Civics & Government Lessons
Foundations of American Citizenship
• Roots of American Democracy...The leaders of the American Revolution shaped American democracy. During the Revolution, the thirteen original colonies struggled against the British Empire for independence. The colonists got weapons and formed their own army. This conflict was called the Revolutionary War, or the American War of Independence. The war began after the British started taxing the colonists to pay for soldiers to protect them. The colonists believed the taxes were too high. Important colonial leaders met and wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. War finally ended in 1781 and the new nation of the United States of America was born. This new country would not have a king to rule them. The citizens believed that power should come from the people.
• The Bill of Rights...The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. An amendment is a change made to a constitution. The Bill of Rights amendments are changes that help the people of the United States. The first ten amendments limit the powers of the federal government and protect the rights of all citizens, residents, and visitors on United States territory. After James Madison wrote the Constitution, the founding fathers wanted to include words about the rights of American citizens. The first amendment is very important and guarantees freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, petition, and press. These amendments came into effect on December 15, 1791, when three-fourths of the new United States ratified them. James Madison wrote the first draft, which was based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason.
• The Constitution...The people who wrote the U.S. Constitution created an incredible plan for government. They wrote this plan before cars, electricity, airplanes, or the internet were invented. Amazingly, it still works well. Many other countries have copied the U.S. constitution when making their own plans for government.
• The Citizen and the Community...Citzenship. What does that mean for you? To be a good citizen and to be active in your community does not mean waiting until you are 18. There is so much you can do now to be fair and do the right thing, be truthful, treat people equally, and help people around you. You can study hard in school, you can help people and organizations around you (or in far off places), you can talk with your parents and family members about how they feel about current events. You can talk to the adults in your family about how important it is to be involved in things like the census and voting in elections. It is important to start doing these things now so that when you do reach voting age you can make decisions that reflect your opinions…and can make a difference in your communities and the lives of people around you even more!
The National Government
• Congress...The United States government has three branches: executive, judicial, and legislative. The legislative branch is called the Congress. It is divided into two parts, or houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate has 100 members, two from each state. It has 435 members. The number of people who live in a state determines the number of members. The members of the House of Representatives are also called congressmen or congresswomen. All of the members are elected by the people of the United States. When the Founding Fathers were writing the United States Constitution, some of the delegates disagreed about how the new government. After much debate, the delegates made an agreement called “The Great Compromise.” The compromise was to make two houses in Congress. This satisfied the delegates and they signed the new Constitution. The Constitution is the law of the United States. The Congress’ job is to make the laws that govern our entire country.
• The President and the Executive Branch...The president of the United States is a very busy person. He is the head of state. He can sign a bill into law or veto a bill if he does not agree with it. He has to create a cabinet of people to advise him. He can pardon criminals. He meets with the heads of foreign countries. He meets with governors and other elected officials. He makes treaties or agreements with other countries. The president also appoints or picks ambassadors, federal judges, and the judges on the Supreme Court. His office is the Oval Office of the White House. The White House is located in Washington, D.C. He works closely with the Congress and the Supreme Court. The president is the head of the executive branch of the United States government.
• The Judicial Branch...The Judicial Branch of government was created through Article III of the Constitution. This branch interprets the laws of the United States. The Supreme Court is the head of the Judicial Branch. The court has eight associate justices and one chief justice. The current chief justice is John Roberts. The president appoints the justices. They serve on the court for their entire life. There are no special requirements to be a justice. The Supreme Court hears cases that challenge or require interpretation of the laws passed by Congress and signed by the President. The most important job of the Supreme Court is to hear cases that challenge a right given to citizens in the Constitution. The Judicial Branch works in the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
Political Parties and Interest Groups
• Voting and Elections...The election process is a complex, yet fascinating procession of events. A candidate must pass numerous requirements in order to become President. You have taken a trip on the campaign trail and learned from the mistakes of others. The road to the White House is a long one with numerous detours along the way. You need to survive the primaries, the national convention, and the election. Various debates and public opportunities to talk with the voters to learn their concerns are vital. If you survive all this, you may find yourself in Washington, DC pledging, "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
State and Local Government
• State Government...The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants certain powers to the states. The power of the state belongs to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The state governs important issues like health, safety, education, business, environment, and taxes. The governor is the head of the executive branch and runs the state. He or she has many people to help him like the attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor, and secretary of state. The lieutenant governor steps in if the governor cannot do his job. The legislature makes the laws that govern a state. The state supreme court interprets the laws by listening to civil and criminal cases. The state capital is the city where you can find the capitol building. The capitol building is where you will find the people in charge of your state government.
• Local Government...The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants certain powers to the states. The power of the state belongs to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The state governs important issues like health, safety, education, business, environment, and taxes. The governor is the head of the executive branch and runs the state. He or she has many people to help him like the attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor, and secretary of state. The lieutenant governor steps in if the governor cannot do his job. The legislature makes the laws that govern a state. The state supreme court interprets the laws by listening to civil and criminal cases. The state capital is the city where you can find the capitol building. The capitol building is where you will find the people in charge of your state government.
• Dealing With Community Issues...Every community has many issues that are important for the people who live there. In your community you can help deal with issues in many ways. You can help to get rid of trash by recycling. If you get rid of trash properly, you will also help to keep water safe and clean for people, animals, and plants. You can join a club like the Leo Club to help soldiers, senior citizens, the police, and the fire department. Your help can make someone feel good and you will feel good for helping others and the community in which you live.
The Individual, the Law, and the Internet
The Economy and the Individual
• What is Economics?...Supply and demand is one economics’ most fundamental ideas. Demand means how much of a product or service buyers want. The quantity demanded is the amount of a product people are willing to buy at a certain price. Supply means how much the product or service can be offered. The more demand there is for a product, the higher the price the producer can charge. We use money to pay for products or services we want. Levi Strauss is a good example of a person who listened to customers’ demands. He wanted to sell tents, but no one wanted to buy his tents. He used the tent fabric to make jeans, and now his company sells jeans all over the world. There are many companies other that sell jeans as well. Each company advertises on television and radio, or in magazines and newspapers. Competition by companies to get your business is called “free enterprise.”
• The American Economy...The American economy is built on companies that produce goods or services. These companies hire people to do the labor. During The Great Depression, the economy suffered. Many companies went out of business, and many people lost their jobs. It is important for our economy that companies are stable and that people can find work. If people work, they can buy houses, cars, and pay for the things they need to live. If too many people are not working, America will suffer just as it did in the 1930s. Not only can people work for companies, you can start your own business and become an entrepreneur. Products, goods, services, and labor are the basic parts of the American economy.
• Money in America...Money is important. We use money to buy the things that we want and need. Americans earn money by working. Americans must buy many things with the money that they earn. Americans must pay taxes to help the government. If you put money in a bank, it earns interest, or extra money. Without money, we could not have houses, food, clothing, schools, roads, and many other things.
• Business and Labor...Labor in America has changed just as businesses have changed and grown. Children used to work in factories, mills, and street corners. Men used to work from sun-up to sun-down in dangerous places. Laws were passed to protect labor, help seniors when they retire, and end child labor. Unions became organizations that helped workers to get fair pay, raises, and safe workplaces. Some people choose to work for themselves and are called entrepreneurs. Not only do they have to know how to make good decisions for their business, but they also have to be good leaders for the people who work for them.
The Free Enterprise System
The United States and the World
Foundations of Government
• Origins of U.S. Government...Although many things have changed since the United States formed over two hundred years ago, the basic principles of government have remained mostly the same. By looking back at the origins of American government, one can see that the Founders believed that government should serve the good of the people and should protect their natural rights. Moreover, the Founders thought that government should not be all powerful. They maintained that the consent of the people is the basis of governmental power, and the powers of government should be limited and balanced. The U.S. Constitution created a democratic republic in which the people are the ultimate source of authority. The Founders realized that this was a great experiment in self-government. The success of democracy depends on having good citizens who are capable of governing themselves and of electing qualified representatives. So far the “American experiment” seems to have been fairly successful, though every generation must remain vigilant so that the nation does not lose sight of the original purposes of government.
• Origins of the U.S. Constitution...There is no telling if the United States would have survived this long as a country if it had not been for the Great Compromise of 1787. Small states might well have seceded and joined with powerful foreign nations, leaving the young United States quite un-united. With that early influence, the Civil War might well have turned into a world war and torn the country apart. The value of this Great Compromise in America's history cannot be overstated. The resulting Constitution has provided the foundation for our protection, government, laws and overall ideals. In 1791, the government representatives would ratify the Bill of Rights to add to the constitution specific rights of the individuals of the United States. The men who drafted the Constitution set out to build a working government and set of laws for the newly formed country. If they new the final document would survive for the years to come was not known, but the foresight of the framers proved to be lasting and the U.S. Constitution keeps this country in balance through today.
• Federalism...The principle of federalism is a fundamental part of American government. From the beginning of our nation’s history, the American people have insisted on having limited government, separation of powers, and a system of checks and balances. Thus, the federal government created by the U.S. Constitution limits the powers of government, distinguishes between state and national powers, and balances the powers so that neither the state nor national government becomes too dominant. Although the question of how exactly to balance the powers has always been a matter of debate, nonetheless, Americans generally agree that it is best not to concentrate all the powers of government into a single source. Yet, the trend in American politics has been toward the expansion of national government, often at the expense of state powers. The Supreme Court has a great deal of authority in determining the balance of powers between the state and national governments. The Court is supposed to uphold the principle of federalism as it is outlined in the Constitution and is supposed to protect the rights of the American people. As the United States continues to grow, the importance of maintaining a federal form of government will grow as well.
The Legislative Branch
• Role and Powers of Congress...As one of the three branches of government, Congress plays a significant role in all of our lives. The hand print of Congress can be found in areas as different as conditions for going to war in Iraq and for importing only toys safe for young children. The Constitution defined its powers for us well over 200 years ago, and they have seen remarkably few changes over the decades. Article 1 of the Constitution answers questions about the role of Congress.
• Congress at Work...The work of governing a country as large and diverse as the United States is an incredibly complex process. The Constitution established a framework for a government structure that includes a legislative body, the Congress. The work of Congress is determined by the Constitutional framework, along with a long history that also shapes the process. Taken together, the framework and the traditions result in a body that can be cumbersome, but has, to date, managed to keep the legislative process functioning.
The Executive Branch
The Judicial Branch
• The U.S. Legal System...Cecily is the new student from a foreign country that lacks a fair and democratic government. She is so worried about the local robbery, that someone suggests that she goes to see Ms. Legality, a fabulous civics teacher at the school. Ms. Legality listens to the student’s story and her concerns, and then says to her, “Let me reassure you: that will no happen in our community. Here are some of the reasons why I know that.” Take on the role of Ms. (or Mr.) Legality. Write a short response of no more than 300 words. In it, explain to her how due process works in this country. Be certain that you provide a minimum of six solid and distinct examples of the due process protections that we have in this country. At least one example should demonstrate an understanding of the fact that due process rights evolve with the passage of time.
Rights and Responsibilities
• Fundamental Freedoms...The United States Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments limit the powers of the federal government and protect the rights of all citizens. Central to the personal rights of all citizens are the freedoms of speech, assembly, petition, and religion. These rights have been the foundation of change within the United States and around the world. Many believe that central to all personal rights is freedom of speech.
The U.S. Political System
• Public Opinion...A republican form of government—that is, majority rule, with limits on the powers vested in government—can only survive with an informed citizenry. To be truly informed means to be willing to consider information from many points of view. It is critical that all citizens know how to determine the bias in media. Once informed, any involved citizen can become a part of the process of shaping public opinion. New technology makes it easier than ever to stay connected to others and to search out information from many different angles. It can also serve to isolate us into pockets of like-minded thinkers who refuse to engage in an honest debate. Every one of us has a responsibility to make sure that many voices are heard as public opinion is shaped.
• Interest Groups...Special interest groups have been around since the dawn of the country. Perhaps the earliest example of attempting to influence legislators is when New York merchants offered lawmakers treats and dinners during the First Congress in an attempt to influence their vote. Things have changed much since the beginnings of the United States. The special interest groups are still here but they have become much more organized and much more influential. To keep the special interest groups from becoming too powerful, the Federal Election Commission now oversees campaign funding. Laws that limit how much monetary influence special interest groups can muster are in effect. However, special interest groups still hold an important place in American politics. In spite of their bad reputation, special interest groups provide a channel for people who share values, interests and views that may not be represented in other formats. The groups are able to educate legislators about various issues. For good or bad, special interest groups serve the American public.
• The Electoral Process...When the Founding Fathers met to create the rules for the new country, they had just fought a long war for their independence from England. They were determined to create a country devoid of the laws and government that they felt was not just. They made the decision to have a federal government run by elected officials rather than a monarchy with a king. Now, however, they needed to devise a method to choose the ruler. The obvious avenue to electing a president was to have a simple majority vote, but feared that the common voter would not be literate enough to cast an informed vote. Majority vote was also detrimental to the disproportionate population distribution. Smaller states would have very little voice in the government. They devised the Electoral College to assure a more representative election. Each state would choose those who would ultimately cast the ballot for the president. Through the years, there have been changes to the Electoral College process, necessitated by changes within the country. After the 2000 Presidential election, the country questioned the need for the Electoral College once again.
State and Local Government
The Individual and The Law
• Civil and Criminal Law...Together, the civil and criminal systems make up the United States’ legal system. Because we live under the rule of law, in a system that provides many checks on the arbitrary use of power, there are many safeguards in this system, especially in the field of criminal law. Our legal system is immensely complex because there are exceptions to so many of the rules. To help to sort out some of this complexity, we have established a system with multiple layers of courts. Trial courts determine the facts of the case; appeals courts are charged with making sure that the rules are followed, and that the rules are fair. This determination to follow the rules can be summed up in one critically important legal concept: due process. What we understand as due process changes and evolves with the times. The criminal legal system is more familiar to most Americans, but much of our lives are governed by results that have emerged from the civil side of our legal system. Because car crash victims sued car manufacturers, we all drive safer cars. Because parents of African American children, forced to go to school in a separate, and far from equal, system sued the state, we now have integrated schools. Both systems must always be on the lookout to balance the rights of defendants with the needs of the public at large.
The United States and the World
• International Relations...Managing international relations is an incredibly complex problem for any country. Because the United States is the most powerful country in the world, our international relations are vital for our own well being as well as that of the rest of the world. Our Constitution was written at a time long before it was possible to even conceive of a missile that could fly half way around the world in 30 minutes carrying a nuclear warhead. Thus, the system laid out by the Framers, full of limits on the power of each branch of government, leaves plenty of room for dispute over control of foreign policy. International relations involve many delicate negotiations, sometimes between the president and members of Congress, sometimes between our State Department and other countries. We do not have to take on all of the problems of the world on our own though. The U.S. is a member of the United Nations and of the World Trade Organization, among many others. NGOs also work to shape our relationship with the world. As citizens, we all can play a role by paying attention to the world around us and developing informed opinions upon which we base our own actions.
• The United Nations...The ravages of World Wars I and II convinced world leaders that preserving peace and protecting human rights was a global mission. The United Nations exists to fulfill these missions. However, it is not simple living in an increasingly connected world. Conflicts often have far-reaching implications. Political realities complicate peace and security. The people and leaders of one country do not always agree with the people and leaders of another. Yet, we must all coexist. The United Nations provides valuable services to the people of our world: educating people about and treating people with AIDS/HIV, eradicating disease, protecting the environment, and developing sustainable businesses and raising standards of living. In addition, despite the failures, it provides a forum for discussing contentious issues, resolve conflict, and protect the world’s citizens. The post-World War II political world that created the United Nations is not the same political world that exists today. The United States’ scope far exceeds that of other nations. Dozens of former colonies have emerged as independent states. The world has changed. However, the mission of the United Nations’ remains a valuable one.
Meeting Future Challenges
• Improving Life for all Americans...As Americans, we face several critical issues in the 21st century: immigration, poverty, education, health care, social security, and energy. These issues require that our leaders debate: How do we welcome new immigrants, protect our borders, and acknowledge immigrant contributions? How can our education system become a true leveler? Who lives in poverty and why? Should we have universal health care? How can we protect the most vulnerable members of our society? What policies affect each of these issues and how might they be reformed? What renewable and clean energies should we pursue to protect our environment and grow our economy? True, these are complex questions without simple answers. However, they are issues Americans have grappled with for generations. It is essential that we not relinquish these debates to the halls of Congress, the corridors of the White House, or our own gold-domed State Assemblies. These are questions that all Americans should engage. Our voice is our vote. Ours is a country that for two hundred years people have traveled miles and oceans to reach, that citizens and the disenfranchised alike have fought for, that continues to break glass ceilings and forge new paths. The privilege of living in the United States comes with a responsibility to make it a better and better place for all. Hope for a better America begins with you.
• The Global Environment...Earth is a web of life. It contains cycles and balanced systems of living creatures. Global warming is, as Al Gore named it, an inconvenient truth, deepened by man’s reliance on greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels, the materials economy, and the western world’s love of “stuff.” However, the final chapter of Earth’s—on our—story has not been written. The debate continues: Have people pushed Earth to a crisis, or is the current global warming part of Earth’s natural cycle of warming? Regardless of the answer, we may still adopt new policies, methods, and lifestyles. It is not too late to pay restitution in the form of conservation and preservation. If we significantly modify our behaviors, we may rehabilitate Earth’s balance. We may become Earth’s strongest link.
• Globalization...All of us, from citizens of the very powerful countries to citizens of the most remote countries, are living in an increasingly global society. World War II taught a powerful lesson: The world needs institutions that are capable of helping the many different countries of the world to co-exist better. Whether these institutions have succeeded in serving the interests of all, or of only the elite, is a hotly debated subject, but without doubt, the world’s economy is linked in ways never seen before. Beyond that, the significant problems that face the world—natural resources in dwindling numbers, global climate change, dangerous weapons—can be countered only if we learn to work together. As today’s students grow up, the world will only become a smaller place, with ever increasing demands to know how to work with people from very different backgrounds. Familiarity with the institutions, their strengths and weaknesses, and with the struggles that different countries continue to face, can help to prepare students to take their places within the new global village.