Constitutional Provisions for Limited Government

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  • 0:06 Limited Government
  • 1:27 Federalism
  • 3:03 The Supremacy Clause
  • 4:37 Separation of Powers
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The United States Constitution lays out a limited federal government. Our federal government is based on federalism, with a separation of powers. This lesson explores constitutional provisions for a limited government.

Limited Government

'We the People….'

Do you recognize these three important words? These are the first few words of the Preamble to our United States Constitution. With these three words, our constitutional Framers declared that our government exists only because the people of the U.S. authorize it to exist.

Our United States government system is known as a limited government. This means our government has only those powers the people have specifically authorized. Our government receives its power and authority from the people and has only those limited powers the people have expressly given to it.

The Constitution creates our federal government. When reading the Constitution, you'll notice that it sets out the form of the federal government then lays out all the things the federal government cannot do. For example, the First Amendment reads 'Congress shall make no law….' The Second Amendment says the people's right to bear arms 'shall not be infringed.' Think of the Constitution as mostly a list of 'don'ts' rather than a list of 'dos.'

Federalism

Our limited government is based on federalism. Federalism is a method of government that allows two or more entities to share control over the same geographic region. In the U.S., people are subject to the governmental powers of both the federal government and their state governments.

The Constitution expressly grants some fairly broad powers to the federal government, but not to the states. For example, Article I, Section 8 grants Congress the right to coin money and declare war. The following section prohibits the states from coining money or declaring war.

Remember that the Constitution stresses what the states can't do. This is our limited government at work. However, the addition of the Bill of Rights, including the Tenth Amendment, helps the states out a bit. The Tenth Amendment gives the states all powers not delegated to the national government or specifically denied to the states. In other words, under federalism, the states can regulate whatever is left over.

The Constitution acknowledges that state laws will play the largest role in governing the people on a day-to-day basis. In this way, the Constitution gives great leeway to the states to determine how to best govern their people - as long as the states obey the list of 'don'ts'.

The Supremacy Clause

The Supremacy Clause is also an important part of our limited government. This clause is the section of the Constitution stating that the Constitution and federal laws are the 'Supreme Law of the Land.' The constitutional framers wanted to ensure that the states wouldn't overpower the federal government. The Supremacy Clause is a guarantee that no laws will interfere with the goals of the Constitution.

The Supremacy Clause is found in Article VI, Section 2, where the Constitution specifies which powers the federal government has and which powers the federal government does not have. When a state law conflicts with a federal law, the Supremacy Clause operates to invalidate the state law in favor of the federal one as long as the federal law is found to be in 'pursuance of the Constitution.'

Notice that the Supremacy Clause operates to further limit state governments. It means that states can't regulate, interfere with or control federal issues. This principle is exemplified in the famous 1819 Supreme Court case of McCulloch v. Maryland. In this case, the Court held that Maryland could not constitutionally tax the operations of the Bank of the United States, since that was a federal power.

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