February 4, 2023



A constitution has a catalog of functions. The constitution not only constitutes people into a state but also provides for the allocation of power to the different organs of government. The allocation of such powers within a state has been an issue of constant debate. As such, the dominant issue in constitutional law and litigation is the issue of constitutionalism. In many cases, a constitution is assessed based on how well it can safeguard the principle of separation of powers checks and balances. The Constitution has been subject to such an assessment. Over the years the document has gone through a sort of metamorphosis. These changes have been characterized by the need to determine the scope, extent, and exercise of power. 

This research aims to trace the change in attitudes regarding this issue from the colonial era to the Civil War. In doing so this paper shall address the ideas of John Lock and their influence in the discourse on the Stamp Act. It shall then assess the Articles of Confederation and compare them to the Articles of Government outlining the key differences between the two. Additionally, the paper shall appraise the situations arising between 1792 and 1857 and explain how they contribute to the understanding of the issue in question. This paper shall conclude by analyzing the impacts of the Dredd Scott Decision on slavery. 

Colonial Ideas of Government Power

To understand the pertinent issues at hand, it is first important to understand the historical background on the ideas of government and governance. Being a British colony, a lot of what the colonial imperialists did during that period shaped and continues to shape the USA (Corbett, P. Scott, Volker Janssen, John M. Lund, Todd J. Pfannestiel, Paul S. Vickery, and Oral Roberts. US history. OpenStax, 2017 pp.185). The government structure and ideas behind the exercise of power in governance in the present age owe a great deal to the practice, ideologies, and thoughts of prominent scholars and thinkers of the time. An example of one such man is John Locke. Locke was a doctor and educator who is credited for his seminal book Two Treatises of Government. In his book, he argues that the government formed a contract between those in leadership and the people. The leaders have an obligation according to this contract to protect the life, liberty, and people they represented. In Locke’s understanding, the government and governance were only legitimate where it is representative. He rejected the concept of a monarch as such power was unchecked and unlimited (Ibid pp.104). He instead advocated for a strong parliament. Such a parliament would take a central role in governance being the arm with a group of representatives, the parliament should be able to exercise checks and oversight on the monarch’s use of power. As such, the exercise of power in his view should never go unchecked. This would prevent instances of abuse of authority. 

Locke’s views on governance can be understood when looked at against the backdrop of the Stamp Act. The Act was a move by the colonial government to impose a direct tax to pay for the upkeep of the British troops in North America. (Ibid pp.132) The move to impose such a tax brought about considerable controversy. There were numerous protests against the Act. It seemed to deprive British citizens of the right to liberty, a cornerstone obligation of the government as asserted by John Locke (Ibid at 105). While it may not have appeared to deprive liberty on the face of it, it was argued that the Act denied the citizens the right to take part in the decision-making process. This was mainly because, at the time, the colonists felt left out in the decision to impose the tax. As a result, there was a considerable danger that this act amounted to an unconstitutional expansion of power. These reasons seem to resonate with Locke’s view against the arbitrary use of power and the need to involve the people in governance. 

Articles of Confederation 

The process leading up to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation was difficult. They were the first national constitution that sought to constitute the territories of each state into one unified country. Its key characteristics include; the use of unicameral legislation based on the earlier Continental Congress. The people were not allowed to vote directly for members of the congress, the state was also not allowed to decide its representatives. It was essentially made up of delegates. It also lacked a national judiciary and an executive head. 

Another key feature of the Articles of Confederation was the fact it sought to live up to the ideals of the revolution. The confederation sought to unite the country and advocate for peace and stability. It also had an aim to enhance diplomacy with neighboring states and to earn revenue by coining money. However, when compared to the Federal government, it appears that the Confederation was relatively weak. It lacked a federal executive and a national court. These are two key arms of the government it failed to provide for. The current Federal government is also in a better position to prevent the abuse of power. The three arms of the government work in coordination and are guided by separation of powers with checks, counter-checks, and balances (Supra pp. 195). As such, each arm of government exercises oversight on the exercise of power for each state.

Apart from the evident lack of an oversight mechanism for the legislative arm created by the Articles of Confederation, the process of coming up with laws was slow. This is based on the fact that to pass a law, the consent of all the states was needed. This in itself was a challenging exercise. Additionally, there was a lack of representation in Congress. Since the people could not elect representatives, it was difficult for the citizens to actively take part in government. The Federal Constitution on its part provides for public participation through voting in periodical elections. Moreover, the Bill of Rights (The U.S. Bill of Rights Amendments 1–10) allows the citizen to take part in elections and to petition the government (The First Amendment to the Constitution).

Key events between 1792 and 1857

The first key event to be assessed surrounds the Internal Improvement debate in 1800. This debate revolved around the issue as to whether the Federal government played a role in the provision of roads and canals. The Federal Government sought to take part in such initiatives to encourage settlement and boost the economy. The key consideration in the debate was whether the ability to take part in such allocation was pegged on constitutional amendments. Southerners viewed the move as an attempt by the federal government to exert power and authority over the states (Supra pp. 348).

Next is the issue of the Federal Regulation of Interstate Commerce in 1824. Here the key issue revolved around the scope of congress’ powers about the commerce clause at Article 1. This debate was brought to light following the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 US 1, 9 Wheat 6 LEd 23 (1824). Here the State of New York had granted a company exclusive right to use the Hudson River. This conflicted with Congress’ act of granting a license to a ship. It was held that the Federal Government’s laws took precedence and hence the state of New York was prohibited from taking such action that would conflict with Congress’s action.

Finally, in the South Carolina Exposition in 1828. This event related to the imposition of a law by Congress that sought to place a tariff on domestic raw materials while reducing protection against imported woolen goods. According to the then Vice President Calhoun, the federal government was attempting to impose its laws on the states. According to him, when faced with such a situation a state was entitled to nullify the federal law. This has been likened to secession or the voiding of the federal laws (Supra pp. 285).  

The Dred Scott v Sandford Decision

The case involved Dred Scott, born a slave and was taken to Missouri by his master. In 1820, his master tried to take him to Illinois and Wisconsin however, in both areas, slavery was prohibited. When he went back to Missouri, he attempted to buy his slavery but his master refused. He then sought to sue his slave master for relief arguing that he had lived in areas where slavery was abolished and was hence free. At court, the jury sided with Scott. However, on appeal, the court overturned the decision and Scott became Sandford’s property (60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857) at 396). 

Such an interpretation solidified the fact that the Federal Government’s power could not extend to the abolition of slavery in pro-slavery states. This decision drew considerable attention as it hampered considerable advancements in the abolition of slavery. It essentially stated that a slave remained a slave regardless f the fact that he was in a region that abolished slavery. Rodger Tracy’s comments can be seen as proof of the influence of Southern pro-slavery advocates on the Supreme Court (Supra pp. 408). As such, the decision hampered relations between the North and the South as the North felt that the decision was detrimental to the unification of the two differing fronts (Ibid).

Reasons for Secession 

The secession crisis was not only the reason behind the civil war but also formed a key issue relating to the exercise of power by the Federal Government. A key issue was the need to preserve slavery by the Southerners. There were fears that the Federal Government would try to use its power and authority to force states to abolish slavery. This was coupled with the fact that Abraham Lincoln, a prominent anti-slavery advocate, was elected as the president. This sparked fears that the state would take away the Southerner’s rights to own slaves. Slaves offered a cheap form of labor that the South, mostly agricultural in nature, did not want to lose. Additionally, there were arguments that the Federal Government was exercising excessive power thus infringing on the rights of the states (Supra pp. 346). 


From the analysis of the law and facts above, it is evident that there is a constant push against the abuse of power. From the notions of John Locke to the failures of the Articles of Confederation to the Dredd Scott Decision and the secession crisis. These events show that the people need to be involved in governance and that the rights of states need to be considered when the Federal Government makes decisions. These matters aid in limiting and preventing the abuse of state power. In truth, the secession crisis and other events between 1791 and 1861, are examples of the attempts to act against the alleged usurpation of power by the Federal Government. Actions that fit nicely into the arguments of John Locke. 


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