The US Constitution
The Constitution’s first article is by far its longest. Its ten sections lay out the structure of the legislative branch and—more than anywhere else in the document—enumerate the powers to be exercised by the federal government. The article’s length and placement in the Constitution clearly indicate that the Framers expected Congress to be the dominant institution of government.
Creating Article I sorely tested the Constitutional Convention and occupied much of its time. Not only did the definition of legislative powers provoke long and at times heated debate, but the question of representation—should Congress reflect the distribution of population or maintain the equality of the states that marked the Articles of Confederation—nearly brought the convention to a premature conclusion on more than one occasion. The Great Compromise that paved the way for a bicameral Congress in which the popularly-elected House was proportioned by population and the Senate (chosen by state legislatures until the seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913) gave each state equal representation may have saved the convention, but it caused James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” to regard the final product as seriously flawed.
Almost as contentious was the process of defining the powers of the new government. The final result was an enumeration (found in Section 8 of the Article) that was--like much of the convention’s work--a compromise intended to remedy the major defects of the Articles of Confederation. The famous “Necessary and Proper” (or “elastic”) clause, especially when combined with the powers given Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, would leave the door open to a vast expansion of the scope of federal activity through the elaboration of the doctrine of implied powers.
It is easy to forget that Article I also limits legislative power. The ninth section, for example, prohibits Congress from taxing imports or passing laws that favor one port over another. The prohibitions against suspending the writ of habeas corpus, bills of attainder, and ex post facto laws form a sort of mini bill of right that provided ammunition for those who felt the original Constitution’s major flaw was its failure to specify individual rights more fully (thus helping to bring about the addition of the Bill of Rights).
The article also limits the power of the states; Section 10 prohibits the states from a variety of actions, especially those that would interfere with the development of national fiscal and commercial policies or leave the states with any meaningful role in foreign relations.
Article I is the only place in the original Constitution that addresses the right to vote. It leaves the definition to the states, mandating only that the electorate for Congressional elections be the same as that for the most numerous house of a state’s legislature. Not until the post-Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did the Constitution itself seek to expand voting rights.
In some ways, Article I’s implementation would probably have surprised the Framers. One unintended development that many witnessed in their own lifetimes was the rise of partisan politics, a circumstance that quickly came to condition elections to the two houses and changed the way they went about their business. Of longer life was the assumption that government would be dominated by the legislative branch. From the Civil war on, however, a variety of national crises fostered a much stronger and larger executive branch than many Framers would have been comfortable with. This is especially evident in Congress’s loss of initiative with regard to its “war powers.” While Article I grants Congress the power to declare war, it has been almost sixty-five years since that power was exercised (in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor). All of our post-World War II conflicts have been undeclared wars, waged on presidential initiative.
Some framers, at least, would have been surprised at the infrequency with impeachment process (outlined in Article I’s Sections 2 and 3) has been invoked. Never has it been followed through to the removal of an executive branch official.
Despite all the changes, the essential features of Article I remain much as they were originally drafted: a bicameral legislature exercising enumerated and implied powers. While, to judge from public opinion polls, Congress as a whole tends to be respected less than the other two branches of government, Americans generally like their own Representatives and Senators and have evinced no great desire for fundamental change in the system.
William C. Lowe, PhD
Dean and Professor of History
published September 2007