Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

all about american gov't
Click on any of the terms below to get a full explanation of that topic.
•  The Origins of
American Government
•  Types of Government
•  Characteristics of the
•  All the Stuff That Happened
•  The Declaration of Independence
•  The Articles of Confederation
•  The Constitutional Convention
•  The Great Compromise
•  The United States Constitution
•  The Basic Principles
of the Constitution
•  The Articles of the Constitution
•  The Drive for Ratification
•  The Bill of Rights

Let's learn all about the thing that keeps the United States running—the government. By the time we're through, you may just know enough to start your own government.

The Origins of American Government

If you've ever watched C-SPAN, you've seen the United States government in action. But before a government can become mighty enough to deserve its own cable channel, it needs some founding principles. To help demystify the origin and nature of American government, let's take a brief look at some governments that came before it.

Way, way, way back (even before Sony Playstations), the ancient Greeks had a lot of time on their hands. When they weren't thinking of sneaky ways to fool the Trojans, or inventing science, they busied themselves by tossing around some pretty neat ideas about governments.

You may have heard of a guy named Aristotle, who lived almost twenty-five hundred years ago. Aristotle came up with a groovy idea called natural law. Basically, Aristotle's theory of natural law states that society should be governed by certain ethical principles.

What are ethical principles? Well, to simplify, these are all the things you should or shouldn't do in a society.

Among other things, Aristotle believed that it really wasn't right for a government to disrespect its citizens. So, based on Aristotle's ethical principles, it wasn't right for a government to seize a citizen's land, for instance.

Aristotle's concept of natural law was rather groundbreaking. But, after Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, things were stagnant in government development for hundreds of years.

But, when the eighteenth century rolled around, things really started hopping. A bunch of Europeans started making waves with some revolutionary new ideas. We call this period in history (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) the Age of Enlightenment.

During the Age of Enlightenment, philosophers and a handful of other smart guys went around encouraging people to seek alternatives to oppressive governments (in other words, those governments that didn't abide by Aristotle's natural law concept).

Heavy thinkers argued a new idea called popular consent. Popular consent asserts that people should be able to participate directly in the governing of their own societies. Makes sense, doesn't it?

One of these heavy thinkers was John Locke. Locke, along with a fellow named Thomas Hobbes, took the idea of popular consent a step further and developed it into what is known as the social contract theory.

The social contract theory compares the relationship between a society and its citizens to parties that enter into a contract.

Basically, Locke argued that all individuals are naturally free. Therefore, people are giving their consent to be governed when they become members of a society. According to Locke and Hobbes, if a society's government breaks this contract by acting improperly, then the people have the right to revolt. In fact, this dynamic duo said, not only do citizens have a right to revolt—they have the duty to revolt.

Additionally, the social contract theory holds that people formed governments to preserve life, liberty, property, and to assure justice. If the government decides to interfere with this, say by laying claim to your CD collection without due process, the contract is broken. Kaput. The population then has the right to start a kinder, gentler government. That's pretty much what happened here in the United States.

Types of Government

After the Revolutionary War, the founding fathers got together to discuss what type of government they wanted to establish. They considered four types: monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy. Well, you probably already know which one they picked, but, for the sake of argument, pretend you don't.

We know they didn't choose a monarchy, but what is a monarchy anyway? A monarchy is a form of government in which hereditary rulers (people who share the same bloodline) better known as kings and queens, wield absolute power over everybody.

Absolute power? That means that the kings and queens can pretty much do whatever they want.

Well, since the founders knew the monarchy thing didn't really fly in the original American colonies, they decided against a monarchy.

They also considered oligarchy. An oligarchy consists of a body of individuals possessing high levels of wealth, social or military status, or achievement. These elite guys and gals pretty much rule everything and everyone.

There was also aristocracy to consider. Aristocracy is rule by a privileged few.

As nice as monarchies, oligarchies, and aristocracies may sound (at least to those lucky enough to be in power!), one of the reasons the colonists fought for independence in the first place was to free themselves from government structures that left little or no popular consent to the people.

So, the founding fathers set up a democracy. A democracy is a form of government in which the people hold the power to rule themselves. But it's not quite as simple as that. In fact, there are two main types of democracy: direct democracy and indirect democracy.

In a direct democracy, all the people get together and have an equal say in the laws they create. In an indirect democracy (also known as a representative democracy), people vote for representatives who work on their behalf to create laws. Once chosen, these representatives then vote within a government structure, making and passing laws. This is a two-step version of democracy.

The founding fathers chose… an indirect democracy! After all, they figured that at some point in time, America would become a really, really big nation. And if that happened, there'd be no way they could possibly get everyone together to vote on every single thing.

Characteristics of the American Democracy

A key idea in American democracy is balance, as in the balance needed among many opposing ideas.

How did the founding fathers manage to achieve this balance? Thanks to six key components of American democracy, that's how. These are popular consent, popular sovereignty, majority rule, individualism, equality, and personal liberty. Let's go over each.

We actually already covered popular consent, but hey, we can repeat ourselves. Popular consent is the belief that a government exists only with the consent of the governed, that is, the people. This idea is a big part of the social contract theory.

With popular consent, government leaders do not get the right to govern from God, from their economic standing, or from their family lineage. They get the right to govern from those individuals that they govern—the people.

Popular sovereignty is the right a majority of a society has to govern itself. A society determines its destiny by majority vote. For instance, if a majority of the citizens vote that they want to have a National Firefighter Appreciation Day, then everyone in that society gets the day off to take a firefighter to lunch.

Majority rule maintains that only the policies supported by a majority of voters shall become law. Really, this is a lot like popular sovereignty.

Individualism maintains that citizens have certain rights that a government isn't allowed to take away. Often, they're called inalienable rights. Inalienable rights are things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For instance, in America you have the right to practice whatever religion you believe in (or none at all). The government didn't give you that right, you were born with it.

Our next concept is equality. Equality is the idea that all members of a democracy wield equal power. Put another way, it means one person, one vote. In the United States, all qualified citizens get one vote (and one vote only) in elections.

And finally, the last key component of American democracy is personal liberty. Personal liberty is freedom from undue governmental interference. That is, for example, the government shouldn't tell you where to live or with whom you should live. That's your own business.

Well, somehow we got from those key components to the Constitution. How? Well, let's find out about all the stuff that happened before the Constitution was written.

All the Stuff That Happened Before the Constitution Was Written

Well, we're not going to tell you all the stuff, just some important highlights.

Permanent English Settlers first came to America in the early seventeenth century. 1607, to be exact, and they settled in Jamestown, Virginia.

Settlers came to America for a lot of different reasons. Some came to flee religious persecution, some for the abundance of land, and still others came to enjoy the promise of twenty-four hour banking (but they had to wait three hundred years). Whatever the reason, America eventually became one of the most popular hangouts in the world.

The relationship between the American colonies and the English government in these early years after settlement played a big part in the birth of the American government.

Here's what happened. After all those folks came over to what was then called the New World, the colonies of settlers and the English crown formed a basic agreement. The crown (that is, the English government, ruled by the king) determined that it was allowed to regulate trade and conduct international affairs, and that the colonies were allowed to govern many of their own domestic affairs, including the power to levy taxes.

Well, this relationship worked pretty well until the 1760's. Around this time, England had sunk a whole lot of money into the French and Indian War as they tried to keep their hold over the New World. When the war ended, England was left cash-poor.

What's an empire to do when its bank account is low? Well, in England's case, it meant turning to the American colonies to recoup some of its losses. After all, a lot of money had been spent on the protection of these same colonies.

First, England restricted the westward expansion of the colonies, and then passed three tough laws: the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, and the Quartering Act of 1765. Let's look at each.

The Sugar Act placed taxes on sugar, coffee, and other products exported from England to the colonies. This raised the prices of goods that colonists received from England.

The Stamp Act required all colonists to purchase "stamps" for all sorts of documents, including mail, contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and even playing cards. As you can see, this was basically another device to collect taxes from the American colonies.

The Quartering Act required colonial authorities to provide food, shelter, and whatnot to British soldiers stationed in their area.

As you might imagine, these acts didn't sit too well with the colonists, The passage and enforcement of these acts eventually led the colonists to organize and unify, basically starting with the Stamp Act Congress.

The Stamp Act Congress, held in 1765, was the first official meeting between the colonists that addressed the new British pollicies. They discussed the need to take a first step toward colonial unification against England. All the colonies banded together and agreed to team up against the English crown should it be necessary.

The Stamp Act Congress was followed by the Committees of Correspondence, originally organized in Boston and other Massachusetts towns.

The Committees of Correspondence eventually spread throughout the colonies, passing colonists information they needed about the British. This intelligence helped turn public opinion against the English.

Then the ball really got rolling, and the colonists met again at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. Fifty-six delegates attended, with representatives from every colony except Georgia. At the time, the colonists didn't want to do anything radical, they just wanted to discuss the issues.

The delegates of the Continental Congress put their demands together on a document called "The List of Stupid Reasons That Stupid England is Stupid."

Well, it was actually called the "Declaration of Rights and Resolves," but the other name is more descriptive. This declaration called for certain colonial rights, for instance, the rights of petition and assembly, the right to a trial by peers, the right to elect the representatives who levy taxes, and the freedom from a standing army.

The English monarch, King George III, didn't think much of the document, to say the least.

So, the colonists reconvened in May 1775 at the Second Continental Congress.

At that point, revolution was pretty much a done deal, as fighting had already broken out in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord, but the colonists made one last-ditch effort at peace. They drafted the Olive Branch Petition, but again, it went nowhere with King George. In fact, he sent twenty thousand troops over to the colonies just for fun. Well, that didn't sit too well with the colonists, and revolt seemed inevitable.

By 1776, the colonies declared their independence from Britain in a document called, fittingly, the Declaration of Independence. Snappy name. Let's take a look at it.

The Declaration of Independence

The Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence was adopted two days later, on July 4.

The first part of the Declaration (known as the "preamble") incorporated many of John Locke's ideas about the social contract theory.

So, basically, the Declaration of Independence told England that the colonies were going their own way, and it also outlined the principles for a new government.

After the preamble, the Declaration went on to list all the things England had done to anger the colonists—mostly violations of personal rights. These rights would later be guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the Constitution.

Once the Declaration of Independence was finished, the colonists could have taken it easy, but they didn't. They started work on another important document, the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation

With the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the former American colonies had their first constitution. Essentially, the Articles of Confederation created a league of friendship among the states, who, aside from banding together during the war for independence, had remained mostly independent.

The Articles of Confederation created a government that received its power from the states. Specifically, the government would receive its power from a confederation, which is a league of semi-sovereign states.

This was the first attempt by the fledgling nation to create a unified national government. At that point, few colonists actually thought of themselves as Americans. They were fiercely loyal to their states and had some problems taking a national government seriously.

Now, in a confederation, the states held most of the power, not the national government. And once the Revolutionary War was over, there wasn't much left to unify the states, and the government collapsed. With no power to tax, and no way to regulate trade between the states, there wasn't much the government could do to assert its control on a national level.

Get this—the national government was so wimpy that at one point Congress was driven out of Philadelphia by its own (unpaid) army.

Why would anyone want such yellow-bellied, limp-fish government? Well, the states were afraid to give too much control to one central government for fear that America would turn into another England. From the states' experiences, one central government with lots of power resulted in oppression.

So, the states made their own treaties with other nations. There was no national army. But, the budding country faced organizational chaos.

That's when the (nearly powerless) Congress stepped in and passed a resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. Nobody had any plans for that weekend, so a bunch of delegates traveled to Philadelphia.

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention began in May of 1787 and ran until September. Delegates representing all but one of the states showed up (Rhode Island decided not to attend), and they eventually came up with two blueprints for a new government: the Virginia Plan, and the New Jersey Plan.

The Virginia Plan called for a strong national government that derived its power from the people, not from the states. The New Jersey Plan, on the other hand, called for a loose confederation of states that would share power with a national government. Eventually, the Virginia Plan triumphed.

One of the most controversial issues at the Constitutional Convention had to do with representation in Congress. Remember, the origin of Congress stems from the concept of indirect democracy, where citizens vote for representatives.

The goal was to figure out how to make the representation for each state fair. Population-wise, the larger states wanted more relative power, because they represented a larger population of citizens. The smaller states wanted to make sure they weren't steamrolled just because they had fewer people. To solve this problem, the delegates came up with the Great Compromise.

The Great Compromise

The Great Compromise basically established Congress as we know it today. The deal was that each state—no matter its size—was to be represented in two ways in Congress. To accomplish this, a two-part, or bicameral, Congress was proposed. You know these two parts as the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In the Senate, each state would get two (and only two!) representatives. This equal representation in the Senate made the smaller states happy.

In the House of Representatives, representation would be determined by state population. This made the bigger states happy. The more people in a state, the greater the number of representatives they received.

Eventually everything was hammered out at the convention, the delegates got some cool souvenirs, and the country got a constitution.

The United States Constitution

A constitution works like an owner's manual for a government. It's a document (or set of documents) in which the laws or principles of a government are laid out.

Let's find out about the basic principles of the United States government—as laid out by the Constitution, of course.

The Basic Principles of the Constitution

One of the main questions facing the framers of the Constitution was which type of government to set up. They had tried a confederation, which concentrated power in the states with a weak central government, and that didn't work out too well. Also, they were still smarting from the unfairness of the monarch-controlled centralized system they had dealt with when England was in charge.

They decided on federalism, which sort of balances out things. Federalism calls for a strong national government, but still leaves some power in the hands of the individual states.

Under the Constitution, the states are bound together under a strong national government, but also have specific powers reserved for them.

Another big concern of the framers was the risk of putting too much power into the hands of one individual or one branch of the government. To address this concern, they decided to separate powers. What does that mean?

Well, separation of powers divides government power between three federal branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The Constitution guarantees that each branch is interdependent upon the other branches via checks and balances.

This system of checks and balances gives each branch of government a little bit of control over the others which allows them to check up on each other. That way, one branch is not allowed to monopolize power.

One important principle the framers created was supremacy clause. Basically, the supremacy clause lets everyone know who's in charge. This principle holds that the laws of the Constitution and the nation as a whole are supreme in regard to any laws enacted by states.

This means that any legitimate use of power by the federal government takes precedence over any conflicting actions on the state level. For example, if the federal government's judicial branch finds a law in a state unjust and ridiculous, well, the state has to get rid of that law.

The Articles of the Constitution

The Constitution of the United States contains seven articles, which is just a fancy way of saying it has seven sections. The first three articles are mucho importante, because they set up the three branches of the American government. Let's take a peek.

Article One establishes the legislative branch of the American government, the part that can make and pass laws.

Remember, Congress is a bicameral legislature. A bicameral legislature is divided into two parts, in this case, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Article One also gives us the nuts and bolts of the Congress—like who's qualified to serve in the Senate and the House, the length of their terms, how senators and representatives are selected, and how we know the number of representatives each state is entitled to.

Another key to this first article is the list of enumerated powers, seventeen powers the framers really wanted Congress to have. Things like the powers to tax, coin money, regulate commerce, and provide for the national defense.

The Framers also threw in the Necessary and Proper Clause, also called the Elastic Clause. This clause give Congress the authority to pass all laws necessary and proper for carrying out the seventeen enumerated powers.

Okay, on to our next article of the Constitution. Article Two establishes another branch of government, the executive branch. It's called that because it has the power to execute the laws of the nation. Who has the power to execute the laws around this here land? The biggest cheese in the fridge—the President of the United States.

Article Two spells out the President's term of office and describes the necessary qualifications for the presidential office. It describes what the job actually is, and spells out the rules for replacing the president.

Article Three sets forth the description and structure of the judicial branch, better known as the Supreme Court. Additionally, this article defines the Court's jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court was given the authority and jurisdiction to decide all cases to be considered on the federal level. This includes cases between states or between a state and the federal government.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. They have final say on lots of important issues. But, Congress eventually set up other federal courts, lower than the Supreme Court. Additionally, the states themselves have set up their own court systems, in keeping with the theme of federalism.

Article Four defines the relationship between the states and federal government, and explains how new states are admitted to the Union.

Article Five explains how to amend the Constitution. An amendment is a change. Now, the framers didn't want it to be too easy to change the Constitution. After all, anything too easy to change really can't hold much water. Realizing that, the framers created a two-stage amendment process.

The two stages of the constitution's amendment process are proposal and ratification. Proposals are like saying, "Hey, why don't we make such and such a change to the Constitution?" Ratification is like saying, "Hey that's a grand idea, lets go ahead and make the change!

Now, each stage, proposal and ratification, can occur in two different ways. Let's start with the proposal process.

Amendments to the Constitution can be proposed two ways. One, there can be a two-thirds vote in favor of the amendment in both houses of Congress. Two, two-thirds of the state legislatures can vote to have Congress call for a national amendment proposal convention. Actually, the second proposal method has never been used.

Let's not forget ratification, the second half of the two-stage amendment process. There are two ways ratification occurs. Both ways rest squarely on the shoulders of the states.

The first way Constitutional amendments are ratified is by a favorable vote in three-quarters of all state legislatures. The second way is for each state to call for a special ratifying convention. If three-fourths of all these state conventions vote in favor of the amendment, then the amendment's in!

Keep in mind that in the two-hundred year history of the United States, the Constitution has been amended only twenty-seven times. Which tells you how good a job the framers did when they wrote this stuff in the first place.

Of all the amendments, only one has been repealed, which means it was overturned. The eighteenth amendment, which outlawed the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages, was ratified in 1919. After a few years, the country decided that prohibition just didn't work, so they wanted to get rid of the amendment. But it's not as easy as that! Actually, the only way to get rid of an amendment to the Constitution is with another amendment! The twenty-first amendment, which made alcohol legal again, was ratified in 1933, so it basically cancelled out the eighteenth amendment.

Article Six contains that supremacy clause already mentioned. Remember, the supremacy clause says that the federal government gets the final say in most arguments about laws between it and the states.

This article also states that no religious test is required to hold office, and that church and state are kept separate.

Finally, Article Seven contains the directions for how to ratify the Constitution, that is, how to make the Constitution legal and binding. A vote of nine of the original thirteen colonies was all it took to put ratification into action. Buuuuuut… it wasn't as easy as that sounds.

The Drive for Ratification

Just because the Constitution was written didn't make it the law of the land. Two factions quickly formed, one for the new proposal, one against.

The Federalists favored a strong national government, and the growth of industry, and they supported the newly written Constitution.

The Anti-Federalists preferred stronger state governments, a weaker national government, and the continuance of an agrarian economy instead of an industrial economy. They didn't support the Constitution.

Not too hard to decode, right? The federalists wanted a strong federal government, the anti-federalists didn't. In general, the Federalist party consisted of merchants from the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, and people who owned a lot of land.

The anti-federalists, on the other hand, were small farmers, shopkeepers, and working Joes. They believed in the good of the common man and were in favor of a more participatory democracy. In other words, they wanted to make government more accountable to the people. They also wanted more protections of individual rights—something they feared a strong national government couldn't guarantee.

Unfortunately for the Anti-Federalists, the Federalists brought out their big guns—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay—to write a defense of the Constitution, known as The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five political papers that explained the rationale behind the new Constitution. The Anti-Federalists did attempt a line-by-line critique of the Constitution, but it didn't work. The Federalist Papers were more persuasive, the Constitution was ratified, and two of its authors now appear on American currency.

But, the Anti-Federalists didn't go home entirely unhappy. One of their main goals was to protect personal liberties. The Anti-Federalists convinced almost everyone else that personal liberties were a good idea, so ten amendments which protect personal liberties were written into the Constitution before it was ratified. What are these ten amendments called? Well, you may know them as the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights

Here's a quick rundown of the Bill of Rights:

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, press, and assembly.

The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms.

The Third Amendment prohibits the quartering of troops in private homes.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Fifth Amendment protects the rights of people accused of a crime. It guarantees due process of law, requires an indictment by a grand jury, prohibits a person from being tried for the same crime twice, and gives the defendant in a trial the right not to testify against themselves.

The Sixth Amendment continues the rights of people accused of a crime, promising a speedy and public trial before an impartial jury, the right to an attorney, and the right to cross-examine witnesses.

The Seventh Amendment preserves the right to a trial by a jury in a civil suit.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment.

The Ninth Amendment states that just because a right is not listed in the Constitution, that doesn't mean the people do not have that right. So, all rights not expressly written in the Constitution belong to the people.

The Tenth Amendment was designed to make the states happy. It says that any rights that aren't denied to the people or states, or specifically given to the federal government, are retained by the states or the people. This amendment was added to appease Anti-Federalists who thought the Constitution ignored states' rights.

Now that you've read All About American Gov't, test your knowledge with our Sample Test.

Back to Top