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Topic 1B: The U.S. Constitution

Key Concepts:

Terms in this set (38)

On September 17, 1787 the new U.S. constitution, which created a strong federal government with an intricate system of checks and balances, was signed by 38 of the 41 delegates present at the conclusion of the convention. As dictated by Article VII, the document would not become binding until it was ratified by nine of the 13 states. Beginning on December 7, five states-Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut-ratified it in quick succession. However, other states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document, as it failed to reserve undelegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press. In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which Massachusetts and other states would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, and it was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789. In June, Virginia ratified the Constitution, followed by New York in July. On September 25, 1789, the first Congress of the United States adopted 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution-the Bill of Rights-and sent them to the states for ratification. Ten of these amendments were ratified in 1791. In November 1789, North Carolina became the 12th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Rhode Island, which opposed federal control of currency and was critical of compromise on the issue of slavery, resisted ratifying the Constitution until the U.S. government threatened to sever commercial relations with the state. On May 29, 1790, Rhode Island voted by two votes to ratify the document, and the last of the original 13 colonies joined the United States. Today the U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution in operation in the world.
As discussed in The Federalist Papers, the idea of limited government originally implied the notion of a separation of powers and the system of checks and balances promoted by the U.S. Constitution. This understanding of limited government maintains that government is internally limited by the system of checks and balances as well as the Constitution itself, which can be amended, and externally through the republican principle of electoral accountability. Such an understanding of limited government, as explained by James Madison, does not place arbitrary and ideologically biased parameters on the actions of a government thus allowing government to change as time demands. "Limited government" stands in contrast to, among many things, the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Under that doctrine, the King, and by extension his entire government, held unlimited sovereignty over its subjects. Limited government exists where some effective limits restrict governmental power. In Western civilization, the Magna Carta stands as the early example of a document limiting the reach of the king's sovereignty. While its limits protected only a small portion of the English population, it did state that the king's barons possessed rights which they could assert against the king. The English Bill of Rights associated with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 established limits of royal sovereignty. In contrast, the United States Constitution of 1787 created a government limited by the terms of the written document itself, by the election by the people of the legislators and the executive, and by the checks and balances through which the three branches of government limited each other's power.
The Framers of the Constitution were dedicated to the concept of limited government. They believed (1) that any governmental power threatens individual liberty, (2) that therefore the exercise of governmental power must be curbed, and (3) that to divide governmental power is to restrict it and thus prevent its abuse. Federalism is a system of government in which a written constitution divides the powers of government on a territorial basis. The division is made between a central, or national, government and several regional or local governments. Each level of government has its own area of powers. Neither level, acting alone, can change the basic division of powers the constitution makes between them. Each level operates through its own agencies and acts directly on the people through its own officials and laws. Quite simply, federalism allows local and state governments to make laws about certain things and the national government to make laws about other things. These laws can not conflict with each other (example: New York could not make a law forbidding women to vote because the national government has said it is a right for all citizens of this country). Hence, the national government has the power to make laws over a variety of things but the Constitution (10th amendment) says that state and local governments have power to make laws over everything else that the national government doesn't make laws about. For example, the national government has made a law saying that everyone has the right to vote at age 18 and it is no different in any state. However, the states have the power to determine the speed limit in their state and the national government has no say on what the speed limit should be in any of the states. Often, they share the power to make laws about certain issues. For example, there are national laws about gun rights and restrictions that all states must follow. However, Colorado also has laws that are more specific about what rights Colorado residents have concerning guns in Colorado, such as Colorado is the only state that doesn't require a permit for handgun owners.
The legislative branch of US government is the US Congress, created by article I of the Constitution. The upper-house of Congress is the US Senate, the lower-house is the House of Representatives.
Main roles and powers:
To pass legislation (laws)
Declare war
Regulate trade
Regulate money
Impeach federal officials
Override presidential vetoes (2/3 vote in each house)
Special powers & Responsibilities:
Approve presidential nominations to the federal courts (including the Supreme Court, by majority vote)
Approve presidential appointments to federal positions (by a majority vote)
Approve treaties (by 2/3 vote)
Serve as jury in impeachment trials
Select a Vice-President if the electoral college fails to
House of Representatives:
Originate all spending ($$) bills
Serve as prosecution in impeachment trial
Select a President if the electoral college fails to
Requirements and terms of service:
Term: Senators serve unlimited 6 year terms, elected by popular vote* (*note: The original Constitution called for Senators to be elected by the state legislatures, the 17th amendment changed this to a popular vote)
Requirements: Senators must be over 30, 9 year citizens of the US and a resident of the state
House of Representatives:
Term: Representatives serve unlimited 2 year terms, elected by popular vote
Requirements: Representatives must be over 25, 7 year citizens of the US and a resident of the district which they represent
Representation: Each state has 2 Senators
House of Representatives:
Representation: Each state's number of representatives is proportional to population. The number of Representatives is fixed at 435 and division among the states is determined by the census (population count) conducted every 10 years as required by the Constitution.
The executive branch of US government is composed of the President, his advisors and all federal agencies and their heads. The executive was created by article II of the Constitution.
Main roles and powers:
Chief Executive
Enforce the laws passed by Congress
Issue executive orders, enforcing the law
Act as the head of the federal bureaucracy and all federal agencies
Nominate judges (including those to the Supreme Court, requiring Senate confirmation)
Appoint government officials (some requiring Senate confirmation, some not)
Chief Diplomat
Act a representative of the United States to foreign governments
Make treaties with foreign nations (require 2/3 vote in Senate for approval)
Extend or rescind diplomatic recognition of foreign nations
Chief Legislator
Propose a federal budget
Recommend proposed laws to Congress
Veto legislation
Approve legislation passed by Congress
Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces
Supreme commander of all branches of US military
Authorize use of US military for up to 60 days (without approval of Congress or declaration of war)
Chief of State
Serve as ceremonial head of US Government
Special powers & Responsibilities:
Grant pardon (forgiving an individual of his/her crime(s))
Grant amnesty (forgiving a group of people of a specific class of crime)
Requirements and terms of service:
Terms: President serves a maximum of 2 terms of 4 years (**note: the original Constitution allowed of unlimited terms of service, this was revised by the 22nd amendment in 1951)
Requirements: President (or Vice-President) must over 35, a natural born citizen and a 14 year resident of the United States.
The lower house of the United States Congress (a bicameral legislature). The composition and powers of the House are established in Article One of the United States Constitution. The major power of the House is to pass federal legislation that affects the entire country, although its bills must also be passed by the Senate and further agreed to by the U.S. President before becoming law (unless both the House and Senate re-pass the legislation with a two-thirds majority in each chamber). The House has some exclusive powers: the power to initiate revenue bills, to impeach officials (impeached officials are subsequently tried in the Senate), and to elect the U.S. President in case there is no majority in the Electoral College. Each U.S. state is represented in the House in proportion to its population as measured in the census, but every state is entitled to at least one representative. The most populous state, California, currently has 53 representatives. On the other end of the spectrum, there are seven states with only one representative each (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming). The total number of voting representatives is fixed by law at 435. In addition there are six non-voting Representatives who have a voice on the floor and a vote in committees, but no vote on the floor. The Speaker of the House, who presides over the chamber, is elected by the members of the House, and is therefore traditionally the leader of the House Democratic Caucus or the House Republican Conference, whichever party has more voting members. The House meets in the south wing of the United States Capitol.
The institution that elects the President and Vice President of the United States every four years. The President and Vice President are not elected directly by the voters. Instead, they are elected by "electors" who are chosen by popular vote on a state-by-state basis. Electors are apportioned to each state and the District of Columbia (also known as Washington, D.C.), but not to territorial possessions of the United States. The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members of Congress to which the state is entitled, while the Twenty-third Amendment grants the District of Columbia the same number of electors as the least populous state, currently three. In total, there are 538 electors, corresponding to the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 senators, and the three additional electors from the District of Columbia. Electors are almost always pledged to particular presidential and vice presidential candidates, though unpledged electors are possible. Except for the electors in Maine and Nebraska, electors are elected on a "winner-take-all" basis. That is, all electors pledged to the presidential candidate who wins the most votes in a state become electors for that state. Maine and Nebraska use the "congressional district method", selecting one elector within each congressional district by popular vote and selecting the remaining two electors by a statewide popular vote. Although no elector is required by federal law to honor a pledge, there have only been very few occasions when an elector voted contrary to a pledge. The Twelfth Amendment, in specifying how a President and Vice President are elected, requires each elector to cast one vote for President and another vote for Vice President. The candidate that receives an absolute majority of electoral votes (currently 270) for the office of President or of Vice President is elected to that office. The Twelfth Amendment provides for what happens if the Electoral College fails to elect a President or Vice President. If no candidate receives a majority for President, then the House of Representatives will select the President, with each state delegation (instead of each Representative) having only one vote. If no candidate receives a majority for Vice President, then the Senate will select the Vice President, with each Senator having one vote. Critics argue that the Electoral College is inherently undemocratic and gives swing states disproportionate influence in electing the President and Vice President. The Electoral College gives a numeric advantage in the election of the president to the smaller states, as the minimum number of electors for the small states is three compared to one for the election of representatives. On the other hand, the winner-take-all method of voting favors the larger states. On four occasions, most recently in 2000, the Electoral College system has resulted in the election of a candidate who did not receive the most popular votes in the election. A number of constitutional amendments have been proposed seeking to alter the Electoral College or replace it with a direct popular vote.
According to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution, the President of the United States is Commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces. The amount of military detail handled personally by the President in wartime has varied dramatically. The structure of U.S. ranks has its roots in British military traditions, with the President taking the highest military rank. George Washington was the first President to firmly establish military subordination under civilian authority. In 1794, Washington used his constitutional powers to assemble 12,000 militia to quell the Whiskey Rebellion—a conflict in western Pennsylvania involving armed farmers and distillers who refused to pay excise tax on spirits. According to historian Joseph Ellis, this was the "first and only time a sitting American president led troops in the field." However, James Madison briefly took control of artillery units in defense of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. Abraham Lincoln was deeply involved in overall strategy and in day-to-day operations during the American Civil War, 1861-1865; historians have given Lincoln high praise for his strategic sense and his ability to select and encourage commanders such as Ulysses S. Grant. On the other extreme, Woodrow Wilson paid very little attention to operational military details of World War I and had very little contact with the War Department or with General John J. Pershing, who had a high degree of autonomy as commander of the armies in France. As President in World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt worked closely with his generals, and admirals, and assigned Admiral William D. Leahy as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief. Harry S. Truman believed in a high amount of civilian leadership of the military, making many tactical and policy decisions based on the recommendations of his advisors—including the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan, to commit American forces in the Korean War, and to terminate Douglas MacArthur from his command. Lyndon B. Johnson kept a very tight personal control of operations during the Vietnam War, which some historians have sharply criticized. In 1990, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991, saw George H.W. Bush assemble and lead one of the largest military coalitions of nations in modern times. Confronting a major constitutional issue of murky legislation that left the wars in Korea and Vietnam without official declarations of war, Congress quickly authorized sweeping war-making powers for Bush. The leadership of George W. Bush during the War in Afghanistan and Iraq War achieved mixed results. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda, the subsequent War on Terror that followed, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq due to the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (among other causes), the speed at which the Taliban and Ba'ath Party governments in both Kabul and Baghdad were toppled by an overwhelming superiority of American and allied forces defied the predictions of many military experts. However, rebuilding those nations proved to be a much more difficult task.
Refers to the ideas and processes that are accepted as a needed part of American government, regardless of the fact that they are not actually in the Constitution. These ideas and processes came about through the custom and precedent. Many aspects of the unwritten Constitution are so ingrained into our system that many do not even realize that they are not laws or provisions of the Constitution.
President's Cabinet
George Washington was the first to have a cabinet of advisors to aid him in making decisions for the nation. Today, the president's cabinet consists of the secretaries/heads of the 14 major departments of the executive branch (a few examples include: The Attorney General of the Justice Department, The Secretary of Defense of the Defense Department and The Secretary of State of the State Department).
Political Parties
Political parties are as old as the Constitution itself, however the document makes no rules to govern them. The first political parties arose from the debates over Constitutional ratification (the Federalists Party lead by Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans headed by Thomas Jefferson). It quickly became clear that political parties were to be the major forces in shaping American politics and by necessity rules and laws were established for their regulation, with no basis in the Constitution.
Congressional Committees
Congressional committees have been referred to as the "backbone of Congress". However, the system by which the majority of the work in Congress is accomplished is not defined in the Constitution. The work of Congress soon became so vast, that it became essential to the governing of the nation, to divide the work of legislating into specialized committees. These committees in both the House and the Senate serve to first consider specific legislation on topics such as the military (armed services committee), foreign policy (foreign relations committee) or spending (appropriations committee) before passing bills onto the entire House or Senate for consideration.
Judicial Review
The most important power of the Supreme Court, that of Judicial Review or the ability to declare laws unconstitutional, is not in the Constitution. The power of Judicial Review was a precedent set in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. Regardless, it has become one of the most fundamental concepts in American government. It also serves a check and balance on the laws passed by Congress and the actions and treaties of the President.