American government was initially defined by the US Constitution as signed at the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1789 and ratified by the states on June 21, 1788. Since then, American government, although based on the US Constitution, has evolved substantially as have the country and its people. Thus, understanding American government requires not only an understanding of the Constitution but also an understanding of American history, how America has changed since 1789 and how government has evolved to reflect the changes.
A useful approach to such complexities is to think of American government as President Abraham Lincoln described it in his Gettysburg address “…Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Government by the People
The American form of government grew out of the American Revolution which was fought in concert by the 13 original British colonies. The revolution was motivated by strong beliefs of individual liberty and justice (fairness) which became expressed in the Declaration of Independence and eventually codified into law by the US Constitution.
The US Constitution directly expressed the beliefs of the majority of the American colonists. In general, the colonists who staged an armed rebellion against England led by its “despotic” ruler, King George III, sought to avoid, at all costs, a strong uncontrollable central government that could lead to a similar tyranny. Consequently, the colonists initially established a government decentralized to each of the 13 original colonies under what was known as the Articles of Confederation. However, in practice, the decentralized government established by the Articles of Confederation proved too weak to provide effective government. George Washington summed it up, “Thirteen Sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin on the whole….”.
Thus, a constitutional convention was assembled by a group of colonists now known as “the founding fathers.” (Key members included, George Washington, chair, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison). It took place in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.
Intense and brilliant debate waged throughout the 13 colonies over the means to strengthen a new government without running the risk of falling back into the tyranny that the colonists had fought and lost lives to avoid. (Key documents include The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers).
The members of the constitutional convention who wrote the US Constitution produced a form of government never seen before. It combined a centralized federal government with decentralized state governments. The powers of the federal government were explicitly limited to specified powers with all other aspects of government reserved for the states. In addition, to strictly limit the risk of the federal government gaining too much power, a system known as “checks and balances” was deliberately crafted into the structure to limit or “balance” power. To this end, the US federal government is itself divided into three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.
Individual citizens are the most important component of the American government.
What powers can a US citizen have in relation to the American government?
- Become informed on national, state and local issues
- Discuss issues objectively with other citizens
- Participate in the work of political parties that nominate candidates for elective office
- Run for elective office (Federal, state and local)
- Vote in primaries and elections
- Express views directly and indirectly (e.g. through organizations ) to elected officials (e.g. visits or personal contact, telephone calls, letters)
- Contribute facts and opinions to the press
- Create or support petitions
- Join citizen assemblies and demonstrations
- Express opinions when polled (many decisions by elected officials are based, in part, on polls of citizens)
- Contribute money and/or do volunteer work for candidates for public office
- Organize or join with other citizens to advance a cause
- Exercise rights, as established by state of residence, to recall elected officials
“Recall examples: The 2003 California gubernatorial recall election was a special election permitted under California state law. It resulted in voters replacing incumbent Democratic Governor Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other California governors, including Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, and Pete Wilson, had faced unsuccessful recall attempts. (Wikipedia, 6/3/16)”
- Vote to amend (update) the US Constitution
An overlooked source of the power of the American people is citizenship education. Originally, in America only free male property owners could vote or hold office. The founding fathers were highly educated men and based the original design of the American government on a model of representative government that reflected their own circumstances: government was in the hands of a well-to-do elite and individuals selected by that elite. Today, suffrage is no longer limited to property holders and has expanded to virtually all American citizens at the age of eighteen, regardless of education level.
Does citizen education empower people to govern in American Democracy? Absolutely! A literate informed and participatory citizenry is the mainstay of a well-functioning democratic government. Citizens need to evaluate candidates and sort through lies and manipulations. While many complex issues must be addressed by elected officials, citizen power requires enough understanding of issues to make judgements on the maturity, wisdom and integrity of candidates for office and elected officials. A general evaluation of the wisdom of Party platforms and the positions of candidates for office is an obligation of citizens.
A contemporary “setback” is that the US Supreme Court has ruled that a corporation is a person.
Government for the People
What is the obligation of American government to the people? Reminiscent of the heated debates documented in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers during the period of the founding of American government, strong arguments currently wage over this question.
To oversimplify, the view of the Republican Party, usually thought of as conservative, is to limit federal government services to items explicitly enumerated in the US Constitution, and leave all other, hopefully limited, government services to the states.
The Democratic Party envisions a broader (more liberal) role for the federal government in providing services to citizens.
The Student Daily News summarized these differences as follows:
“Liberals believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Believe the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems. Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems.”
- Visit the US Constitution Center, Philadelphia, PA
- Read the Federalist Papers online
- Purchase The Federalist Papers
- Read the Anti-Federalist Papers online
- Purchase the Anti-Federalist Papers
- Read about the history of the framing of the US Constitution: Catherine Drinker Bowen, “Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787”
- Read to develop an understanding of the US Constitution: Michael S. Greve, “The Constitution: Understanding America’s Founding Document (Values and Capitalism)”, 2013
- “Hamilton: Broadway stage”
- Hamilton – Biography, Ron Chernow, “Alexander Hamilton”, 2005
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Worldwide impact of the US Constitution
- The US Constitution is the oldest written national constitution in effect anywhere in the world
- In 1987, “Time” Magazine reported that “of the 170 countries that exist today, more than 160 have written charters modeled directly or indirectly on the U.S. version.”
Waning influence of the US Constitution as a Government Model
- At “the-turn of the twenty-first century …the world’s democracies are, on average, less similar to the U.S. Constitution now than they were at the end of World War II,” (“We the People Loses Followers”, New York Times, 2/7/2012)
- Access online the New York Law Review Article on which this New York Times article is based (David S Law and Mila Versteeg, “The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution”, New York University Law review, June 2012)
- “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012”, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While praising the virtues of the US Constitution, she recommended more modern and comprehensive models for guidance.