Principles of the American Republic: An Essay on American Government

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The ideas and practices that led to the development of the American democratic republic owe a debt to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, the Protestant Reformation , and Gutenberg 's printing press. But the Enlightenment of 17th-century Europe had the most immediate impact on the framers of the United States Constitution. Europeans of the 17th century no longer lived in the "darkness" of the Middle Ages. Ocean voyages had put them in touch with many world civilizations, and trade had created a prosperous middle class. The Protestant Reformation encouraged free thinkers to question the practices of the Catholic Church , and the printing press spread the new ideas relatively quickly and easily.

The time was ripe for the philosophes , scholars who promoted democracy and justice through discussions of individual liberty and equality. One of the first philosophes was Thomas Hobbes , an Englishman who concluded in his famous book, Leviathan , that people are incapable of ruling themselves, primarily because humans are naturally self-centered and quarrelsome and need the iron fist of a strong leader. Later philosophes, like Voltaire , Montesquieu, and Rousseau were more optimistic about democracy.

Their ideas encouraged the questioning of absolute monarchs, like the Bourbon family that ruled France. Montesquieu suggested a separation of powers into branches of government not unlike the system Americans would later adopt. They found eager students who later became the founders of the American government. The single most important influence that shaped the founding of the United States comes from John Locke , a 17th century Englishman who redefined the nature of government. Although he agreed with Hobbes regarding the self-interested nature of humans, he was much more optimistic about their ability to use reason to avoid tyranny.

In his Second Treatise of Government , Locke identified the basis of a legitimate government. According to Locke, a ruler gains authority through the consent of the governed. The duty of that government is to protect the natural rights of the people, which Locke believed to include life, liberty, and property. If the government should fail to protect these rights, its citizens would have the right to overthrow that government. This idea deeply influenced Thomas Jefferson as he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, the English political system provided the grist for the revolt of its own American colonies.

For many centuries English monarchs had allowed restrictions to be placed on their ultimate power. The Magna Carta , written in , established the kernel of limited government, or the belief that the monarch's rule was not absolute. Much of the work of the House is done through 20 standing committees and around sub-committees which perform both legislative functions drafting Bills and investigatory functions holding enquiries. Most of the committees are focused on an area of government activity such as homeland security, foreign affairs, agriculture, energy, or transport, but others are more cross-cutting such as those on the budget and ethics.

Activity in the House of Representatives tends to be more partisan than in the Senate.

Why America is a Republic, not a Democracy

One illustration of this is the so-called Hastert Rule. This Rule's introduction is widely credited to former Speaker Dennis Hastert ; however, Newt Gingrich, who directly preceded Hastert as Speaker , followed the same rule. The Hastert Rule, also known as the "majority of the majority" rule, is an informal governing principle used by Republican Speakers of the House of Representatives since the mids to maintain their speakerships and limit the power of the minority party to bring bills up for a vote on the floor of the House.

Under the doctrine, the Speaker of the House will not allow a floor vote on a bill unless a majority of the majority party supports the bill. The rule keeps the minority party from passing bills with the assistance of a small number of majority party members. Offices of members of the House are located in three buildings on the south side of the Capitol along Independence Avenue: The Senate is the upper chamber in the bicameral legislature known collectively as Congress. The original intention of the authors of the US Constitution was that the Senate should be a regulatory group, less politically dominant than the House.

However, since the mid 19th century, the Senate has been the dominant chamber and indeed today it is perhaps the most powerful upper house of any legislative body in the world. Who is eligible to become a member of the Senate? To be a member of the Senate, one has to: The Senate consists of members, each of whom represents a state and serves for a six-year term one third of the Senate stands for election every two years. Each state has two Senators, regardless of population, and, since there are 50 states, then there are senators. This equality of Senate seats between states has the effect of producing huge variations in constituency population the two senators from Wyoming represent less than half a million electors, while the two senators from California represent 34M people with gross over-representation of the smaller states and serious under-representation of racial and ethnic minorities.

For a long time, Senators were elected by the individual state legislatures. However, since the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in , members of the Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana and Washington, which have run-offs. Each Senator is known as the senior or junior Senator for his or her state, based on length of service. In the event that a member of the Senate dies or resigns before the end of the six-year term, a special election is not normally held at that time this is the case for 46 states.

Library of Congress

Instead the Governor of the state that the Senator represented nominates someone to serve until the next set of Congressional elections when the special election is held to fill the vacancy. What are the powers of the Senate? The Senate is one of the two chambers that can initiate and pass legislation, although to become law any legislation has to be approved by the House of Representatives as well.

The Senate must give 'advice and consent' to many important Presidential appointments including Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices. The Senate has the responsibility of ratifying treaties. The Senate has a key role in any impeachment proceedings against the President or Vice-President.

Once the House of Representatives has laid the charges, the Senate then conducts a trial on these charges. The Supreme Court Chief Justice presides over such a trial. A two-thirds majority of the Senate is required to uphold impeachment charges. The Senate and the House have the power to declare war - although the last time this happened was in Other interesting facts about the Senate The most powerful position in the Senate is the Majority Leader but he or she does not have the same control over the upper chamber as the control that the Speaker of the House has over the lower chamber, since the 'whipping' system is weaker in the Senate.

Much of the work of the Senate is done through 16 standing committees and around 40 sub-committees which perform both legislative functions drafting Bills and investigatory functions holding enquiries.

The Basis of the American Republic

Most of the committees are focused on an area of government activity such as homeland security, foreign relations, health, energy, or transport, but others are more cross-cutting such as those on the budget and rules. Activity in the Senate tends to be less partisan and more individualistic than in the House of Representatives. Senate rules permit what is called a filibuster when a Senator, or a series of Senators, can speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a supermajority of three-fifths of the Senate 60 Senators, if all seats are filled brings debate to a close by invoking what is called cloture taken from the French term for closure.

Offices of members of the Senate are located in three buildings on the north side of the Capitol along Constitution Avenue: The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land.

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Originally it had five members but over time this number has increased. Since , it has consisted of nine Justices: They have equal weight when voting on a case and the Chief Justice has no casting vote or power to instruct colleagues. Decisions are made by a simple majority. Together, these three levels of courts represent the federal judicial system. Who is eligible to become a member of the Court? The Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law.

Many of the 18th and 19th century Justices studied law under a mentor because there were few law schools in the country. The last Justice to be appointed who did not attend any law school was James F. He did not graduate from high school and taught himself law, passing the bar at the age of All Supreme Court judges are appointed for life. How is a member of the Court chosen? The Justices are nominated by the President and confirmed with the 'advice and consent' of the Senate.

As federal judges, the Justices serve during "good behavior", meaning essentially that they serve for life and can be removed only by resignation or by impeachment and subsequent conviction. Since the Supreme Court makes so many 'political' decisions and its members are appointed so rarely, the appointment of Justices by the President is often a very charged and controversial matter. Since Justices serve for life and therefore usually beyond the term of office of the appointing President, such appointment are often regarded as an important part of any particular President's legacy.

What are the powers of the Court? The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The court deals with matters pertaining to the federal government, disputes between states, and interpretation of the Constitution. It can declare legislation or executive action made at any level of the government as unconstitutional, nullifying the law and creating precedent for future law and decisions. However, the Supreme Court can only rule on a lower court decision so it cannot take the initiative to consider a matter.

There are three ways that a matter can come to the Supreme Court: A federal authority makes a decision that is challenged as unconstitutional which goes straight to the Supreme Court which is not obliged to take it A state makes a decision which someone believes is unconstitutional but the matter would have to have previously been heard by a Federal Court of Appeal there are 11 circuits covering the 50 states There is a conflict between states that needs to be resolved if the two or more states are in the same circuit, the matter would first have to go to the appropriate Federal Court of Appeal Other interesting facts about the Court Each year, around 8, petitions are made to the Supreme Court seeking a judgement, but each term the number of cases determined is only about When a case is considered in public by the Court, each side of the case only has half-an-hour to state its position.

All the detail is set out in documents and all the rest of the time of the public hearing is taken up by questions from the Justices.

Decisions of the Supreme Court are taken in private conference, following discussion and debate. No Justice speaks for a second time until every Justice has spoken once. Given how difficult it is to change the US Constitution through the formal method, one has seen informal changes to the Constitution through various decisions of the Supreme Court which have given specific meanings to some of the general phases in the Constitution. It is one of the many ironies of the American political system that an unelected and unaccountable body like the Supreme Court can in practice exercise so much political power in a system which proclaims itself as so democractic.

The Supreme Court in practice therefore has a much more 'political' role than the highest courts of European democracies. In the s, the court played a major role in bringing about desegregation. The scope of abortion in the USA is effectively set by the Supreme Court whereas, in other countries, it would be set by legislation. Indeed in , it made the most political decision imaginable by determining - by seven votes to two - the outcome of that year's presidential election.

A recent and momentous instance of this exercise of political power was the Supreme Court decision in the case of the challenge to Barack Obama's signature piece of legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often dubbed Obamacare. No less than 26 states challenged the legality of these health reforms under a clause in the constitution governing interstate commerce. In the end, the Court ruled by five to four that, while the individual mandate provision in the Act is not itself a tax, the penalties imposed for not buying health insurance do represent taxes and therefore the entire requirement falls within the remit of Congress's right to impose taxes.

He is the only person to have served in both of these offices. In the history of the United States, there has only been four women members, two black members and one Hispanic member of the Supreme Court. The present membership of the Supreme Court includes three women members and one black member.

Of the nine members, five are Catholic and three are Jewish while one - Neil Gorsuch - was raised as a Catholic but attends a Protestant church. Following the appointment by President Trump of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, there is now a five to four conservative-liberal majority on the court. All the conservative members were appointed by Republican presidents, while all the liberals were appointed by Democratic presidents. Outside of the United States, there are only two nations that have judicial elections and then only in limited fashion. Smaller Swiss cantons elect judges and appointed justices on the Japanese Supreme Court must sometimes face retention elections although those elections are a formality.

The party was run by Alexander Hamilton, who was Secretary of the Treasury and chief architect of George Washington's administration. The Federalists called for a strong national government that promoted economic growth. The Democratic-Republican Party was an American political party formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in — to oppose the centralising policies of the new Federalist Party. Although these parties were soon succeeded by others, there remains to this day the basic political cleavage between those who want to see an activist central government and those who want to limit the power of the central government - now represented broadly by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party respectively.

To an extent quite extraordinary in democratic countries, the American political system is dominated by these two political parties: These are very old and very stable parties - the Democrats go back to and the Republicans were founded in In illustrations and promotional material, the Democratic Party is often represented as a donkey, while the Republican Party is featured as an elephant. The origin of these symbols is the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who came up with them in and respectively.

The main reason for the dominance of these two parties is that - like most other Anglo-Saxon countries notably Britain - the electoral system is 'first past the post' or simple majority which, combined with the large voter size of the constituencies in the House and even more the Senate, ensures that effectively only two parties can play. The other key factor is the huge influence of money in the American electoral system. Since effectively a candidate can spend any amount he can raise not allowed in many other countries and since one can buy broadcasting time again not allowed in many countries , the US can only 'afford' two parties or, to put it another way, candidates of any other party face a formidable financial barrier to entry.

The comparison is valid in the sense that, in each country, one political party is characterised as Centre-Left and the other as Centre-Right or, to put it another way, one party is more economically interventionist and socially radical than the other. However, the analogy has many weaknesses. The Centre in American politics is considerably to the Right of the Centre in most European states including Britain, Germany, France, Italy and even more especially the Scandinavian countries.

So, for instance, most members of the Conservative Party in the UK would support a national health service, whereas many members of the Democratic Party in the US would not. As a consequence of the enormous geographical size of the United States and the different histories of the different states exemplified by the Civil War , geography is a factor in ideological positioning to a much greater extent than in other democratic countries.

For instance, a Northern Republican could be more liberal than a Southern Democract. In the United States, divisions over social matters - such as abortion, capital punishment, same-sex relationships and stem cell research - matter and follow party lines in a way which is not true of most European countries. In Britain, for instance, these sort of issues would be regarded as matters of personal conscience and would not feature prominently in election debates between candidates and parties.

In the USA, religion is a factor in politics in a way unique in western democracies. Candidates openly proclaim their faith in a manner which would be regarded as bizarre elswhere even in a Catholic country like France and religious groupings - such as the Christian Coalition of America [ click here ] - exert a significiant political influence in a manner which would be regarded as improper in most European countries Poland is an exception here.

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In the United States, the 'whipping system' - that is the instructions to members of the House and the Senate on how to vote - is not as strict or effective as it is in most European countries. As a consequence, members of Congress are less constrained by party affiliation and freer to act individually. In the USA, political parties are much weaker institutions than they are in other democracies.

Between the selection of candidates, they are less active than their counterparts in other countries and, during elections, they are less influential in campaigning, with individual politicians and their campaigns having much more influence. The cost of elections is much greater in the US than in other democracies which has the effects of limiting the range of candidates, increasing the influence of corporate interests and pressure groups, and enhancing the position of the incumbent office holder especially in the winning of primaries.

The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is. One other oddity of the American party system is that, whereas in most countries of the world the colour red is associated with the Left-wing party and the colour blue with the Right-wing party, in the United States the reverse is the case. So the 'blue states' are those traditionally won by the Democrats, while the 'red states' are those normally controlled by the Republicans. Two interesting features of American political elections are low turnout and the importance of incumbency.

Traditionally turnout in US congressional elections is much lower than in other liberal democracies especially those of Western Europe. When there is a presidential election, turnout is only about half; when there is no presidential election, turnout is merely about one third.

The exception was the elections of While Congress as an institution is held in popular contempt, voters like their member of Congress and indeed there is a phenomenon known as 'sophomore surge' whereby incumbents tend to increase their share of the vote when they seek re-election. More generally most incumbents win re-election for several reasons: First, some years ago, there were were 13 autonomous states who, following the War of Independence against the British, created a system of government in which the various states somewhat reluctantly ceded power to the federal government.

Around a century later, the respective authority of the federal government and the individual states was an issue at the heart of the Civil War when there was a bloody conflict over who had the right to determine whether slavery was or was not permissable. With the exception of Switzerland, no other Western democracy diffuses power to the same degree as America. Each state has an executive, a legislature and a judiciary.

The head of the executive is the Governor who is directly elected. As with the President at federal level, state Governors can issue Executive Orders. Politically and economically, the new nation was close to chaos. In the words of George Washington, the 13 states were united only "by a rope of sand. In February , the Continental Congress, the legislative body of the republic, issued a call for the states to send delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles.

The Constitutional, or Federal, Convention convened on May 25, , in Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted 11 years earlier on July 4, Although the delegates had been authorized only to amend the Articles of Confederation, they pushed the Articles aside and proceeded to construct a charter for a wholly new, more centralized form of government. The new document, the Constitution, was completed September 17, , and was officially adopted March 4, The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation.

Toward a Federal Constitution

Jefferson's parliamentary practice manual This manual was written by Thomas Jefferson in and is based on the Parliamentary Pocket-Book or commonplace book and his experience during his tenure as vice-president and presiding officer of the United States Senate, — Those who stayed behind formed a substantial opposition bloc, although they differed among themselves on the reasons for opposing the Revolution and on what accommodation should be made with the new American republic. All this has led to some observers describing the American political system as a plutocracy, since it is effectively controlled by private finance from big businesses, which expect certain policies and practices to follow from the candidates they are funding, and big donors, who often expect preferment such as an ambassadorship from a candidate elected as President. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law. At that time, the north wing, designed to house the United States Senate, was the only finished part of the Capitol. The conservative Federalist Party still had hopes of regaining the presidency when this anti-Jefferson political cartoon appeared in The Echo, a book critical of Jefferson, published by New Englanders. Two interesting features of American political elections are low turnout and the importance of incumbency.

They represented a wide range of interests, backgrounds and stations in life. All agreed, however, on the central objectives expressed in the preamble to the Constitution: We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. The primary aim of the Constitution was to create a strong elected government, directly responsive to the will of the people.

The concept of self-government did not originate with the Americans; indeed, a measure of self-government existed in England at the time. But the degree to which the Constitution committed the United States to rule by the people was unique, and even revolutionary, in comparison with other governments around the world. The Constitution departed sharply from the Articles of Confederation in that it established a strong central, or federal, government with broad powers to regulate relations between the states, and with sole responsibility in such areas as foreign affairs and defense.

Centralization proved difficult for many people to accept. America had been settled in large part by Europeans who had left their homelands to escape religious or political oppression, as well as the rigid economic patterns of the Old World, which locked individuals into a particular station in life regardless of their skill or energy.

American political system

Personal freedom was highly prized by these settlers and they were wary of any power -- especially that of government -- which might curtail individual liberties. The fear of a strong central authority ran so deep that Rhode Island refused to send delegates to Philadelphia in the belief that a strong national government might be a threat to the ability of its citizens to govern their own lives. The great diversity of the new nation was also a formidable obstacle to unity.

The people who were empowered by the Constitution to elect and control their central government were of widely differing origins, beliefs and interests. Their religious beliefs were varied and in most cases strongly held. Economically and socially, the Americans ranged from the landed aristocracy to slaves from Africa and indentured servants working off debts.

But the backbone of the country was the middle class -- farmers, tradesmen, mechanics, sailors, shipwrights, weavers, carpenters and a host of others. Americans then, as now, had widely differing opinions on virtually all issues, up to and including the wisdom of breaking free of the British Crown. During the Revolution, a large number of British loyalists -- known as Tories -- fled the country, settling mostly in eastern Canada.

Those who stayed behind formed a substantial opposition bloc, although they differed among themselves on the reasons for opposing the Revolution and on what accommodation should be made with the new American republic.