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Parent Primer: Democracy and Government

Brush up on the documents, history, and ideology of the U.S. government so you can help your child understand what makes America unique.
 

Learning Benefits

One of the most vital parts of your child's education is social studies, which begins the moment he walks into his first day of preschool or kindergarten and becomes part of a community: a citizen of the school. Encouraging your child to follow rules, respect others, and value cooperation and teamwork at home lays an important foundation not only for good citizenship, but also for understanding the principles behind government.

Brush up on the history & principles of U.S. Democracy:

The Story of the Constitution

In 1776, the 13 states had just declared their independence from Great Britain and needed to adopt their own system of government. Wary of giving too much power to a central national leadership, the Articles of Confederation adopted in 1777 (though Maryland waited until 1781 to sign it) left almost all of the power with the individual states, and required all 13 states to unanimously agree to any amendment to the federal government's power. But the lack of a central government to regulate commerce, impose taxes, settle disputes between the states, or support a war effort soon showed that the Articles were insufficient.

In 1786, James Madison, who would later become the nation's fourth president, called on the states to send delegates to work on revising the Articles. The following year, representatives from 12 states arrived in Philadelphia for what would become known as the Constitutional Convention. Revolutionary War hero George Washington was unanimously elected to preside over the convention, which included famous Americans Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Mason among its attendants.

Eventually, the deputies reached The Great Compromise, which guaranteed that states would be equally represented in the Senate, while representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population. The population would be determined by the number of white inhabitants plus three-fifths of "other people" — slaves. Finally, in September 1787, the delegates agreed on the draft of the Constitution and signed it. Now it had to be ratified by at least 9 out of 13 states.

To reacquaint yourself with the text of the Constitution, visit the National Archives online, where you can also view the actual document.

 

The Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are also called The Bill of Rights:

  1. Guarantees freedom of speech and religion, as well as the freedom to protest and petition.
  2. Grants the freedom to keep and bear arms and states the need for an armed force.
  3. Prohibits soldiers from living in anyone's house (private property) without permission.
  4. States that private property cannot be searched without a warrant, which must be given on the basis of probable cause.
  5. Guarantees "due process of law" and that people cannot be held for a capital crime (like murder) without an indictment from a grand jury. Also prevents a person from being tried for the same crime twice (double jeopardy), gives individuals the right not to testify against themselves (think, "I'll take the 5th"), and prevents the government from taking private property without adequate compensation.
  6. Promises the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury and to have a lawyer. Also states that citizens have the right to know what they are charged with and to subpoena witnesses to testify.
  7. Gives the right to a jury in civil (non-criminal) cases if desired.
  8. Prohibits excessive bails, fines, and "cruel and unusual" punishment.
  9. Expresses that just because certain rights have been specifically listed, it does not "deny or disparage" other unmentioned individual rights.
  10. Declares that powers not given to the U.S. government are reserved for the states or individuals.

Read the full text of the Bill of Rights.

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Branches of Government

The Constitution divided the federal government into three distinct branches with a set of checks and balances built in so that no one branch can gain all the power. For example, Congress passes laws, but the President can veto any bill and prevent it from becoming a law, or the Supreme Court can decide that a law is unconstitutional and repeal it.

Each branch has a distinct role and set of powers:


1. The Executive Branch --The President is the leader of the country and of the executive branch, which also includes the Vice President, the Cabinet, and independent and executive agencies, such as the CIA and the EPA. The President is the Commander in Chief of the military, approves or vetoes bills passed by congress, nominates judges for the Supreme Court (and other federal courts), can pass federal rules and regulations (called executive orders), and is responsible for foreign relations.
 

2. The Judiciary Branch -- The Judiciary Branch is made up of all the federal courts, which are headed by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the only court specified by the Constitution, which makes it the highest court of the land. It is made up of a chief justice and eight associates, each having one vote. The decisions of the Supreme Court do not have to be unanimous — the majority rules. 

3. The Legislative Branch -- Congress makes up the bulk of the legislative branch, which has the power to make laws for the country. Agencies like the Library of Congress, Congressional Budget Office, and other groups that support Congress compose the rest of the branch. Congress is responsible for writing, debating, and passing bills, coining money, maintaining the military, declaring war, and regulating interstate and foreign commerce. It also has the power to amend the Constitution and impeach the President.

 

Congress is a bicameral institution made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Originally, Senators were appointed by their respective state legislatures, until the 17th Amendment put that choice to direct popular vote. There are 100 Senators and 435 Representatives.

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