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All the resources from your summer institute can be found here.
What Are the Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System?
The people who led the American Revolution, which separated the American colonies from Great Britain, and who created the Constitution, which established the government we have today, were making a fresh beginning. However, they also were heirs to philosophical and historical traditions as old as Western civilization.
The Founders were well read. "I cannot live without books," Thomas Jefferson once told John Adams. Jefferson's library of approximately 6,500 volumes formed the core collection of the Library of Congress. Adams reputedly read forty-three books during the year he turned eighty-one years old. These Americans were familiar with the history, philosophy, and literature of the ancient world as well as with the ideas of their own time. They also studied English history and law, from which their constitutional traditions derived. And religion was an important part of the Founders' education. They knew the Bible and its teachings.
How Did the Framers Create the Constitution?
After declaring their independence from Great Britain, Americans had to decide how they would govern themselves. The Articles of Confederation, which were the first attempt to establish a national government, proved inadequate in the eyes of many leading citizens. Fifty-five men met in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted the U.S. Constitution. These men became known as the Framers. The Constitution was not universally acclaimed, and its adoption and ratification provoked discussions of the most basic questions about political life and government institutions.
How Has the Constitution Been Changed to Further the Ideals Contained in the Declaration of Independence?
The Constitution of 1787 has been changed in several important ways. The Framers provided mechanisms for some of those changes, including a process for amending the Constitution. Other changes are not explicitly provided for in the text of the Constitution but have played a significant role in the constitutional system. The Civil War produced three amendments that transformed American federalism and moved the Constitution toward the ideals of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence.
How Have the Values and Principles Embodied in the Constitution Shaped American Institutions and Practices?
The Constitution was a plan for the new national government. It described the organization of the national government in terms of its powers and limits. The Framers purposely wrote the Constitution as a general framework. They left out many details that they knew would need to be added in the future. They also knew that they needed to reconcile the tension between the national government and the state governments. Therefore they devised a new system called federalism.
What Rights Does the Bill of Rights Protect?
The Bill of Rights commonly refers to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights contains twenty-seven provisions that protect a variety of rights and freedoms. Originally the Bill of Rights protected individuals only from the misuse or abuse of power by the national government. Through the process of selective incorporation (see Lesson 18) the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that most of the rights in the Bill of Rights also protect individuals from the misuse or abuse of power by state governments.
A few provisions of the Bill of Rights no longer seem very important. The Third Amendment protection against the involuntary quartering of soldiers in civilian homes in time of peace is one example. Other provisions, such as First Amendment protection of freedom of expression and procedural protections of individuals in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, have become more important since 1791, when they took effect.
A number of important rights also are included in the body of the Constitution and in constitutional amendments added after the Bill of Rights, as discussed in Lessons 15 and 17. Together, these rights sometimes have been called the "extended Bill of Rights."
What Challenges Might Face American Constitutional Democracy in the Twenty-first Century?
The U.S. Constitution has proven to be remarkably resilient. It has survived more than two centuries because it has been able to accommodate massive transformations in American life, including the increasing diversity and size of the nation and a traumatic civil war. The constitutional system provides Americans many opportunities to participate in local, state, and national affairs. At home and abroad its principles and ideals have inspired people. In this, the twenty-first century, its resilience will continue to be tested.
Resources for JMLP
Strengthening Democracy in America
Part 1: An Overview of the Political System Created by the Framers of the ConstitutionThe first two videos are intended to provide the viewer with an overview of the American political system.
- The Constitution of the United States is the “blueprint” that shaped the establishment of our governmental institutions. It was developed by fifty-five men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 as delegates from twelve of the thirteen newly formed states that had declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776. Many were students of the history of government in western civilization from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans to their day. Many were also experienced in government and knowledgeable about government of their colonies for the more than 150 years before the American Revolution resulted in their independence. They used this knowledge and experience in creating the Constitution. This video explains why they created the kind of system they established which has lasted with significant modifications to this day.
- The relationship among the institutions of our national government has changed significantly from the time of the founding to the present day. During the founding period, it was believed that the legislative branch would be incontestably the strongest branch of government. Today, both the executive and judicial branches are much stronger than the Founders had in mind, and Congress is much weaker. Although Congress has the authority to change this balance, it has failed to do so and has continued to cede power to the other branches of the national government. Some claim this poses a threat not only to representative democracy, but to democracy itself. There has also been an evolution of political and democratic norms essential to the healthy functioning of a democratic system. This video explains the importance of maintaining a balance of power between the three branches of government and how adherence to democratic norms is essential to the healthy functioning of a society.
Part 2: Evaluating Strengths and Weaknesses of the American Political System and Proposed Remedies
- The American political system embodies all of the essential elements of liberal democracy, such as popular sovereignty, which is the idea that the ultimate power lies with the people and government is dependent upon their consent. Other elements include the ideals of political equality and majority rule; freedom of expression and the access to alternative sources of information necessary for informed participation; universal suffrage; and free, frequent, and largely fair elections. However, these elements or goals are not fully realized in some situations. This video examines these strengths of our system, related weaknesses, and ways by which the system can be improved.
- The legislative branches are said to be responsible for making laws, the executive for carrying them out, and the judiciary for managing disputes about their interpretation and application. These distinctions are not, in fact, so clear. It is better to describe our system as one in which these institutions are separated, but they actually share all of these powers to some extent. Furthermore, since the founding period, power has shifted among these institutions and there is a continuous tension among them regarding the scope and limit of their powers. Our system is compared with parliamentary systems that have different institutional and procedural arrangements. Current problems in our system are examined, including claims regarding a breakdown in essential norms and the current extent of polarization in Congress.