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The US Constitution

The U.S. Constitution, the world's oldest, sets up a three-branch government. The Congress, the most powerful, makes laws. The President enforces them. The Supreme Court interprets them. This system ensures balance, with each branch checking the others. This is the essence of the Constitution's brilliance.

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Video transcript

- [Teacher] In the last video we discussed the great compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where delegates who were trying to craft a new governmental system for the United States agreed on how the legislative branch of the government would be set up, and the agreement they made was that it would be a two house or bicameral legislature with a House of Representatives, where the representatives would be apportioned based on state population, and then a Senate where every state would get two senators regardless of its size. This is just one example of how the framers of the constitution tried to introduce a notion of balance. In this video, I wanna zoom out a little bit and look at the broader constitution, because the legislative branch was really only one part of it. In fact, there are seven more articles of the constitution. So here, I'd like to spend some time taking a closer look at some of the other articles, paying special attention to the executive branch and the judicial branch, but before we do that, I just want to take a moment to marvel at the size of the constitution. Not because it's so big, but because it's so small. This is the first page of the constitution, famously starting with, "We the people," but the entire original constitution could fit on four pages. Compare that to the constitutions of many other nations which are hundreds of pages long, and I think the idea here in having a constitution that's really only seven articles long was that it was gonna set down principles. This wasn't going to be a whole set of laws that outlined everything that a state should do in any situation but rather a set of broad ideas around which lawmaking decisions could happen. In a way, you could think of the constitution as being kind of broad enough to be flexible. They spoke in larger generalities that could be applied to many different situations, and I think the proof that this was a good way to think about putting together a constitution is just in the fact that we'd still have this constitution today, more than 200 years after it was written in 1787. The US Constitution is the oldest constitution in the world that is still in effect at the national level. I think that's a pretty big deal. How did this constitution work? Well, let's look a little bit more closely at these first three articles and the branches of government they created. One of the ways that the framers of the constitution attempted to remedy the problems caused by the single branch government under the Articles of Confederation was creating a three branch government. One branch, established in Article 1, would be the Congress and within this building is the House of Representatives and the Senate. And this would be in the eyes of the framers, really the most powerful of the branches. They gave Congress the power to make law, to tax, to raise an army, to coin money. They really envisioned that most of the day to day operations and most of the power of government would fall under the duties of Congress, but one thing that the Articles of Confederation had lacked was a powerful executive, so the second branch of government, established in Article 2 is the executive branch, the head of which is the president. The job of the executive would be to enforce or carry out the laws made by Congress, and that would include doing things like waging war. Remember that the first president was George Washington, who had been the General of the Revolutionary Armies, but the president could also kind of have the front lines on dealing with foreign nations, so negotiating treaties, and would also have the power of appointing many government officials. And lastly, the third branch would be the judicial branch of government, established in Article 3. The head of the judicial branch would be the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. Of course, there are many other smaller courts below it at the state and district level. The Supreme Court's job, along with other courts, would be to interpret the law, to see whether or not things done by Congress and the president fell within the bounds of the constitution. And the framers really thought that the judicial branch would end up being the weakest branch of government, although both the presidency and the Supreme Court have grown in power over the years. Now, this is an incredibly brief overview of these three branches. These articles include lots more in them about the specific powers of each of these branches and the kinds of requirements one would need to become a representative or president, so I highly recommend that you read more about the Constitution and check out these articles. But what I want you to get out of this is that the framers here were trying to separate the powers of government, so they wanted to make sure that to avoid having too much power in government. Remember that they are trying to escape from the monarchy. They want to make sure that government power is kind of diffused among these three branches with the idea that they're going to have to argue with each other to get things done, they're going to have to cooperate with each other to get things done, so the separation of powers is one of the key principles of the Constitution. Another key principle is checks and balances. What do I mean by checks and balances? Well, this is the idea that each of the branches of government has the power to check in the sense of stop, like checkmate in chess, the other branches of government. I think of this as kind of like a giant governmental game of rock, paper, scissors. Now, there are many ways that these branches can check each other, but I just wanna give a couple of quick examples to help you understand what that might be like. Alright, say that Congress makes a law, and the president doesn't like that law. The president can use the power of the veto to kill that law, and if Congress gets annoyed enough with the president, they might use their power to impeach the president. What about the judicial branch? The judicial branch's main checking function is declaring laws unconstitutional. The president or Congress may put through a law that the Supreme Court says is not consistent with the Constitution. The judicial branch can then kill that law by declaring it unconstitutional. What happens if the other branches are unhappy with the judicial branch? One way that the president can check the judicial branch is through appointing judges. This would kind of change the composition of the court, the people on the court, and so over time, the presidency can influence who is on the Supreme Court and how they rule on laws. And lastly, if Congress isn't happy with the Supreme Court, they might be able to impeach justices, or change jurisdiction of the lower courts. In this way, like the separation of powers, the framers intended to make sure that one branch couldn't get too powerful, because it would be able to check the other branches. You could really think of this as being a brilliant way of harnessing peoples' natural inclination to look out for themselves. As rivalries developed, as people tried to do what they thought was best, they could help keep government honest by fighting among themselves, and as they all strove and checked each other, it would keep all of government from becoming too powerful.