A. Principles of American Democracy

What is the supreme law of the land?

  the Constitution

The Founding Fathers of the United States wrote the Constitution in 1787. The Constitution is the “supreme law of the land.” The U.S. Constitution has lasted longer than any other country’s constitution. It establishes the basic principles of the United States government. The Constitution establishes a system of government called “representative democracy.” In a representative democracy, citizens choose representatives to make the laws. U.S. citizens also choose a president to lead the executive branch of government. The Constitution lists fundamental rights for all citizens and other people living in the United States. Laws made in the United States must follow the Constitution.

What does the Constitution do?

  sets up the government

  defines the government

  protects basic rights of Americans

The Constitution of the United States divides government power between the national government and state governments. The name for this division of power is “federalism.” Federalism is an important idea in the Constitution. We call the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution the “Framers” of the Constitution. The Framers wanted to limit the powers of the government, so they separated the powers into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The Constitution explains the power of each branch. The Constitution also includes changes and additions, called “amendments.” The first 10 amendments are called the “Bill of Rights.” The Bill of Rights established the individual rights and liberties of all Americans.

The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?

  We the People

The Constitution says: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.” With the words “We the People,” the Constitution states that the people set up the government. The government works for the people and protects the rights of people. In the United States, the power to govern comes from the people, who are the highest power. This is called “popular sovereignty.” The people elect representatives to make laws.

What is an amendment?

  a change (to the Constitution)

  an addition (to the Constitution)

An amendment is a change or addition to the Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution knew that laws can change as a country grows. They did not want to make it too easy to modify the Constitution, the supreme law of the land. The Framers also did not want the Constitution to lose its meaning. For this reason, the Framers decided that Congress could pass amendments in only two ways: by a two-thirds vote in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives or by a special convention. A special convention has to be requested by two-thirds of the states. After an amendment has passed in Congress or by a special convention, the amendment must then be ratified (accepted) by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. The amendment can also be ratified by a special convention in three-fourths of the states. Not all proposed amendments are ratified. Six times in U.S. history amendments have passed in Congress but were not approved by enough states to be ratified.

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?

  the Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. When the Framers wrote the Constitution, they did not focus on individual rights. They focused on creating the system and structure of government. Many Americans believed that the Constitution should guarantee the rights of the people, and they wanted a list of all the things a government could not do. They were afraid that a strong government would take away the rights people won in the Revolutionary War. James Madison, one of the Framers of the Constitution, wrote a list of individual rights and limits on the government. These rights appear in the first 10 amendments, called the Bill of Rights. Some of these rights include freedom of expression, the right to bear arms, freedom from search without warrant, freedom not to be tried twice for the same crime, the right to not testify against yourself, the right to a trial by a jury of your peers, the right to an attorney, and protection against excessive fines and unusual punishments. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.

What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?*

  speech

  religion

  assembly

  press

  petition the government

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights protects a person’s right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression allows open discussion and debate on public issues. Open discussion and debate are important to democracy. The First Amendment also protects freedom of religion and free speech. This amendment says that Congress may not pass laws that establish an official religion and may not limit religious expression. Congress may not pass laws that limit freedom of the press or the right of people to meet peacefully. The First Amendment also gives people the right to petition the government to change laws or acts that are not fair. Congress may not take away these rights. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees and protects these rights.

How many amendments does the Constitution have?

  twenty-seven (27)

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. They were added in 1791. Since then, 17 more amendments have been added. The Constitution currently has 27 amendments. The 27th Amendment was added in 1992. It explains how senators and representatives are paid. Interestingly, Congress first discussed this amendment back in 1789 as one of the original amendments considered for the Bill of Rights.

What did the Declaration of Independence do?

  announced our independence (from Great Britain)

  declared our independence (from Great Britain)

  said that the United States is free (from Great Britain)

The Declaration of Independence contains important ideas about the American system of government. The Declaration of Independence states that all people are created equal and have “certain unalienable rights.” These are rights that no government can change or take away. The author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, wrote that the American colonies should be independent because Great Britain did not respect the basic rights of people in the colonies. Jefferson believed that a government exists only if the people think it should. He believed in the idea that the people create their own government and consent, or agree, to follow laws their government makes. This idea is called “consent of the governed.” If the government creates laws that are fair and protect people, then people will agree to follow those laws. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote a list of complaints the colonists had against the King of England. Jefferson ended the Declaration with the statement that the colonies are, and should be, free and independent states. The Second Continental Congress voted to accept the Declaration on July 4, 1776.

What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?

  life

  liberty

  pursuit of happiness

The Declaration of Independence lists three rights that the Founding Fathers considered to be natural and “unalienable.” They are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas about freedom and individual rights were the basis for declaring America’s independence. Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers believed that people are born with natural rights that no government can take away. Government exists to protect these rights. Because the people voluntarily give up power to a government, they can take that power back. The British government was not protecting the rights of the colonists, so the colonies took back their power and separated from Great Britain.

What is freedom of religion?

  You can practice any religion, or not practice a religion.

Colonists from Spain, France, Holland, England, and other countries came to America for many different reasons. One of the reasons was religious freedom. The rulers of many of these countries told their citizens that they must go to a certain church and worship in a certain way. Some people had different religious beliefs than their rulers and wanted to have their own churches. In 1620, the Pilgrims were the first group that came to America seeking religious freedom. Religious freedom was also important to the Framers. For this reason, freedom of religion was included in the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment also prohibits Congress from setting up an official U.S. religion, and protects citizens’ rights to hold any religious belief, or none at all.

What is the economic system in the United States?*

  capitalist economy

  market economy

The economic system of the United States is capitalism. In the American economy, most businesses are privately owned. Competition and profit motivate businesses. Businesses and consumers interact in the marketplace, where prices can be negotiated. This is called a “market economy.” In a market economy, businesses decide what to produce, how much to produce, and what to charge. Consumers decide what, when, and where they will buy goods or services. In a market economy, competition, supply, and demand influence the decisions of businesses and consumers.

What is the “rule of law”?

  Everyone must follow the law.

  Leaders must obey the law.

  Government must obey the law.

  No one is above the law.

John Adams was one of the Founding Fathers and the second president of the United States. He wrote that our country is, “a government of laws, and not of men.” No person or group is above the law. The rule of law means that everyone (citizens and leaders) must obey the laws. In the United States, the U.S. Constitution is the foundation for the rule of law. The United States is a “constitutional democracy” (a democracy with a constitution). In constitutional democracies, people are willing to obey the laws because the laws are made by the people through their elected representatives. If all people are governed by the same laws, the individual rights and liberties of each person are better protected. The rule of law helps to make sure that government protects all people equally and does not violate the rights of certain people.