What are the functions of the federal government in the United States? The question is not easy to answer. One reason is that the word “function” is often replaced with the word “expectations” in the response so the expectations of the federal government can vary from national defense and enforcing justice to providing social benevolence and healthcare. What did the Founding Fathers intend when they created the design for a federal government in 1787?
We know the Founders were concerned that government could become too strong and oppressive. The young nation just fought a war with Britain over this issue. They understood that human nature is innately self-centered so devices had to be in place to restrain the selfish impulses of those in government so they created three branches of government and entrusted each with the power of checks and balances in order to prevent one branch from becoming oppressive. The desire for individual freedom was a paramount concern to the point that the Bill of Rights was included in the Constitution in order to gain the support of the Anti-Federalists at the Constitutional Convention.
The Founders were reluctant in the beginning to create a strong federal government because of resistance by the states. The first attempt to unify the states was under the Articles of Confederation in 1781. The Articles were little more than a “gentlemen’s agreement” between states to support each other and to join in the common defense of the young nation. The Articles failed because the national government relied on voluntary cooperation and voluntary funding from the states and the states were often not compliant.
The weaknesses of the national government under the Articles revealed the need for a stronger central government. The Federalists believed a strong central government would be essential for uniting the states and for strengthening the nation because the state economies would connect into one national economy and with funding from all of the states the national government could provide other functions on behalf of the states.
The Anti-Federalists, who had been supporters of the Articles and still thought they would work with some minor revisions, were reluctant to join the movement towards a federal government. Many of the Anti-Federalists believed that states should possess the majority of the powers of government because the states would have a better understanding of the needs of the people and those in government would be more directly accountable to the citizens for their actions.
The need for a national government resulted in the call for a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer and early fall of 1787. Delegates from every state attended the convention. The group agreed that they wanted a representative government though they disagreed over how to determine representation. They agreed that power must be constrained though they had disagreements over how to best accomplish this goal. After months of deliberations and revisions the final Constitution was approved and published in September 1787. The Constitution was ratified by the states by 1788.
The Constitutional Convention experienced much turmoil and debate largely due to the political philosophy of the delegates. Specifically, the group had to work through disagreements over the functions of the federal government. The group did agree in the end on at least five functions of the federal government and identified these in the Preamble of the Constitution.
Establish justice – The federal government was to ensure fair treatment under the law and to punish those who inflict injustice on others. Social justice was a function of government though the African slaves were not included under this protection at the time.
Domestic tranquility – The federal government was to seek the welfare of citizens by maintaining peace while not becoming oppressive against the citizenry.
Common defense – The federal government held the responsibility for providing military and police protection for citizens.
General welfare – The federal government should promote the common good of all citizens meaning that all citizens have equal opportunity under the law and avoid injustice by supporting special interests at the expense of others.
Secure the blessings of liberty – All of attributes of personal liberty are gifts from God. The federal government is the protector of those rights and not the source of rights. The government’s role is to protect individual freedoms while not taking away from the rights of others except when exercising personal freedoms includes injustice towards others.
The Constitution created three branches of government and each was tasked with carrying out the five functions of the federal government in some manner. The legislative branch or Congress was responsible for creating laws as the representatives of the citizens. The executive branch under the President was responsible for implementing the will of Congress. The judicial branch or the Supreme Court was created to settle disputes based on the Constitution at the federal level.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention realized our nation could not survive without a strong federal government. The five functions of government could only be fulfilled with a national government that had the power to tax and to enforce its will on the people.