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Foundations of the Consitution

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Many factors shaped the U.S. Constitution. Among them were British traditions, the American experience, existing
state constititutions, the founder's appreciation of Greek democracy, and the influence of the Age of Reason.

British Tradition

  • Limited power of the king
  • Laws made by Parliament--representative government
  • Judicial system--trial by jury, established rules, right to an advocate
  • Citizens have rights

American Experience

  • Different circumstances than Britain
  • Experience with the tyranny of a monarch
  • Less tradition than in Britain--willingness to try new ideas
  • Loose coalition of colonies--different interest and a need to compromise

State Constitutions

  • States function as laboratories for new ideas
  • Features of early state constitutions
    • Powerful legislatures--many had a single body. Corruption was a problem
    • Weak executive--four states had no executive
    • Legislative control over salaries and terms of judges
  • Mass. constitution revised-1780
    • Two legislative houses
    • Executive with veto
    • Independent judiciary
    • Bill of Rights

Athenian Democracy (500-300 B.C.)

  • Greek ideas and experiences were well known to the founders
  • Democracy vs. Republic
    • Democracy--direct decision making by the people
    • Republic--representatives chosen to make decisions
  • Structure of Athenian democracy
    • Assembly
      • Decided all important issues
      • Consisted of all free males
      • Leader selected by lot for each meeting
  • Council of 500
    • Executive committee of assembly
    • Leader selected by lot for each meeting–person could serve twice in a lifetime
  • Magistrates
    • Ran the government on a day-to-day basis
    • Selected by lot and served one year
  • Courts
    • Juries selected by lot
    • Could be as large as 1,000 people
  • Generals--elected by people
  • Ostracism--people cast out for 10 years based on majority vote

Benefits of Athenian Democracy

  • Views of people implemented
  • No lifetime politicians--opportunities for corruption and power limited
  • People were well-informed


  • Success determined by virtue of people
  • Some were excluded from participation
  • Best for small, homogeneous societies--factions destroyed

Age of Reason (Enlightenment) 1650-1800

  • A dominating philosophy of the time
    • Ideas of people such as Voltaire, Descarte, and Locke


  • Nature is well-ordered--simple laws govern
  • Impressed by scientific method
    • Newton and Galileo
    • Axioms + Logic => conclusions
  • Age of encyclopedias--cataloging ideas


  • God created universe, then left it alone
  • Nature is a perfect clock for us to understand
  • No clear purpose in nature

Humanity has great potential

  • Ability to reason
  • Value of education
  • Need to question authority

Implications of Enlightenment philosophy

  • Belief in dignity and worth of man
  • View that knowledge is power

John Locke--2nd Treatise on Government (1690)----influenced Jefferson, Madison, and others

People are "naturally" in a

  • "state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of possessions… within the bounds of natural law."

People are in a state of equality

  • "being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions"
Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . factpetersen. (2007, October 12). Foundations of the Consitution. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License