The Structure of the National Government

The first national framework of the United States government, the Articles of Confederation, took effect in 1781 and established only one branch of government. Over the course of the first few years of the new nation, it became clear that this system was not meeting the needs of the people. Under the Articles, Congress was responsible for all the government’s duties—legislative, administrative, and judicial. To meet the needs and expectations of the American people, the United States would require what many Founders termed an "energetic” government. By this they meant a government equipped to protect Americans against internal and external threats; to secure trade and commerce; and to maintain and protect individual rights.

In 1787, fifty-five men gathered in Philadelphia to determine a new national structure of government. This new structure consisted of three branches instead of just one, and diffused power by delegating different responsibilities to each branch. The three branches are described and defined in the first three articles of the Constitution.

Legislative


Article I establishes the legislative branch of the national government—the Congress. Congress is the law-making body of the government, with one chamber composed of the direct representatives of the people and the other chamber composed of representatives of the states. These two chambers, or “houses,” are the House of Representatives and the Senate. Members of the House of Representatives, the larger of the two houses, are elected by the citizens of their states within separate congressional districts. Each state’s number of representatives is based on its population. Madison argued that the size of both houses of Congress should be determined by population. However, the Connecticut Compromise (also known as the "Great Compromise"), a result of a concession made to the delegates representing the smaller states at the Constitutional Convention, mandated equal representation in the upper house of Congress, the Senate. Originally each state’s legislature chose its two U.S. Senators, but in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment provided for the direct popular election of Senators within each state.

Capitol house chamber symbols
Members of the House of Representatives, the larger of the two houses, are elected by the citizens of their states within separate congressional districts. Each state’s number of representatives is based on its population.
The Framers expected these two houses of Congress to be different in character, with each responsible for different aspects of the legislative function.

Originally conceived as the “people’s house,” the House of Representatives was entrusted with the “power of the purse.” Tax and appropriation legislation must originate in the House. Representatives must be at least 25 years old, have been a United States citizen for at least seven years, and reside in the state from which they are elected. All of the Representatives are eligible for re-election every two years. The House currently has 435 members.

The Senate, on the other hand, was designed to be the more deliberative, slower-moving body of the legislature. Senators must be at least thirty years old, have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and reside in the state from which they are elected. Senators have a six-year term of office, which are staggered so that every two years one-third of Senators are elected. In keeping with its distinctive character, the Senate is the body that ratifies treaties and the president’s nominees for high level offices or federal judicial positions. The Senate also serves as the “court” for trials if the House of Representatives passes articles of impeachment.

Senate
The Senate was designed to be the more deliberative, slower-moving body of the legislature.

Executive

The general administration of the government falls to the president and the executive branch. The president is assigned many roles. As chief executive, the president is responsible for ensuring that laws are carried out as written and in accordance with the Constitution. As commander in chief, the president oversees military operations. As head of state, the president is the nation’s representative to the world at large.

The position of responsibility that the executive holds is reflected in the requirements for the office: the president must be at least 35 years old, a natural-born citizen of the United States, and have resided in the U.S. for at least 14 years. The 14-year requirement might seem arbitrary, but it ensured that the first president would have been in the country on the eve of the Revolutionary War and thus fully committed to the new nation.

The residency requirement in the case of both the Congress and the president was meant to protect the fledgling nation from undue influence by other countries.

Over time, the power of the executive branch has greatly expanded. Perhaps the most recognized person in the United States, the president is often the face of the entire nation within the country and around the world. In the twentieth century, many citizens came to expect the federal government to mitigate problems. Today, the American public looks to the president for answers to many pressing issues including healthcare, unemployment, homeland security, and natural disasters. In many respects the executive branch wields more influence and power today than the Framers intended.

State of the union option 4
One of the president’s constitutionally required responsibilities is to report annually to Congress on the state of the union. Today the president makes a nationally televised address.

While the executive branch is distinct from the legislature, at times their duties and responsibilities overlap. While the president is responsible for administering all of the executive departments, these departments must first be established by acts of Congress. Another of the president’s constitutionally required responsibilities is to report annually to Congress on the state of the union. Today the president makes a nationally televised address. The president may make legislative recommendations to Congress as well. The legislature is expected to check the power of the president. One such check is that of impeachment, whereby Congress can charge an officer of the government—such as the president—with criminal charges. The impeachment process allows the legislature to remove offenders from the government.

Judiciary

Article III of the Constitution establishes the Supreme Court of the United States and also provides for “such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” These courts include federal district courts and courts of appeals. States and municipal governments also may establish their own courts. The purpose of courts is to administer justice and interpret the law. The court system handles criminal cases involving crimes, such as murder or robbery, where one of the parties is the state or national government. It also determines civil cases, in which one individual or group accuses another individual or group of causing a harm or injury.

Higher level courts, such as courts of appeal or the Supreme Court, focus almost exclusively on reviewing the decisions of lower courts and, as they apply to the case, interpreting the meaning of laws.

While the principle of judicial review, or determination by courts of a law’s constitutionality, had already been practiced by some states prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court first struck down part of a federal law on constitutional grounds in Marbury v. Madison (1803). Chief Justice John Marshall argued that "an act of the legislature repugnant to the constitution is void." Despite not being explicitly included in the Constitution, the determination of a law’s constitutionality is now considered one of the most important roles of the Supreme Court and provides an important check on the power of Congress and the president. In recent decades, the Supreme Court has ruled on the constitutionality of a wide variety of laws, dealing with issues such as affirmative action, gay marriage, gun control, and medical marijuana. For example, in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Supreme Court ruled that Congress can criminalize the cultivation of marijuana for personal use even in states that have approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Old supreme court chambers option2
Higher level courts, such as courts of appeal or the Supreme Court, focus almost exclusively on reviewing the decisions of lower courts and, as they apply to the case, interpreting the meaning of laws.

As a result of the Supreme Court's application of judicial review and its interpretation of the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, a number of constitutional provisions have been interpreted in ways that have expanded the power of the national government and weakened the federal system. The provisions include the Necessary and Proper Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 18) and the Interstate Commerce Clause. Interpretations of the Interstate Commerce Clause have extended the federal government’s regulation over virtually every part of economic life. The result has been a reduction of the sphere in which the states and individual citizens can manage their affairs.

The Framers of the United States Constitution created a political system based on ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. They took what they knew of human nature and the history of other governments into account to create a political structure that would protect the rights of individuals and minority interests from government encroachment while still reflecting the will of the people. The Founders assumed a basic level of virtue in the populace and elected officials in order to maintain a successful republic. The Framers thought that the best way to protect the rights of citizens would be through a government energetic enough to do the job but restrained enough to prevent it from trampling the rights it was designed to protect.

Test Your Knowledge

  1. Question 1 of 4

    What did the Framers of the U.S. Constitution mean by an “energetic” government?

  2. Question 2 of 4

    What did the Framers believe would be the preeminent department of the national government?

  3. Question 3 of 4

    Which of these does NOT correctly match a part of the national government with one of its most important roles?

  4. Question 4 of 4

    Which of these does NOT correctly match a Supreme Court decision with its significance?

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Law of Demand
As prices decrease, the quantity demanded increases or as prices increase, the quantity demanded decreases.
Natural rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Inalienable rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Liberty
Except where authorized by people through the Constitution, government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Popular sovereignty
The power of government flows from the people.
Separation of powers
A system of distinct powers built into the constitution, to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.
Checks and balances
Powers distributed among the branches of government allowing each to limit the application of power of the other branches and to prevent expansion of power of any branch.
Federalism
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Justice
Fairness or reasonableness in the way people are treated or decisions are made.
private property
The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.
limited government
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
representative government
(or republican government) Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
republican government
(or representative government)Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
civil discourse
Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.
Constitution
The fundamental principles by which a state or nation is governed. The United States Constitution, written in 1787, lays out the roles and powers of each of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), the protections of due process and rule of law in the states, a republican form of government, and the manner in which to amend the document.
Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was a Virginia plantation owner who was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson served as a legislator and governor in Virginia, as well as an ambassador to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and the third President of the United States. During his political career, Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party with James Madison, and he bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. After his presidency, Jefferson started the University of Virginia near his home, Monticello.
Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, which limit government power and protect individual liberties, including the freedoms of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly, as well as protections against cruel and unusual punishment, unreasonable search and seizure, and other due process rights.
Second Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights to create a militia and to bear arms. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Due Process
The government must interact with all persons according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all persons.
Equality
Every individual is equal to every other person with respect to natural rights and treatment before the law.
Consent of the governed
The authority of the government must come from the people through elections and through the people’s interaction with government.
Individual responsibility
Individuals must take care of themselves and their families, and be vigilant to preserve their liberty and the liberty of others.
Rule of law
Government officials and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power.
Declaration of Independence
The document written in 1776 by the Founders to send to Britain’s King George III in which independence from Britain was declared and the reasons for the separation were explained.
Articles of Confederation
The first national government document developed in 1781 by the Founders. The Articles created a federal legislative branch, but there was no executive or judiciary. The states retained most of the governmental powers.
Founders
The group of people who wrote and influenced the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and the United States Bill of Rights. These men were instrumental in establishing the nation and its governmental documents and practices.
Federalist Papers
A series of 85 essays written to convince the people of New York to ratify the Constitution. The authors were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. These documents are considered to be the most authoritative explanation of the political theory of the Constitution.
First Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Law of Supply
As the price drops, the quantity supplied also drops.
Fourth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures of property and explains that warrants must be issued with probable cause. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Fifth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right indictment by a jury, against double jeopardy, self-incrimination, loss of life, liberty, or property without due process, and just compensation for private property taken for public use. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Tenth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it states that the powers not enumerated or delegated in the Constitution are reserved for the states and the people. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Eighth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects against excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishments. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Ninth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, the listing of certain rights protected by the Constitution cannot be used to deny rights not enumerated in the document. “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Alexander Hamilton
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton served as General Washington’s chief of staff, promoted the ratification of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, and founded the nation’s financial system and first political party.
James Madison
Madison was a Framer who was instrumental in writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He is known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison partnered with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers in support of the ratification of the Constitution. He also served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, the United States House of Representatives, Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States.
George Washington
First President of the United States, George Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
John Locke
An English philosopher and physician, John Locke was one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and is known today as the Father of Classical Liberalism.
Continental Congress
The Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from 12 of the 13 American colonies, represented the colonists during and after the American Revolution. The Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Articles of Confederation.
King George III
King George III was the King of Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution. His actions towards the American colonies, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, spurred the American Revolution.
Great Depression
Spanning ten years from 1929 to 1939, the Great Depression was one of the longest-lasting economic downturns in the history of the United States affecting the U.S. and most of the world.
Preamble
An introductory statement, preface, or introduction.
Tyranny
Cruel and unfair treatment by people with power over others.
Tyrannical
Using power over people in a way that is cruel and unfair.
John Adams
Before becoming the second President of the United States, John Adams served as the country’s first Vice President under George Washington. Adams was an advocate of American independence from Britain and a Federalist.
John Jay
Founding Father John Jay was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris and served as the first Chief Justice of the United States. He was also one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
Third Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens against the quartering of soldiers in private homes without their approval. “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
Sixth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the rights of impartial jury trials, the right to be informed of the accusations against you, the right to be confronted by witness, and the right to be assisted by counsel. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Seventh Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right of jury trials in law suits dealing with more than twenty dollars and protects against reexamination of the trial in any court if decided by a jury. “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for his works Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. He visited the U.S. in the 1830s and wrote admiringly about many aspects of American law and society.
Democracy in America
Written by Alexis de Tocqueville after visiting the United States, Democracy in America contains de Tocqueville’s analysis of and reflections on the United States’ democratic system and society. The first volume was published in 1835 and the second in 1840.
Magna Carta
Written in 1215, it is the oldest document in the British and American heritage of rights. Contributed to the adoption of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, and speaks of these rights as ancient.
Two Treatises of Civil Government
Written by John Locke in 1690, the Two Treatises of Civil Government criticize absolute power for kings and outline Locke’s suggestions for a more civilized society based on natural rights and the social contract.
Thirteenth Amendment
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Framers
The group of people who actually attended the Constitutional Convention and participated in writing the Constitution.
Fourteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1868, it states that all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens and ensures that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Sixteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the ability to collect income taxes. “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census of enumeration.”
Eighteenth Amendment
atified in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment introduced Prohibition, the period of United States history when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol was made illegal throughout the country. “Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. Section 2. The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
Twentieth Amendment
The Twentieth Amendment was ratified in 1933, and it establishes procedures for presidential succession and the start and end of federal officials’ terms of office. “Section 1. The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
Twenty-First Amendment
In 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending Prohibition. “Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed. Section 2. The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
English Bill of Rights
Passed by the British Parliament in 1689, the English Bill of Rights limited the power of the British monarch, outlined the rights of the Parliament, and guaranteed Protestants the right to bear arms.
Parliament
The legislative body of the United Kingdom (known as Great Britain or England during the Founding era).
Benjamin Franklin
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was a statesman, author, publisher, scientist, inventor and diplomat. He served in the Second Continental Congress during the American Revolution and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. In addition, Franklin helped negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War and later served as a delegate to the convention that produced the U.S. Constitution.
Suffrage
The right to vote.
Republic
A government in which the power belongs to citizens through the right to vote.
Fifteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1870, it states that the right could not be restricted based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” “Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Seventeenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment introduced direct election of Senators. “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures. When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.”
Nineteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1920, the amendment stated that a citizen’s right to vote must not be restricted based on gender. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Direct Democracy
Direct democracy is a political system in which the people vote directly on policies or laws, as opposed to voting for representatives who enact laws on their behalf.
Arbitrary
Not planned or chosen for a particular reason; done without concern for what is fair or right.
Judicial Review
The process by which courts analyze the constitutionality of an act of government.
Majority rule/minority rights
laws may be made with the consent of the majority, but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.
Fiat
An arbitrary order or decree.
Property
Something that is owned by a person, business, etc. This includes possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, and the fruits of one's labor.
Democracy
A government in which the power is held by the people.
Electoral College
A body of electors chosen by each state to vote for the president and vice president of the United States.
Virtue
Conduct that reflects universal principles of moral and ethical excellence essential to leading a worthwhile life and to effective self-government. For many leading Founders, attributes of character such as justice, responsibility, perseverance, etc., were thought to flow from an understanding of the rights and obligations of men. Virtue is compatible with, but does not require, religious belief.