union there is but one tribunal to interpret, as there is one legislature to make the laws; and an impost voted by the representatives of the nation is binding upon all the citizens. In these two essential points, therefore, the Union exercises more central authority than the French monarchy possessed, although the Union is only an assemblage of confederate republics.

In Spain certain provinces had the right of establishing a system of custom-house duties peculiar to themselves, although that privilege belongs, by its very nature, to the national sovereignty. In America the Congress alone has the right of regulating the commercial relations of the States. The government of the Confederation is therefore more centralized in this respect than the kingdom of Spain. It is true that the power of the Crown in France or in Spain was always able to obtain by force whatever the Constitution of the country denied, and that the ultimate result was consequently the same; but I am here discussing the theory of the Constitution.

Federal Powers

After having settled the limits within which the Federal Government was to act, the next point was to determine the powers which it was to exert.

Legislative Powers *m

[Footnote m: [In this chapter the author points out the essence of the conflict between the seceding States and the Union which caused the Civil War of 1861.]]

Division of the Legislative Body into two branches - Difference in the manner of forming the two Houses - The principle of the independence of the States predominates in the formation of the Senate - The principle of the sovereignty of the nation in the composition of the House of Representatives - Singular effects of the fact that a Constitution can only be logical in the early stages of a nation.

The plan which had been laid down beforehand for the Constitutions of the several States was followed, in many points, in the organization of the powers of the Union. The Federal legislature of the Union was composed of a Senate and a House of Representatives. A spirit of conciliation prescribed the observance of distinct principles in the formation of these two assemblies. I have already shown that two contrary interests were opposed to each other in the establishment of the Federal Constitution. These two interests had given rise to two opinions. It was the wish of one party to convert the Union into a league of independent States, or a sort of congress, at which the representatives of the several peoples would meet to discuss certain points of their common interests. The other party desired to unite the inhabitants of the American colonies into one sole nation, and to establish a Government which should act as the sole representative of the nation, as far as the limited sphere of its authority would permit. The practical consequences of these two theories were exceedingly different.

The question was, whether a league was to be established instead of a national Government; whether the majority of the State, instead of the majority of the inhabitants of the Union, was to give the law: for every State, the small as well as the great, would then remain in the full enjoyment of its independence, and enter the Union upon a footing of perfect equality. If, however, the inhabitants of the United States were to be considered as belonging to one and the same nation, it would be just that the majority of the citizens of the Union should prescribe the law. Of course the lesser States could not subscribe to the application of this doctrine without, in fact, abdicating their existence in relation to the sovereignty of the Confederation; since they would have passed from the condition of a co-equal and co-legislative authority to that of an insignificant fraction of a great people. But if the former system would have invested them with an excessive authority, the latter would have annulled their influence altogether. Under these circumstances the result was, that the strict rules of logic were evaded, as is usually the case when interests are opposed to arguments. A middle course was hit upon by the legislators, which brought together by force two systems theoretically irreconcilable.

The principle of the independence of the States prevailed in the formation of the Senate, and that of the sovereignty of the nation predominated in the composition of the House of Representatives. It was decided that each State should send two senators to Congress, and a number of representatives proportioned to its population. *n It results from this arrangement that the State of New York has at the present day forty representatives and only two senators; the State of Delaware has two senators and only one representative; the State of Delaware is therefore equal to the State of New York in the Senate, whilst the latter has forty times the influence of the former in the House of Representatives. Thus, if the minority of the nation preponderates in the Senate,. it may paralyze the decisions of the majority represented in the other House, which is contrary to the spirit of constitutional government.

[Footnote n: Every ten years Congress fixes anew the number of representatives which each State is to furnish. The total number was 69 in 1789, and 240 in 1833. (See "American Almanac," 1834, p. 194.) The Constitution decided that there should not be more than one representative for every 30,000 persons; but no minimum was fixed on. The Congress has not thought fit to augment the number of representatives in proportion to the increase of population. The first Act which was passed on the subject (April 14, 1792: see "Laws of the United States," by Story, vol. i. p. 235) decided that there should be one representative for every 33,000 inhabitants. The last Act, which was passed in 1832, fixes the proportion at one for 48,000. The population represented is composed of all the free men and of three-fifths of the slaves.

[The last Act of apportionment, passed February 2, 1872, fixes the representation at one to 134,684 inhabitants. There are now (1875) 283 members of the lower House of Congress, and 9 for the States at large, making in all 292 members. The old States have of course lost the representatives which the new States have gained. - Translator's Note.]]

These facts show how rare and how difficult it is rationally and logically to combine all the several parts of legislation. In the course of time different interests arise, and different principles are sanctioned by the same people; and when a general constitution is to be established, these interests and principles are so many natural obstacles to the rigorous application of any political system, with all its consequences. The early stages of national existence are the only periods at which it is possible to maintain the complete logic of legislation; and when we perceive a nation in the enjoyment of this advantage, before we hasten to conclude that it is wise, we should do well to remember that it is young. When the Federal Constitution was formed, the interests of independence for the separate States, and the interest of union for the whole people, were the only two conflicting interests which existed amongst the Anglo-Americans, and a compromise was necessarily made between them.

It is, however, just to acknowledge that this part of the Constitution has not hitherto produced those evils which might have been feared. All the States are young and contiguous; their customs, their ideas, and their exigencies are not dissimilar; and the differences which result from their size or inferiority do not suffice to set their interests at variance. The small States have consequently never been induced to league themselves together in the Senate to oppose the designs of the larger ones; and indeed there is so irresistible an authority in the legitimate expression of the will of a people that the Senate could offer but a feeble opposition to the vote of the majority of the House of Representatives.

It must not be forgotten, on the other hand, that it was not in the power of the American legislators to reduce to a single nation the people for whom they were making laws. The object of the Federal Constitution was not to destroy the independence of the States, but to restrain it. By acknowledging the real authority of these secondary communities (and it was impossible to deprive them of it), they disavowed beforehand the habitual use of constraint in enforcing g the decisions of the majority. Upon this principle the introduction of the influence of the States into the mechanism of the Federal Government was by no means to be wondered at, since it only attested the existence of an acknowledged power, which was to be humored and not forcibly checked.

A Further Difference Between The Senate And The House Of Representatives

The Senate named by the provincial legislators, the Representatives by the people - Double election of the former; single election of the latter - Term of the different offices - Peculiar functions of each House.

The Senate not only differs from the other House in the principle which it represents, but also in the mode of its election, in the term for which it is chosen, and in the nature of its functions. The House of Representatives is named by the people, the Senate by the legislators of each State; the former is directly elected, the latter is elected by an elected body; the term for which the representatives are chosen is only two years, that of the senators is six. The functions of the House of Representatives are purely legislative, and the only share it takes in the judicial power is in the impeachment of public officers. The Senate co-operates in the work of legislation, and tries those political offences which the House of Representatives submits to its decision. It also acts as the great executive council of the nation; the treaties which are concluded by the President must be ratified by the Senate, and the appointments he may make must be definitely approved by the same body. *o

[Footnote o: See "The Federalist," Nos. 52-56, inclusive; Story, pp. 199-314; Constitution of the United States, sects. 2 and 3.] The Executive Power *p

[Footnote p: See "The Federalist," Nos. 67-77; Constitution of the United States, art. 2; Story, p. 315, pp. 615-780; Kent's "Commentaries," p. 255.]

Dependence of the President - He is elective and responsible - He is free to act in his own sphere under the inspection, but not under the direction, of the Senate - His salary fixed at his entry into office - Suspensive veto.

The American legislators undertook a difficult task in attempting to create an executive power dependent on the majority of the people, and nevertheless sufficiently strong to act without restraint in its own sphere. It was indispensable to the maintenance of the republican form of government that the representative of the executive power should be subject to the will of the nation.

The President is an elective magistrate. His honor, his property, his liberty, and his life are the securities which the people has for the temperate use of his power. But in the exercise of his authority he cannot be said to be perfectly independent; the Senate takes cognizance of his relations with foreign powers, and of the distribution of public appointments, so that he can neither be bribed nor can he employ the means of corruption. The legislators of the Union acknowledged that the executive power would be incompetent to fulfil its task with dignity and utility, unless it enjoyed a greater degree of stability and of strength than had been granted to it in the separate States.

The President is chosen for four years, and he may be reelected; so that the chances of a prolonged administration may inspire him with hopeful undertakings for the public good, and with the means of carrying them into execution. The President was made the sole representative of the executive power of the Union, and care was taken not to render his decisions subordinate to the vote of a council - a dangerous measure, which tends at the same time to clog the action of the Government and to diminish its responsibility. The Senate has the right of annulling g certain acts of the President; but it cannot compel him to take any steps, nor does it participate in the exercise of the executive power.

The action of the legislature on the executive power may be direct; and we have just shown that the Americans carefully obviated this influence; but it may, on the other hand, be indirect. Public assemblies which have the power of depriving an officer of state of his salary encroach upon his independence; and as they are free to make the laws, it is to be feared lest they should gradually appropriate to themselves a portion of that authority which the Constitution had vested in his hands. This dependence of the executive power is one of the defects inherent in republican constitutions. The Americans have not been able to counteract the tendency which legislative assemblies have to get possession of the government, but they have rendered this propensity less irresistible. The salary of the President is fixed, at the time of his entering upon office, for the whole period of his magistracy. The President is, moreover, provided with a suspensive veto, which allows him to oppose the passing of such laws as might destroy the portion of independence which the Constitution awards him. The struggle between the President and the legislature must always be an unequal one, since the latter is certain of bearing down all resistance by persevering in its plans; but the suspensive veto forces it at least to reconsider the matter, and, if the motion be persisted in, it must then be backed by a majority of two-thirds of the whole house. The veto is, in fact, a sort of appeal to the people. The executive power, which, without this security, might have been secretly oppressed, adopts this means of pleading its cause and stating its motives. But if the legislature is certain of overpowering all resistance by persevering in its plans, I reply, that in the constitutions of all nations, of whatever kind they may be, a certain point exists at which the legislator is obliged to have recourse to the good sense and the virtue of his fellow-citizens. This point is more prominent and more discoverable in republics, whilst it is more remote and more carefully concealed in monarchies, but it always exists somewhere. There is no country in the world in which everything can be provided for by the laws, or in which political institutions can prove a substitute for common sense and public morality.

Differences Between The Position Of The President Of The United States And That Of A Constitutional King Of France

Executive power in the Northern States as limited and as partial as the supremacy which it represents - Executive power in France as universal as the supremacy it represents - The King a branch of the legislature - The President the mere executor of the law - Other differences resulting from the duration of the two powers - The President checked in the exercise of the executive authority - The King independent in its exercise - Notwithstanding these discrepancies France is more akin to a republic than the Union to a monarchy -Comparison of the number of public officers depending upon the executive power in the two countries.

The executive power has so important an influence on the destinies of nations that I am inclined to pause for an instant at this portion of my subject, in order more clearly to explain the part it sustains in America. In order to form an accurate idea of the position of the President of the United States, it may not be irrelevant to compare it to that of one of the constitutional kings of Europe. In this comparison I shall pay but little attention to the external signs of power, which are more apt to deceive the eye of the observer than to guide his researches. When a monarchy is being gradually transformed into a republic, the executive power retains the titles, the honors, the etiquette, and even the funds of royalty long after its authority has disappeared. The English, after having cut off the head of one king and expelled another from his throne, were accustomed to accost the successor of those princes upon their knees. On the other hand, when a republic falls under the sway of a single individual, the demeanor of the sovereign is simple and unpretending, as if his authority was not yet paramount. When the emperors exercised an unlimited control over the fortunes and the lives of their fellow-citizens, it was customary to call them Caesar in conversation, and they were in the habit of supping without formality at their friends' houses. It is therefore necessary to look below the surface.

The sovereignty of the United States is shared between the Union and the States, whilst in France it is undivided and compact: hence arises the first and the most notable difference which exists between the President of the United States and the King of France. In the United States the executive power is as limited and partial as the sovereignty of the Union in whose name it acts; in France it is as universal as the authority of the State. The Americans have a federal and the French a national Government.

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