The United States is a democracy. But what do Americans mean when they use that word?
Abraham Lincoln, one of the best-loved and most respected of America's presidents, said that the United States had a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." He called the United States "a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." No one has formulated a better way of describing the principles of the American political system as Americans understand it. The Constitution, laws and traditions of. the United States give the people the right to determine who will be the leader of their nation, who will make the laws and what the laws will be. The people have the power to change the system. The Constitution guarantees individual freedom to all.
ORIGINS OF DEMOCRACY
The idea that the citizens of a nation should elect their officials or have a voice in making laws was not a new one when the United States came into being. Athens and other city-states of ancient Greece had forms of democracy.
Democracy as a form of government disappeared from ancient Greece and, over the centuries, the translation of the principles and ideals of democracy into practice has been very rare throughout the world. Most people have been ruled by kings, queens, emperors or small elite groups and, except for certain
The American political system is based on the principles of representative government and individual freedom. Here, voters at a town meeting in New England cast their ballots for town representative in a tradition of local democracy that dates back to early colonial days. The National Geographic members of the nobility, the people have had no voice in their government. That was the situation in Europe in 1492 when an Italian named Christopher Columbus, in ships provided by the king and queen of Spain, sailed westward, seeking Asia, and landed in the "New World."
The New World consisted of what are now the continents of North and South America. Most Europeans did not know until after Columbus had made his great voyage that these land masses existed. Within a few years, the more powerful nations of Europe were claiming great areas of each continent and establishing colonies to support their claims.
By the 1700s, England had established 13 colonies in the eastern part of what is now the United States. Most of the colonists were English or from other parts of the British Isles, such as Scotland, Ireland and Wales. There were also, however, many Germans in Pennsylvania, Swedes in Delaware and Dutch in New York, which was originally the Dutch colony of New Netherland but was captured by Britain in 1664.
Some of the early British colonists had come to the New World in hopes of enriching themselves; others came because Britain forced them to leave—they were troublemakers or people who could not pay their debts. Some came because of the opportunity, which did not exist for them in Europe, to own land or practice a trade. But there were other reasons, and those other reasons had great influence on the eventual shaping of the political system of the United States.
In the course of its long history as a nation, Great Britain had taken several steps toward democracy. England (including
Wales) had a parliament which made laws, and most people enjoyed a degree of individual freedom. England, however, had an official state religion, the Church of England, and those who did not accept that religion as their own were often persecuted. Many, such as the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts, left for the colonies in order to be able to practice their religion and not suffer for it. Though the Puritans themselves did not tolerate religious dissent in Massachusetts, early settlers often welcomed groups fleeing religious persecution in their homelands. Maryland was established as a haven for Catholics. William Penn, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), was granted a large tract of land in the New World by King James II. There he founded the colony of Pennsylvania, where he set up laws protecting freedom of religion and speech. Those laws also enabled the Pennsylvania colonists to have a voice in their local government. Others fleeing persecution in Europe, including many Germans, eagerly settled in the colony. People such as William Penn set an example which helped spread democratic ideals and practice throughout the colonies.
Life in the colonies also helped strengthen democratic ideas. The colonists were far from their old homelands and in a sparsely inhabited new land of forest and wilderness. They had to work together to build shelter, provide food, clear the land for farms and in general to make their new homeland livable for them. This need for cooperation and sharing, combined with a belief in individualism, strengthened the idea that in the New World people were equal; that no one should have special rights and privileges.
Each colony had its own government. In the northern colonies (New England), for example, the colonists met in town meetings to enact the laws by which they would be governed. Other colonies were ruled by representatives of the British king, but always with some consultation with the colonists.
WAR AND INDEPENDENCE
As time passed, the colonist began to resent the governing power that Britain exercised over them. The British government required them to pay taxes to help pay for colonial expenses, but gave them no voice in passing the tax laws. British troops were stationed in the colonies and some people were forced to house the troops in their homes. The British motherland determined what the colonists could produce and with whom they could trade.
In 1774, a group of leaders from the colonies met and formed the "Continental Congress," which informed the king of the colonists' belief that, as free Englishmen, they should have a voice in determining laws that affected them. The king and the conservative government in London paid no heed to the concerns of the colonists, and many colonists felt that this was an injustice which gave them reason to demand independence from Britain. In 1775, fighting broke out between New England militia and British soldiers.
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress issued a Declaration of Independence, primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, a farmer and lawyer from the colony of Virginia. This document listed many grievances against the king and declared that from that time the "United Colonies" were no longer colonies of England. The Declaration described them as "free and independent states" and officially named them the United States of America.
Besides declaring the colonies to be a new nation, the Declaration of Independence set forth some of the principles of American democracy. The document says that all people are created equal, that all have the right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," and that governments obtain their powers from "the consent of the governed." The Declaration, and the Constitution after it, combined America's colonial experience with reflection upon the thought of political philosophers such as John Locke to produce the new concept of a democracy governed by the people's representatives for the purpose of protecting the rights of individuals.
With help from France, England's old enemy, and from other Europeans, the American armies, led by George Washington, a surveyor and gentleman farmer from Virginia, won the War of Independence. The peace treaty, signed in 1783, set the western boundary of the new nation at the Mississippi River. The United States covered most of the eastern third of North America.
ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION
When peace came, the United States was not one unified nation as it is today. Each new state had its own government and was organized very much like an independent nation. Each made its own laws and handled all of its internal affairs. During the war, the states had agreed to work together by sending representatives to a national congress patterned after the "Congress of Delegates" that conducted the war with England. After the war was won, the Congress would handle only problems and needs that the individual states could not handle alone. It would raise money to pay off debts of the war, establish a money system and deal with foreign nations in making treaties. The agreement that set up this plan of cooperation was called the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation failed because the states did not cooperate with the Congress needed or with each other. When the Congress money to pay the national army or to pay debts owed to France and other nations, some states refused to contribute. The Congress had been given no authority to force any state to do anything. It could not tax any citizen. Only the state in which a citizen lived could do that.
Many Americans worried about the future. How could they win the respect of other nations if the states did not pay their debts? How could they improve the country by building roads or canals if the states would not work together? They believed that the Congress needed more power.
The Congress asked each state to send delegates to a convention in Philadelphia, the city where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, to discuss the changes which would be neccessary to strengthen the Articles of Confederation.
The smallest state, Rhode Island, refused, but delegates from the other 12 states participated. The meeting, later known as the Constitutional Convention, began in May of 1787. George Washington, the military hero of the War of Independence, was the presiding officer. Fifty-four other men were present. Some wanted a strong, new government. Some did not.
In the course of the Convention, the delegates designed a new form of government for the United States. The plan for the government was written in very simple language in a document called the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution set up a federal system with a strong central government. A federal system is one in which power is shared between a central authority and its constituent parts, with some rights reserved to each. The Constitution also called for the election of a national leader, or president. It provided that federal laws would be made only by a Congress made up of representatives elected by the people. It also provided for a national court system headed by a Supreme Court.
In writing the Constitution, the delegates had to deal with two main fears shared by most Americans.
One fear was that one person or group, including the majority, might become too powerful or be able to seize control of the country and create a tyranny. To guard against this possibility, the delegates set up a government consisting of three parts, or branches, the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Each branch has powers that the others do not have and each branch has a way of counteracting and limiting any wrongful action by another branch.
Another fear was that the new central government might weaken or take away the power of the state governments to run their own affairs. To deal with this the Constitution specified exactly what power the central government had and which power was reserved for the states, the states were allowed to run their own governments as they wished, provided that their governments were democratic.
To emphasize its democratic intent, the Constitution opens with a statement, called a Preamble, which makes it clear that the government is set up by "We, the People" and its purpose is to "promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" (descendants).
Before the new government could become a reality, a majority of the citizens in nine of the 13 states would have to approve it. Those in favor of the adoption of the Constitution argued long and hard in speeches and writing. They finally prevailed, but the states made it clear that one more change would have to be made as soon as the new government was established.
Representatives of various states noted that the Constitution did not have any words guaranteeing the freedoms or the basic rights and privileges of citizens. Though the Convention delegates did not think it necessary to include such explicit guarantees, many people felt that they needed further written protection against tyranny. So, a "Bill of Rights" was added to the Constitution.
Although the world has changed greatly in the past 200 years, it has proved possible for the Constitution to be viewed as a living document, one that could be interpreted by scholars and judges who have been called upon to apply its provisions to circumstances unforeseen at the time it was written.
The legislative branch is made up of elected representatives from all of the states and is the only branch that can make federal laws, levy federal taxes, declare war or put foreign treaties into effect. It consists of a Congress that is divided into two groups, called houses:
• The House of Representatives comprises lawmakers who serve two-year terms. Each House member represents a district in his or her home state. The number of districts in a state is determined by a count of the population taken every 10 years. The most heavily populated have more districts and, therefore, more representatives than the smaller states, some of which have only one. In the 1980s, there are 435 representatives in the United States House of Representatives.
• The Senate comprises lawmakers who serve six-year terms. Each state, regardless of population, has two senators. That assures that the small states have an equal voice in one of the houses of Congress. The Terms of the senators are staggered, so that only one-third of the Senate is elected every two years. That assures that there are some experienced senators in Congress after each election.
The main duty of the Congress is to make laws, inluding those which levy taxes that pay for the work of the federal government. A law begins as a proposal called a "bill." It is read, studied in committees, commented on and amended in the Senate or House chamber in which it was introduced. It is then voted upon.
If it passes, it is sent to the other house where a similar procedure occurs. Members of both houses work together in "conference committees" if the chambers have passed different versions of the same bill. Groups who try to persuade congressmen to vote for or against a bill are known as "lobbies." When both houses of Congress pass a bill on which they agree, it is sent to the president for his signature. Only after it is signed does the bill become a law.
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
The chief executive of the United States is the president, who, together with the vice president, is elected to a four-year term. Under a Constitutional Amendment passed in 1951, a president can be elected to only two terms. Except for the right of succession to the presidency, the vice president's only Constitutional duties are to serve as the presiding officer of the Senate; the vice president may vote in the Senate only in the event of a tie.
The powers of the presidency are formidable, but not without limitations. The president, as the chief formulator of public policy, often proposes legislation to Congress. The president can also veto (forbid) any bill passed by Congress. The veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives. As head of his political party, with ready access to the news media, the president can easily influence public opinion regarding issues and legislation that he deems vital.
The president has the authority to appoint federal judges as vacancies occur, including members of the Supreme Court. All such court appointments are subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Within the executive branch, the president has broad powers to issue regulations and directives regarding the work of the federal government's many departments and agencies. He also is commander in chief of the armed forces.
The president appoints the heads and senior officials of the executive branch agencies; the large majority of federal workers, however, are selected through a non-political civil service system. The major departments of the government are headed by appointed secretaries who collectively make up the president's cabinet. Each appointment must be confirmed by a vote of the Senate. Today these 13 departments are: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy and Education.
Under the Constitution, the president is primarily responsible for foreign relations with other nations. The president appoints ambassadors and other officials, subject to Senate approval, and, with the secretary of state, formulates and manages the nation's foreign policy. The president often represents the United States abroad in consultations with other heads of state, and, through his officials, he negotiates treaties with other countries. Such treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Presidents also negotiate with other nations less formal "executive agreements" that are not subject to Senate approval.
THE JUDICIAL BRANCH
The judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Court, which is the only court specifically created by the Constitution. In addition, the Congress has established 11 federal courts of appeal and, below them, 91 federal district courts. Federal judges are appointed for life or voluntary retirement, and can only be removed from office through the process of impeachment and trial in the Congress.
Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases arising out of the Constitution; laws and treaties of the United States; maritime cases; issues involving foreign citizens or governments; and cases in which the federal government itself is a party. Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear cases arising out of the laws of individual states.
The Supreme Court today consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices. With minor exceptions, all its cases reach the Court on appeal from lower federal or state courts. Most of these cases involve disputes over the interpretation of laws and legislation. In this capacity, the Court's most important function consists of determining whether congressional legislation or executive action violates the Constitution. This power of judicial review is not specifically provided for by the Constitution; rather, it is the Court's interpretation of its Constitutional role as established in the landmark Marbury v. Madison case of 1803.
CHECKS AND BALANCES
When Americans talk about their three-part national government, they often refer to what they call its system of "checks and balances." This system works in many ways to keep serious mistakes from being made by one branch or another. Here are a few examples of checks and balances:
• If Congress proposes a law that the president thinks is unwise, the president can veto it. That means the proposal does not become law. Congress, can enact the law despite the president's views only if two-thirds of the members of both houses vote in favor of it.
• If Congress passes a law which is then challenged in the courts as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has the power to declare the law unconstitutional and therefore no longer in effect.
• The president has the power to make treaties with other nations and to make all appointments to federal positions, including the position of Supreme Court justice. The Senate, however, must approve all treaties and confirm all appointments before they become official. In this way the Congress can prevent the president from making unwise appointments.
BILL OF RIGHTS
To all Americans, another basic foundation of their representative democracy is the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791. This consists of 10 very short paragraphs which guarantee freedom and individual rights and forbid interference with the lives of individuals by the government. Each paragraph is an Amendment
to the original Constitution.
In the Bill of Rights, Americans are guaranteed freedom of religion, of speech and of the press. They have the right to assemble in public places, to protest government actions and to demand change. They have the right to own weapons if they wish. Because of the Bill of Rights, neither police nor soldiers can stop and search a person without good reason. They also cannot search a person's home without legal permission from a court to do so.
The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans the right to a speedy trial if accused of a crime. The trial must be by a jury and the accused person must be allowed representation by a lawyer and must be able to call in witnesses to speak for him or her. Cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden.
There were 16 other amendments to the Constitution as of 1991. That is not many changes considering that the Constitution was written in 1787. Only a few need to be mentioned here. One forbids slavery and three others guarantee citizenship and full rights of citizenship to all people regardless of race. Another gives women the right to vote and another lowered the national voting age to 18 years.
There is one more very important part of the American political scene which is not part of any formal written document: the political party system.
Political parties are organized groups of people who share a set of ideas about how the United States should be governed and who work together to have members of their group elected in order to influence the governing of the country. When members of a political party form a majority in Congress, they have great powers to decide what kinds of laws will be passed. With exceptions, presidents tend to appoint members of their party or supporters of the views of their party to executive branch positions, including those of secretaries (heads of federal executive agencies) within the presidential cabinet.
The writers of the Constitution feared that parties representing narrow interests rather than the general interest of all the people could take over the government. They hoped the government would be run by qualified people who did not have a second loyalty—a loyalty to a party. They believed their government would work well without parties. Despite this, parties began to form shortly after the Constitution went into effect; parties proved to be an effective way within a system of checks and balances for people with similar views to band together to achieve national goals.
Today, the United States has two major political parties. One is the Democratic party, which evolved out of Thomas Jefferson's party, formed before 1800. The other is the Republican party, which was formed in the 1850s, by people in the states of the North and West, such as Abraham Lincoln, who wanted the government to prevent the expansion of slavery into new states then being admitted to the union.
Most Americans today consider the Democratic party the more liberal party. By that they mean that Democrats believe the federal government and the state governments should be active in providing social and economic programs for those who need them, such as the poor, the unemployed or students who need money to go to college. The Democrats earned that reputation in the 1930s when there was a worldwide economic depression. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" plan, Democrats set up government programs that provided paid employment for people building dams and roads and public buildings. The government under the Democratic party established many other programs, including Social Security, which ensures that those who are retired or disabled receive monthly payments from the government. Labor unions also received active government, and Democratic party, support in the New Deal era.
Republicans are not necessarily opposed to such programs. They believe, however, that many social programs are too costly to the taxpayers and that when taxes are raised to pay for such programs, everyone is hurt. They place more emphasis on private enterprise and often accuse the Democrats of making the government too expensive and of creating too many laws that harm individual initiative. For that reason, Americans tend to think of the Republican party as more conservative.
Both major parties have supporters among a wide variety of Americans and embrace a wide range of political viewpoints.
There is so much variety in both major parties that not all members of Congress or other elected officials who belong to same party agree with each other on everything. There are conservative Democrats who tend to agree with many Republican ideas and liberal Republicans who often agree with Democratic ideas. These differences often show up in the way members of Congress note on certain laws. Very frequently, there are both Democrats and Republicans who do not vote the way their party leaders suggest. They put their own views or the views of the people they represent ahead of the views of their party leaders.
Americans do not have to join a political party in order to vote or to be a candidate for a public office. However, running for office without the money and campaign workers a party can provide is difficult. Many voters become members of a party because they feel strongly about the party goals or want a voice in selecting its candidates. Whether or not they belong to a party, voters may cast ballots for any candidate they wish. Everyone votes in secret, and no one can know how another votes or force another person to vote for any particular program or candidate.
There are other, smaller parties in the United States besides the two major parties. None of these smaller parties has enough popular support to win a presidential election, but some are very strong in certain cities and states and can have their own state or city candidates elected or can determine which major party wins by supporting one or the other.
Many people from other nations are surprised to learn that among the political parties in the United States is a Communist party and other Marxist Socialist parties. They are surprised because the United States is seen by many as the leader of the nations opposed to communism. Most Americans do not like the ideas represented by the Communist party and distrust communism in general. The fact that the party exists, seeks to attract supporters and participates freely in elections, however, is considered evidence that there are no exceptions to the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
One concern many Americans have about their political system is the high cost of campaigning for public office. These costs have risen sharply in recent years, in part because most candidates, in order to reach a large number of voters, buy advertising time on television. In 1990, the average winning candidate for election to the House of Representatives spent $406,000—more than four times the average spent in 1976. People worry that the high cost of getting elected may force candidates to spend more time raising money than dealing with important issues and may discourage many qualified people from running for public office. They are also concerned because much of the money to fund political campaigns comes from organized interest groups rather than individuals. Many Americans question whether, after election, these officials will feel more beholden to the groups which gave them money than to the people they represent.
The concerns of the public—and of elected office-holders themselves—have started a movement to change the financing of elections. Some people advocate voluntary spending limits. Others want the government to set limits. It's uncertain exactly what changes will be made, but public concern is so great that reforms in political campaign spending are bound to come soon.
The emphasis on freedom, rights and equality has created in citizens of the United States strong feelings of independence, self- worth and even resistance to discipline, as well as a belief that people should be able to do what they want without interference so long as they don't interfere with the rights of others. These feelings and beliefs have brought about many social and political changes in the United States.
Some of the changes may not seem significant, but they tell something about the democratic American character. One example: In the early 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson began shaking hands with people he met, no matter who they were. He did this because he believed the old European custom of bowing was undemocratic. Americans have been shaking hands as a way of greeting ever since.
There have been many highly important changes brought about in citizens' lives because of Americans' demands for a better life. For example, in the 1930s, Congress passed laws that increased pay, decreased working hours and improved working conditions for workers in factories, in mines and on railroads. These laws recognized the rights of workers to form and be represented by independent unions. The laws resulted from protests by workers against what they considered unjust treatment by employers and the system of courts.
For most Americans, for most of the time, life is peaceful. They do their jobs and enjoy their homes and families, though they remain interested in public issues. They keep up with news of what the president or Congress is doing. Some may at times write letters to congressmen or to newspapers expressing their views. They might discuss taxes or government activities with friends and family; others will become actively involved in local political debates or in supporting candidates for political office. Unless something unusual is taking place, however, they do no more than that. They quietly let their democratic system work, confident that their freedoms are protected.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Acheson, Patricia C. Our Federal Government: How It Works. 4th ed.
New York: Dodd Mead, 1984.
Burns, James M., J.W. Peltason and Thomas E. Cronin. Government by the People: National, State, Local 12th ed..
Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
Irwin, Jr. Wallace. America in the World: A Guide to U.S. Foreign Policy.
New York: Foriegn Policy Association, 1983.
Rossiter, C., ed.
The Federalist Papers.
New York: New American Library, 1961.
U.S. Congress. House. Committee on the Judiciary. How Our Laws Are Made. Prepared by Edward F. Willett, Jr.
Washington: U.S. Government printing Office, 1980.
U.S. Congress. House. Our American Government. What Is It? How Does It Function? 150 Questions and Answers. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981.
Wilson, James Q.
American Government: Institutions and Policies, 3rd ed.