Do you believe in government "by the people, for the people, and of the people"? Few Americans would say no, especially since these words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his 1863 Gettysburg Address are firmly imbedded in the American political system. Yet governments over the centuries have not always accepted this belief in popularly elected rule.
The American colonies began developing a democratic tradition during their earliest stages of development. Over 150 years later, the colonists believed their experience was great enough to refuse to recognize the British king. The first decade was rocky. The American Revolution and the domestic instability that followed prompted a call for a new type of government with a constitution to guarantee liberty. The constitution drafted in the early days of the independent American republic has endured longer than any in human history.
The great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean created a safe distance for American colonists to develop skills to govern themselves. Despite its efforts to control American trade, England could not possibly oversee the entire American coastline. Colonial merchants soon learned to operate outside British law. Finally, those who escaped religious persecution in England demanded the freedom to worship according to their faiths.
States cherished their new freedom from British control, and ratification of the Constitution by state legislatures was by no means certain. All thirteen states finally ratified by 1790, but only with the addition of ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, that guaranteed citizens' rights and freedoms.
Did you ever wonder why you don't need a passport to go from New York to California, but if you were to move from one state to another, you would need a new driver's license? Or why you can use the same currency in all states, but not be subject to the same speed limits? Or why you have to pay both federal and state taxes?
The founders very carefully divided powers between federal and state governments. They were responding to both the colonial aversion to the tyranny of King George III as well as the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Their careful separating and blending of state and national powers guarded against tyranny, allowed for more citizen participation in government, and provided a mechanism for incorporating new policies and programs.
Some issues have endured throughout American history. What is meant by civil liberty? Does (or should) Congress truly represent the people? Do the courts ensure that justice prevails? How much power should lie with the President?
For almost 200 years, the federal-state relationship has shifted more and more toward national supremacy. But some observers today believe that over the past twenty years, the balance of power is beginning to tilt back toward the states. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush tried to slow down the growth of the national government under the banner of "New Federalism."
Many factors åÑ including family, gender, religion, race and ethnicity, and region åÑ all contribute to American political attitudes and behavior.
Voting is at the heart of democracy. A vote sends a direct message to the government about how a citizen wants to be governed. And yet, only 48.8 % of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in the 1996 presidential election. That figure represents the lowest general presidential election turnout since 1824. In off-year elections (those when the president is not running) the statistics are even worse. Why don't people vote?
Despite promises made by presidential candidates, the President has no direct power to pass any legislation. This very important power lies solely with the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Constitution specifically grants Congress its most important power the authority to make laws. A bill, or proposed law, only becomes a law after both the House of Representatives and the Senate have approved it in the same form. The two houses share other powers, many of which are listed in Article I, Section 8. These include the power to declare war, coin money, raise an army and navy, regulate commerce, establish rules of immigration and naturalization, and establish the federal courts and their jurisdictions.
Partisanship or fierce loyalty to one's political party generally is not admired in the United States today. Many people today call themselves independent voters, and bickering between the parties in Congress is often condemned. But parties are very important in both the House of Representatives and the Senate today. Even though political parties do not play as big a role in elections as they once did, they still provide the basic organization of leadership in Congress.
A paunchy, older, silver-haired man with no facial hair wearing an ill-fitting dark suit. This is the image evoked in the minds of many Americans when they try to picture a Representative or Senator. This stereotype is actually grounded in truth, although the makeup of Congress has changed a great deal in the past few decades.
Creating legislation is what the business of Congress is all about. Ideas for laws come from many places ordinary citizens, the president, offices of the executive branch, state legislatures and governors, congressional staff, and of course the members of Congress themselves.
The presidency was created in the image of George Washington, the man everyone believed would first occupy the office. Washington's personality shaped the expectation that the President should be wise, moderate, dignified, and nonpartisan. Of course, the President could not be all-powerful like the king of England. This person had to be sensitive to treading on individual rights and liberties. But especially for the fledgling nation, strong leadership was necessary.
The 21st century dawned on a very different presidency than the one created at the end of the 1700s. Constitutional provisions limited the early presidency, although the personalities of the first three George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson shaped it into a more influential position by the early 1800s. However, throughout the 1800s until the 1930s, Congress was the dominant branch of the national government. Then, in the past seventy years or so, the balance of power has shifted dramatically, so that the executive branch currently has at least equal power to the legislative branch. How did this shift happen?
Just as the power of the presidency has grown tremendously in recent years, so have the numbers of people that surround the executive branch. George Washington began his first term with only one aide his nephew who he paid out of his own pocket.
The evolving power and enlarging scope of responsibilities have made the modern presidency a very big job. Some even say that it is impossible for one person to handle it all.