Although the states experimented with various models in writing their new constitutions, all of them included some basic principles. What were those basic principles and why were they important? •How would you explain legislative supremacy and why did most states favor it? •What ideas drawn from the natural rights philosophy were reflected in the new state constitution? Shortly after declaring independence from Great Britain, the Second Continental Congress called on each state to draw up a new constitution to protect every citizen’s individual rights and promote the common good. Between 1776 and 1780, the states adopted new constitutions, all containing the basic principles of higher law and natural rights, social contract, popular sovereignty, representation and the right to vote, legislative supremacy, and checks and balances. This was the first time that so many new governments had been created using these basic ideas, all centered around John Locke’s natural rights philosophy. Each new state constitution reflected the idea that the purpose of government is to preserve and protect the citizen’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property.
This was evident in the use of the principle of higher law. A higher law sets forth the basic rights of citizens and establishes the responsibility of the government to protect those rights. It establishes limitations on how those in government may use their power with regard to the citizens’ rights and responsibilities, the distribution of resources, and the control or management of conflict. Higher law can only be changed with the consent of the citizens using well-known procedures. Neither constitutions nor government can violate this higher law. If a government deprives the people of their natural rights, then the people have the right to change or abolish that government and form a new one. Every state considered its constitution to be a fundamental, or “higher,” law, placing limits on the governmental power. In order to prevent a totalitarian government and secure their natural rights, the colonists also agreed to the idea of social contract to be present in their new constitutions.
The fundamental foundation for government is the concept of social contract, in which human beings start as individuals in a “state of nature,” and create a society by establishing a contract in which they agree to live together in harmony for their common benefit, after which they are said to live in a “state of society.” This contract is, in other words, an agreement among the people to create a government to protect their natural rights as expressed in the constitution’s preamble or bill of rights. Each state constitution made clear that the state government was formed as a result of the social contract, expressing that the government was designed for the purpose of benefiting its common people, securing their unalienable right to life, liberty, and property. The idea of popular sovereignty comes from the concept of social contract; the government derives its power from the people creating a government that is restricted to the authority that is given to it by them. The people entrust authority to the government to govern in accordance with constitutional requirements, creating a government based upon the active consent of the people. This is a Lockean idea expressed in his natural rights philosophy.
According to this system, the source of governmental power lies with the people and no law is legitimate unless it rests, directly or indirectly, on the consent of those governed. The principle of popular sovereignty is the instrument for limiting the powers of government. As a result, the government’s functions and powers are prescribed, limited, and restricted by law. This places restrictions on the legalized uses of power and therefore on its capability to deprive the people of their liberty and, in turn, creates a government that is held accountable by those governed. This is important because the new states wanted to create a government of the people, for the people, by the people, preventing the government from depriving their powers and furthermore avoiding becoming tyrannical like the British became with the colonists. To prevent any kind of tyranny in the state governments, all of the new constitutions also created laws and acts in order to create representation and the right to vote, giving the citizens access to the government and an active say in what was happening. This created a way for the citizens to have contact with the government; voting for a representative to represent them and their wishes, furthermore creating an equality of rights.
The legislatures were composed of representatives elected by voters and most state constitutions provided for annual legislative elections. This was important because in their new state constitutions, the legislative branch was the one that held the most power in government. A government in which the legislature has the most power exhibits the principle of legislative supremacy. Most state constitutions provided for strong legislatures and relied on majority rule to protect the rights of citizens. This reflected the former colonists’ distrust of executive power, which they believed had been abused under British rule. Their greatest problem with the British government had been the executive branch, the king’s ministers and royal governors .The belief in legislative supremacy was based on several assumptions. When the colonists were creating their new constitutions, they assumed that the legislative branch was most capable of reflecting the will of the people, allowing the voters to determine who their representatives were and giving them the power to remove them if they believed someone else would better represent them.
They also assumed that the executive branch was less accountable to the people and should not be trusted with as much power. Another common assumption was that judges could not be trusted with too much power, for prior to the Revolution, judges had been Crown magistrates who had tried the colonists for breaking British laws. As a result, the new state constitutions limited judicial power in a variety of ways, including making judges stand for election regularly and giving legislatures the power to reduce their salaries. John Locke and other natural rights philosophers believed that in a representative government the legislative branch should be supreme because it is the branch closest to the people and reflects their wishes. Accordingly, the legislative branch is the least likely to violate the people’s rights. Most of the early state constitutions reflected Locke’s view of natural rights and weighted the balance of governmental power in favor of their legislatures in order to protect them. Although legislative supremacy relied on the principle of majority rule to protect the rights of citizens, most state constitutions could not fully trust this system for fear of corruption.
To avoid this, checks and balances were placed on legislative powers, usually within the legislatures. The constitutions provided for a check, or limit, on legislative powers by dividing the legislature into two houses. Important decisions required debate, deliberation, and actions by both houses, creating a degree of balance between them. Each house could check the power of the other by defeating a proposal with which it did not agree. Voters could also check legislators’ power by electing new representatives. The natural rights philosophy played a role, being the main objective for creating this principle. John Locke is one of the founders of the philosophy of individual rights and limited government. He and other philosophers stressed the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and property. They also believed that a person’s opportunities should not be limited by the situation into which they are born. Another focal point in the natural rights philosophy was the main purpose of government being to protect natural rights. Natural rights are certain freedoms or privileges that are believed to be an inherent part of being a human being that cannot be denied by society.
Locke argued that man was entitled to enjoy the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. He believed that government existed for the sole purpose of serving and protecting these rights. The ideas drawn from the natural rights philosophy and reflected in the new state constitutions of rights of life, liberty, and property came from John Locke and other natural rights philosophers. The new state constitutions were established in order to secure each person’s endowed natural rights. They acknowledged the fact that these rights would not be sustained in society unless they were protected under a set of laws and so effectively secured them in the government’s legal system. People are entitled to enjoy the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, and the government cannot take these away. After declaring independence from Great Britain, the states experimented with various models in writing their new constitutions. All of them included the basic principles of higher law and natural rights, social contract, popular sovereignty, representation and the right to vote, legislative supremacy, and checks and balances. These were all important because they reflected John Locke’s natural rights philosophy, securing the citizen’s unalienable right to life, liberty, and property.