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Government power and individual rights: lesson overview

How do we make sure that a government that's powerful enough to get things done isn't so powerful that it infringes on our personal liberties? 
When crafting the new constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation, the Framers had to answer an important question: What type of government would be strong enough to enforce order, but not so strong that it would violate the personal liberties of American citizens?
Federalists and Anti-Federalists wrote several essays on the matter, each group advocating for a different structure of government.

Key terms

Articles of ConfederationThe first government system of the United States, which lasted from 1776 until 1789. The Articles placed most power in the hands of state governments. Government under the Articles lacked an executive or a judicial branch.
Confederation CongressThe central government under the Articles of Confederation, composed of delegates chosen by state governments. Each state had one vote in the Congress, regardless of its population. The Congress had difficulty legislating as the Articles required nine of the thirteen states to vote to approve any measure, and a unanimous vote in order to amend the Articles themselves.

Key documents to know

Federalist No. 10 — An essay written by James Madison, in which he argues that a strong central government will control the effects of factions.
Brutus No. 1 — An Anti-Federalist essay that argued against a strong central government, based on the belief that it would not be able to meet the needs of all US citizens.
Image of the first page of Brutus no. 1.
The first page of Brutus No. 1. Image credit: Reading Revolutions

Key takeaways from this lesson

Limited government in the Constitution: The Articles of Confederation had several weaknesses that made governing difficult. These weaknesses caused delegates to meet in Philadelphia to discuss replacing the Articles of Confederation with a Constitution that created a stronger central government. Anti-Federalists, or people who were against ratifying the Constitution, feared that a strong central government would lead to tyranny and not reflect people’s needs.
The debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists led to several compromises that created a blueprint for a limited government, in which the Constitution limits the power of the federal government.
Who has the power: states or the federal government? Federalist No. 10 and Brutus No. 1 show how Federalists and Anti-Federalists had different opinions on how strong the federal government should be.
In Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that a large republic could control the “mischiefs of faction” and evenly distribute power between the federal government and the states.
The author of Brutus No. 1 disagreed, arguing that a powerful, centralized government was too far removed from individual citizens to meet their needs.
This debate about the proper role and strength of the federal government still exists today, as seen in issues like the role of the federal government in public school education.

Review questions

How does the Constitution create a limited government?
What are the advantages of a large central government, as described in Federalist No. 10?
What are the disadvantages of a large central government, as explained in Brutus No. 1?

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