ABOUT THE COURSE
The American Political System is introduction to government and politics in the United States of America. It encompasses processes that are as “national” as electing the President. Also, it covers “local” issues such as budgeting money for a new county jail or
appointing a super intendment of government: national, state, and local.
The intention of this course to present the main actors and their actions in all of these governments. How do they function, why do they act the way they do, and what determines the outcomes? This course deals literally with a cast of millions, though in some scenes no more than a hadful of leading players will have roles that are truly significant. And in a manner of speaking, the script is constantly being written, and the action seems to be a drama (or occasionally a comedy) without a conclusion or final scene.
This course includes a great deal of territory. Of necessity it must be general and incomplete in some respects. However, numerous examples are offered to illustrate specific cases, and these cases should bring a sense of reality to the student. Often abstractions are being discussed, but these abstractions have very real applications in day to day life.
One may want to think of the reading in this course as a framework outlining the vast American political system. The student who tries to fill in this framework with his or her own perspectives will benefit greatly. This course will succeed to the extent that it motivates students to do their own thinking. The course should supply information and answers, but it also should provoke many further questions. Paradoxically, upon completing this course, the inquisitive student should have more questions about the American political system than now.
Americans have invented and applied several vital governmental-political institutions and processes. Some of these “made in America” political innovations have been much copied in foreign countries, while others remain unique to American own political system. Two of the most important are themes in this course: separation of powers and federalism.
The first of these two, separation of powers, exists in the national government and in all fifty states. It is an arrangement where the national and state constitutions create separate and largely autonomous branches of government: an executive, a legislative, and a judicial branch. By creating these competing centers of authority in government, the intention of the constitution writers was to avoid any dangerous concentration of power in the hands of a single individual or group. The three branches would check and balance each other and thus avoid tyranny; in words of James Madison, “ambition must be made to counter ambition.”
The second theme is federalism, and it is federalism, and it is a special focus of this course along with the related phenomenon of intergovernmental relations. This doctrine of federalism recognizes one national government as well as other regional governments (state governments). The national and the regional governments share powers and responsibilities, and these functions are allocated among these governments by a supreme national constitution.
Some introductory courses in American government are really courses on American national governments as they concentrate exclusively or predominantly on the federal government in Washington D.C. Such is not the case with this course, The American Political System. The national government is the largest and single most important entity in American political system, and it merits much attention. But it can be appreciated fully only when it is placed in relation to the states and their local governments. National government of the USA is one government among more than eighty thousand within American boundaries. Rather it is an extended family or constellation of cooperating and sometimes clashing organizations.
Some state governments and local governments are powerful? And what they accomplish often affects the whole country; some other smaller governments, while contributing to the while system, are likely to have no more than local or regional significance.
It is the hope of this course that by emphasizing federalism and intergovernmental relations, we will supply the adhesive which holds together our entire complicated, diverse, and evolving governmental political system. With some flexibility, federalism gives form and direction to make it possible for a great nation of 240 thousand citizens to attempt to meet the challenges of the last decades of the 20th Century. COMMENTARY
The commentary for most of these lessons will follow a common pattern. A few general or introductory remarks will lead into a brief review of selected issues brought out the reading assignments. Then additional related topics beyond the reading assignments will be discussed in hopes of raising more questions in the minds of students.
The first lesson lays a foundation, sets a historical background for this course as it unfolds in later lessons. It takes the student back more than two centuries to British colonies along the eastern coast of North America which were to were to become the thirteen original United States. Very briefly the stage is set for the revolutionary political developments in this part of the world in the decades of the 1970s and 1780s. These were unsettled decades in Europe and in the British North American colonies. The major European powers were locked in struggles which periodically evolved into warfare. The governments were led by monarchs and their aristocratic supporters. National legislatures in these countries had little real power, and popularly based representative government as we recognize it today was practically unknown. Britain was to some extent an exception. The king in that country had been forced to share power with a parliament which reflected at least the beginnings of popular representation. Also, the British system of
justice protected citizens against some of the worst abuses of state power which often went unchecked in other continental countries of Europe. In Britain a feeling existed that there were limits beyond which the government could not legitimately proceed without the approval or consent of the citizens. In application, this concept was sometimes vague, but it existed nonetheless. John Locke (1632-1704) was a British political philosopher
whose writings inspired many of these ideas of individual freedom, limited government, and representation through a legislature or parliament. Political leaders in the American colonies regarded themselves as Englishmen with the rights of Englishmen, and they were very familiar with and supportive of the doctrines of John Locke.This is not the place to catalog a long list of grievances which gradually alienated the American colonists from the British government in London. Suffice it to say that Americans came to regard George III's government as illegitimate because it was ignored these traditional political rights of Englishmen in North America. And Lock's vision of the direction in which the British system should be moving also was violated repeatedly. The practical consequences after remonstrances and various forms of civil disobedience, was a breakdown in authority and armed insurrection. When the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, it was a statement endorsing what already had happened on battlefields in several parts of the colonies.
The first American government, the Continental Congress, was a loose ad hoc wartime alliance of the thirteen colonies, each one of which curt its ties with London. This allience with a Continental Army as well as state militias managed to fight successfully against one of the great world powers of the time.
A more formal structure evolved as the Articles of Confederation which was supposed to supply the framework for a permanent national government. It provided for a national legislature, but there was no national executive branch (or President) nor were there national courts. The system functioned successfully for no more than several years, and by 1785 the Articles of Confederation were near a political collapse. Americans, vividly remembering the tyranny of the British government and crown from which they had just liberated themselves, in a sense had over reacted against any effective national government. The thirteen states were increasingly frustrating each other, interfering with trade, and passing retaliatory legislation. Economic conditions were slack, and civil unrest was feared in several of the states.
By 1786 a growing consensus favored amending or strengthening the Articles of Confederation. But precisely what could be done was not clear. The states were invited to send delegations to Philadelphia in 1787 to a convention to make recommendations. It was this Philadelphia Convention, deciding to abandon the Articles of Confederation altogether, which produced the present Constitution of the United States. This Constitution has endured basically as it was written, although it has been formally amended twenty-six times, and it has evolved informally in many respects over the two centuries since it was originally adopted.
In 1787 there was no assurance that the Convention would be able to compose a constitution, and if a constitution was created there wis no guarantee that it would meet
the test of time (any more than the short-lived Articles of Confederation). However, a widely shared will to succeed was evident. Strong fear of government power was a real factor, and to the extent that government was unavoidable, people preferred the government to be local, close to citizens. Executive leadership was suspect, and what authority government in our system did possess in the 1780s was located in the legislature. In some ways Americans preferred inefficiency in government to efficiency which might become dangerously powerful. But countering these attitudes was the recognition that some sort of effective national government was essential. This national government would have to be strong enough to enact and impose policies affecting the whole country. It would need to deal with foreign powers from a position of strength. It would require an executive organization which could carry out with vigor the statutes of a national congress.
From these shifting currents the Philadelphia Convention successfully designed a Constitution which would be ratified in several years by all thirteen states. Some truly creative compromises were fashioned because the delegates at the Convention were by no means of one mind. Your readings discuss the two most significant of these agreements:
1. In the new national government a separation of powers system (checks and balances) created three strong separated branches of government:executive (President), legislative (Congress), and judicial (Courts). Each of these institutions had powers given to it. No one branch could dominate the others: indeed, the whole intention of the constitution writers was that these three branches would check the unwarranted ambitions of each other. By cooperating these branches could make public policy. But conflict among them would likely bring stalemate which was thought to be a protection for the public against rash or oppressive government action. In particular the executive was given enough power to play a significant part in the new government. This is in marked contrast to the Articles of Confederation where the executive branch hardly existed and possessed no real authority at all.
2. Federalism was a second fragmentation of powers, in this instance between the new national government and the state governments. The states retained great power, but the national government was also given a long list of functions to perform.The national government and the state governments. The states retainned great power, but the national government was independent of the states, and the Constitution intended to grant it sufficient power to carry out the national and international policies of the country on its own. Again we see an attempted remedy to the flaws of the Articles of Confederation where the national government had previously been completely dependent on and a prisoner to the state governments.
The Constitution was ratified by the states, but not without spirited debates and close outcomes in several of the most important states. Antifederalists feared centralized national power. But federalists argued persuasively that an adequate though limited national government was clearly required. A national President was created, but the checks and balances within the national government as well as federalism between the national government and governments were supposed to limit his discretion and any
tendencies on art toward tyranny. Rather fortuitously it was generally recognized that George Washington would be the first President, and he was a person uniquely admired throughout the country. In the minds of many citizens he was the one individual who could be trusted to be the first President, to put that institution on a safe course for successors to follow.
As noted, the Constitution has been amended formally twenty-six times. The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791, and they are generally considered to be part of the original Constitution. In order for the Constitution to receive enough support to be ratified by the thirteen states it was accepted that this Bill of Rights a listing of protections to citizens against national government abuses would be added almost immediately. Some of the later amendments have made significant adjustments in the Constitution, but it is fair to say that none of them have caused truly drastic changes.
Informally, the Constitution has evolved and grown through actions of Congress, the President, the Courts, and through custom and usage. For example, the Constitution creates only the U.S. Supreme Court: Congress by statute has created a whole system of federal courts in addition to the Supreme Court. And in the 20th Century various presidents have expanded the vague "war powers" to a degree that some critics now express alarm that Presidents have become too powerful and uncontrolled. Courts, through the doctrine of judicial review, interpret what the Constitution really means and how it applies in particular cases; for example, what constitutes "interstate commerce" and what is required under the "equal protection of the law" clause of the 14th Amendment. Finally, political practices, usages, and customs have altered our system. For example, the Constitution says nothing about universal suffrage or about political parties, but today these are both integral parts of how our political system functions. What are some questions for the present and future? We suggest a short list of three, and the questions to a large extent overlap. They are interrelated and complementary.
1. First, how is American Constitution continuing to grow in the 1980s and into the 1990s? Are fundamental constitutional changes currently being proposed with any real prospects for approval? These could involve formal amendments as well as basic shifts in customs and political parties. Or are there some changes just happening on their own?
While the Constitution is evolving dynamically, it does not appear that any truly great changes are in the immediate offing. None of the most significant processes or functions or institutions of American government seem to be in danger of immediate collapse or facing wholesale replacement. Congress, the President, the Courts, the bureaucracy, taxes and spending, national programs, state and local government activities, political parties, and interest group politics are all viable and undergoing steady change. No gross vulnerabilities are dramatically apparent, although some parts of our system appear to be under greater stress than others/ Some observers bemoan the relative weakness of our political parties as well as the growing domination of single-issue interest groups. Others complain of a Congress which finds it difficult to make hard choices. Some fear that the great power of the President, and paradoxically the stress on this person as a leader, may be risky. One can also hear complaints that governments do too much and are too big;
from other critics one learns that governments are not providing nearly enough minimum services. But, repeating, no clear signs that truly basic changes are likely in the next decade or so are discernible.
2. A second question is this; regardless of ihe improbability of fundamental change in our system in the near future, is basic reform still imperative?
Stated simply, basic change may not happen even though it needs to happen. Plainly, one's perceptions of the present effectiveness of American governments have much to do with the conclusions a person reaches. And conclusions of different critics cover a broad spectrum. This writer believes that no strong consensus exists to force fundamental changes. Everyone can detect imperfections, but critics do not all point to the same problems. Few political scientists, rightly or wrongly, feel the whole system is in dire peril or in need of heroic restructuring. Many political scientists recommend relatively modest corrections or fine tuning of one sort or another to make American governments and politics function more smoothly and equitably. This is not to deny absolutely that great perils exist, but if they do most students of American government have not detected clearly what they are. A consensus is that the system runs fairly well and that it is probably getting better rather than worse, so great restructuring is unneeded and unlikely. Steady gradual evolution is the norm.
For over 200 years, the Constitution has served as the cornerstone of our Nation's democracy and the principal guarantor of freedom and equality for all Americans. Yet, as
important as these functions are, this remarkable document performs a perhaps even more vital role as a visible and enduring common bond between the diverse people of this great Nation. Thus, in light of our recent celebration of the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, it is particularly appropriate that the House of Representatives issues this pamphlet edition of the Constitution.
The genius of the Founding Fathers is reflected in the intricate set of checks and balances the Constitution builds into American system of government. By preventing any one of the three branches from acquiring dominance over the others, these structural and procedural safeguards have preserved a fundamental, albeit not always neat, separation of powers. Moreover, although developed over two centuries ago, they continue to perform this essential function despite the dramatic societal, technological, economic, and political changes in the United States over the past two centuries. The Framers made the conscious decision of choosing constitutional generality over the overly specific civil codes of the European nations. By so doing, they wisely built in a flexibility to accommodate change so that a living instrument of government could be passed down to succeeding generations.
Just as important as the governmental structure established by Articles I through VII of the Constitution are the personal freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Approved by the First Congress in 1789 and ratified by the States in 1791, the first ten amendments to the Constitution-the Bill of Rights-assure basic individual liberties essential to a free and democratic society. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments continued the mission of the Bill of Rights by abolishing slavery, by assuring citizens due process in actions taken under color of State governments, and by taking the first steps toward providing suffrage for citizens regardless of race. These Constitutional guarantees have not only stood as a bulwark against governmental abuses in this country, but they have also provided inspiration to people around the world in their quest for individual freedom and liberty. In an effort to make the Constitution both more accessible and understandable to the public, the House of Representatives has authorized the publication of this pamphlet edition. The.document includes the text of the Constitution and all 27 amendments, together with ratification notes and a historical note. In addition, it provides information on proposed amendments approved by the Congress but not ratified by the States, and an analytical index.
The Constitution has served Americans well for over 200 years, but it will continue as a strong, vibrant, and vital foundation for freedom only so long as the American people remain dedicated to the basic principles on which it rests. In the words of the Constitution's Preamble, "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 . . .".
The Delegates who convened at the Federal Convention on May 25, 1787. quickly rejected the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation and agreed to construct a new framework for a national government. Throughout the summer months at the Convention in Philadelphia, delegates from 12 States debated the proper form such a government should take, but few questioned the need to establish a more vigorous government to preside over the union of States. The 39 delegates who signed the Constitution on September 17. 1787, expected the new charter to provide a permanent guarantee of the political liberties achieved in the Revolution.
Prior to the adoption of the Federal Constitution, an Articles of Confederation, drafted by the Continental Congress and approved by 13 States, provided for a union of the former British colonies. Even before Maryland became the last State to accede to the Articles in 1781,a number of Americans, particularly those involved in the prosecution of the Revolutionary War, recognized the inadequacies of the Articles as a national government. In the 1780s these nationally-minded Americans became increasingly disturbed by the Articles' failure to provide the central government with authority to raise revenue, regulate commerce, or enforce treaties.
Despite repeated proposals that the Continental Congress revise the Articles, the movement for a new national government began outside the Congress. Representatives of Maryland and Virginia. meeting at Ml. Vernon to discuss trade problems between the two
States, agreed to invite delegates from all States to discuss commercial affairs at a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786. Although delegates from only five States reached the Annapolis Convention, that group issued a call for a meeting of all States to discuss necessary revisions of the Articles of Confederation. Responding to this call and the endorsement of the Continental Congress, every State except Rhode Island selected delegates for the meeting in the State House at Philadelphia.
The document printed here was the product of nearly 4 months of deliberations in the Federal Convention at Philadelphia. The challenging task before the delegates was to create a republican form of government that could encompass the 13 States and accommodate the anticipated expansion to the West. The distribution of authority between legislative, executive, and judicial branches was a boldly original attempt to create an energetic central government at the same time that the' sovereignty of the people was preserved.
The longest debate of the Convention centered on the proper form of representation and election for the Congress. The division between small States that wished to perpetuate the equal representation of States in the Continental Congress and the large States that proposed representation proportional to population threatened to bring the Convention proceedings to a halt. Over several weeks the delegates developed a complicated compromise that provided for equal representation of the States in a Senate elected by State legislature and proportional representation in a popularly-elected House of Representatives.
The conflict between large and small States disappeared in the early years of the republic. More lasting was the division between slave and free States that had beep a disturbing undercurrent in the Convention debates. The Convention's strained attempt to avoid using the word slavery in the articles granting recognition and protection to that institution scarcely hid the regional divisions that would remain unresolved under the terms of union agreed to in 1787.
The debates in the State ratification conventions of 1787 and 1788 made clear the need to provide amendments to the basic framework drafted in Philadelphia. Beginning with Massachusetts, a number of State conventions ratified the Constitution with the request that a bill of rights be added to protect certain liberties at the core of English and American political traditions. The First Congress approved a set of amendments which became the Bill of Rights when ratified by the States in 1791. The continuing process of amendment, clearly described in the notes of the following text, has enabled the Constitution to accommodate changing conditions in American society at the same time that the Founders' basic outline of national government remains intact.
This text of the Constitution follows the engrossed copy signed by Gen. Washington and the deputies from 12 States. The small superior figures preceding the paragraphs designate clauses, and were not in the original and have no reference to footnotes. The Constitution was adopted by a convention of the States on September 17. 1787, and was subsequently ratified by the several States, on the following dates: Delaware, December 7, 1787; Pennsylvania, December 12, 1787; New Jersey, December 18, 1787; Georgia, January 2. 1788: Connecticut. January 9, 1788; Massachusetts, February 6, 1788: Maryland, April 28, 1788; South Carolina, May 23. 1788;'New Hampshire, June 21, 1788.
Ratification was completed on June 21, 1788.
The Constitution was subsequently ratified by Virginia, June 25, 1788; New York, July 26, 1788; North Carolina, November 21, 1789; Rhode Island, May 29, 1790; and Vermont, January 10, 1791.
In May 1785, a committee of Congress made a report recommending an alteration in the Articles of Confederation, but no action was , taken on it, and it was left to the State Legislatures to proceed in the matter. In January 1786, the Legislature of Virginia passed a resolution providing for the appointment of five commissioners, who, or any three of them, should meet such commissioners as might be appointed in the other States of the Union, at a time and place to be agreed upon, to take into consideration the trade of the United States: to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest and their permanent harmony; and to report to the several States such an act, relative to this great object, as, when ratified by them, will enable the United States in Congress effectually to provide for the same. The Virginia commissioners, after some correspondence, fixed the first Monday in September as the time, and the city of Annapolis as the place for the meeting, but only four other States were represented, viz; Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; the commissioners appointed by Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Rhode Island failed to attend. Under the circumstances of so partial a representation, the commissioners present agreed upon a report, (drawn by Mr. Hamilton, of New York,) expressing their unanimous conviction that it might essentially tend to advance the interests of the Union if the States by which they were respectively delegated would concur, and use their endeavors to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of commissioners to meet at Philadelphia on the Second Monday of May following, to take into consideration the situation of the United States; to devise such further provisions as should appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled as. when agreed to by them and afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, would effectually provide for the same.
Congress, on the 21st of February, 1787, adopted a resolution in favor of a convention, and the Legislatures of those States which had not already done so (with the exception of Rhode Island) promptly appointed delegates. On the 25th of May, seven States having convened, George Washington, of Virginia, was unanimously elected President, and the
consideration of the proposed constitution was commenced. On the 17th of September. 1787, the Constitution as engrossed and agreed upon was signed by all the members present, except Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts, and Messrs. Mason and Randolph, of Virginia. The president of the convention transmitted it to Congress, with a resolution stating how the proposed Federal Government should be put in operation, and an explanatory letter. Congress, on the 28th of September, 1787, directed the Constitution so framed, with the resolutions and letter concerning the same. to "be transmitted to the several Legislatures in order to be submitted to a convention of delegates chosen in each State by the people thereof, in conformity to the resolves of the convention."
On the 4th of March, 1789, the day which had been fixed for commencing the operations of Government under the new Constitution, it had been ratified by the conventions chosen in each State to consider it. as follows: Delaware, December 7. 1787; Pennsylvania, December 12, 1787; New Jersey, December 18, 1787: Georgia. January 2, 1788; Connecticut, January 9, 1788; Massachusetts, February 6, 1788; Maryland, April 28, 1788; South Carolina, May 23, 1788; New Hampshire, June 21. 1788; Virginia, June 25, 1788; and New York, July 26. 1788.
The President informed Congress, on the 28th of January, 1790, that North Carolina had ratified the Constitution November 21, 1789: and he informed Congress on the 1st of June, 1790. that Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution May 29. 1790. Vermont. in convention, ratified the Constitution January 10, 1791, and was, by an act of Congress approved February 18, 1791, "received and admitted into this Union as a new and entire member of the United States."
The part of this clause relating to the mode of apportionment of representatives among the several States has been affected by section 2 of amendment XIV. and as to taxes on incomes without apportionment by amendment XVI.
This clause has been affected by clause 1 of amendment XVII.
This clause has been affected by clause 2 of amendment XVIII.
This clause has been affected by amendment XX.
This clause has been affected by amendment XXVII.
This clause has been affected by amendment XVI.
This clause has been superseded by amendment XII.
This clause has been affected by amendment XXV.
This clause has been affected by amendment XI.
This clause has been affected by amendment XIII.