People often marvel when they hear that the British Constitution is not one single, written document but a collection of centuries of legal precedents. The U.S. Constitution must be easier to comprehend, since it is a written text for all to see -- or so they likely presume. Yet, the truth is that the American Constitution is itself an extremely complex legal instrument not solely isolated to its text. The powers of the government include both those explicitly mentioned and others.


Expressed powers are those explicit in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 delineates a host of the expressed responsibilities of the national government. The founders wrote the Constitution with the failures of its predecessor, the weaker Articles of Confederation, in mind. Expressed powers reflect their goal of creating a strong union of states. The national government has the right, among other things, to coin money, admit new states and declare wars.


Inherent powers may or may not appear in the Constitution’s text. Regardless, these duties are those regarded as necessary for the government to fulfill its basic functions. It is presumably unnecessary to delineate inherent powers because the government naturally possesses them. These natural rights of the government include such things as treaty making. The national government, this thinking assumes, should be the only authority to engage the country in a treaty with a foreign power.


The Constitution does not mention implied powers explicitly; nevertheless, they are powers needed for the government to perform the duties the Constitution does list. In effect, the national government can assume authority not given it on paper. There only has to be a reasonable link between the action and an expressed governmental power. The Supreme Court declared the concept of implied powers in its 1819 decision in McCulloch vs. Maryland. Representatives of Maryland had claimed that the national bank was unconstitutional since the Constitution did not mention it. The Supreme Court disagreed, deciding that Congress possessed powers implied, or unstated, in the Constitution.

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The 10th Amendment to the Constitution reserved all authority not given to the national government to the people and their states. These reserved powers include the police powers of the state. The police powers are the responsibility of states to provide for the health, wealth, safety and morals of the people. Reserved rights do change over time; for example, health care has expanded into a shared responsibility of the national government and the individual states.