The Enduring Success of the US-American Constitution: Between the Suspicion of a Strong Government and a Strong Social Welfare State

Essay 2006 9 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Content:

I. Introduction

II. The suspicion of a strong government
A. General idea
B. Features of the American Constitution of 1787
1) A stronger federal government
2) Limitation of power
3) Direct responsibility of the government to the people

III. The creation of a strong welfare state
A. Need for a welfare state
B. Features of the welfare state

IV. Conclusion

V. References

I. Introduction

When the seventy-four delegates of the thirteen founding states of America came together at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in 1787 to debate and draft a new constitution, they wanted to achieve two aims: On the one hand, they wanted to establish a successful and enduring federal government having the means to defend independence from European powers as well as to keep the states with their different interests together. On the other hand, knowing that authoritarian and corrupt monarchies oppressing their own people dominated the political world of the 18 th century, the constitution should be so carefully drafted that any government in future could be efficiently prevented from becoming too powerful and thus turning into a tyranny.[1]

Many people in those days doubted if these two demanding aims could be equally achieved by the new constitution. They were of the opinion that tyrannical governments are the price to pay for a well-functioning and successful government.[2] However, the history of the American Constitution has proven these people wrong: even more than 200 years later the same constitution is still in power. And more than that: it has become the founding document of the first modern – functioning – democracy with the result that not only the American people – no matter to what political camp they belong as individuals – are proud of their constitution[3] ; many other states wanting to establish their own democracy have also tried and still try to imitate and adopt the features of the US- Constitution.[4] So, looking at the unique history of the American constitution, the question arises: What is it that has made this constitution so stable and successful?

In my essay I want to argue that two aspects are responsible for this success: On the one hand, the US- Constitution is marked by its incorporation of mechanisms through which the idea of a suspicion of a strong government is expressed in order to protect individual freedom. On the other hand, it is the constitution’s flexibility to adapt its general principles to new social conditions that have contributed to its success. The most important adaptation which took

place in this context was that of the development of a social welfare state during the New- Deal-time which helped to master the worst economic crisis in American history.[5]

II. The suspicion of a strong government

A. General idea

The idea that people should be suspicious of an administration which has become too powerful and thus could abuse their authority is directly derived from the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which had a massive impact on America’s Founding Fathers. In this context, the British philosopher John Locke is especially worth mentioning. In his famous writing “Two Treaties on Government” from 1690 he states that people have natural, inalienable rights, above all those of life, liberty and property. To protect these rights, his arguments goes, people form governments by a social contract between the government and the governed, and according to this social contract a government is only legitimate, if it upholds the people’s rights. Because of this a legitimate government does not have the right under any circumstances to violate these rights. Therefore, according to Locke, a legitimate government can merely be a limited one that is always responsible to the governed.[6]

However, after the successful rebellion against the British King – with reference to the ideas of John Locke –, a first attempt of a new, American constitution, the Articles of the Confederation ratified in 1781, failed. This happened because the federal government based on the Articles of the Confederation was too weak: it could not raise an army, or finance an army because it had no authority to tax the people.[7] Instead, it had to ask the state governments for money and soldiers, and it seemed only a question of time when the different states would claim their independence from the federal government. The lesson learnt from the flawed Articles of the Confederation for the Founding Fathers was that, following Locke’s philosophy of a limited government, a government that is too limited was as bad as a government that is unlimited, as a government that is too limited means anarchy and a government that is unlimited means tyranny.

In conclusion, the idea of a suspicion of a strong government consists of three elements: the government has to be powerful enough to prevent anarchy, that is, a civil war between the governed; secondly, the power of each government must be limited, and thirdly, the government has to be directly and always responsible to the governed.


[1] Susan Welch/ John Gruhl/ John Comer/ Susan M. Rigdon, American Government, 9th edition, Belmont/CA, 2004, p. 28.

[2] Welch/Gruhl/Comer/Rigdon, p.31.

[3] Emil Hübner, Das politische System der USA, 3rd edition, Munich, 1993, p. 17.

[4] Welch/Gruhl/Comer/Rigdon, p.47.

[5] The two arguments explaining the success of the American constitution can be found in: M. Kearny Datesman, J. Crandoll, E.N. Kearny, A suspicion of strong government, in: The American Ways – An Introduction to American Culture, Prentice Hall, 2002, p.142- 150.

[6] Welch/Gruhl/Comer/Rigdon, p.34-36.

[7] Welch/Gruhl/Comer/Rigdon, p.26.


ISBN (eBook)
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University of Trier –  Department of English Studies
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Enduring Success US-American Constitution Between Suspicion Strong Government Social Welfare State Culture Studies North America John Locke Two Treaties on Government suspicion of a strong government Founding Fathers New Deal Welfare State individual freedom Bill of Rights 1787 interpretation anarchy tyranny American Revolution government suspicion Locke Roosevelt Johnson Great Society



Title: The Enduring Success of the US-American Constitution: Between the Suspicion of a Strong Government and a Strong Social Welfare State