The president, for example, was given the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and foreign ambassadors—but only with the approval of the Senate. On the other hand, the president was granted the right to veto all Congressional legislation.

Congress was given its own veto power over the president—a two-thirds majority vote could override any presidential veto. Congress also was charged with the responsibility to confirm presidential appointees—but also the power to block them. And finally, Congress had the ability to impeach and remove the president for treason, bribery, and other “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The Supreme Court was given the sweeping power of judicial review—the authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional and thereby strike it down.

Fear of Pure Democracy

The delegates also feared pure democracy and considered it to be the placement of the government directly in the hands of the “rabble.” Many elements of the Constitution were thus engineered to ensure that only the “best men” would run the country.

Under the original Constitution, senators were to be appointed by state legislatures or governors, not elected by the people—in fact, this rule did not change until the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) established direct elections for senators. Although representatives in the House were elected directly by the people, their terms were set at only two years, compared to senators’ six years. In addition, even though new legislation could be introduced only in the House, the Senate had to approve and ratify any bills before they could become law.

These checks on pure democracy were not confined to the legislative branch. The Electoral College was implemented to ensure that the uneducated masses didn’t elect someone “unfit” for the presidency. Life terms for Supreme Court justices were also instituted as a safeguard against mob rule.

The Three-Fifths Clause

Another point of contention arose over whether or how to count slaves in the U.S. population. Delegates from southern and mid-Atlantic slaveholding states wanted each slave to count as one full person in the census in order to increase their number of representatives in the House. Northern states, in which slaves made up a much lower percentage of the population, argued that slaves should not be counted at all.

After a long debate, both sides agreed on a “three-fifths clause,” which stated that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person. Delegates also agreed to permit international slave trading only for the next twenty years, until 1808. Nowhere in the original Constitution did the drafters use the word slave; instead, they used vague terms such as “other persons.” Some historians have argued that this evasion indicates that slavery was polarizing Americans even in the late 1700s, well before the Civil War in the 1860s.

Legacy of the Constitution

Political philosophers around the world hailed the Constitution as one of the most important documents in world history. It established the first stable democratic government and inspired the creation of similar constitutions around the world. Many modern historians, however, see the Constitution as a bundle of compromises rather than a self-conscious, history-altering document.

Indeed, as events over the next two years would prove, the new Constitution was highly controversial. When the Constitution was completed in September 1787, only thirty-nine of the original fifty-five delegates remained in Philadelphia and fully supported the new document. It was time to give the Constitution to the individual states for ratification.

Popular pages: The Constitution (1781–1815)