The League of Nations was formed in 1919 with the goal of preventing future wars. Although the League of Nations was proposed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the United States never joined. The League struggled in its peace-keeping mission and was ultimately a failure—as evidenced by the event of World War II within a generation.
Under the League there was little peace between nations—nor within many of them. Adolf Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jews had begun in Germany and throughout Europe. Civil war raged in Spain. In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin ordered the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in a campaign of repression known as the “Great Purge.” Between 1934 and1938, Stalin and his lieutenants oversaw the detention by secret police of more than 1.5 million people in Gulag labor camps. They executed at least 700,000—some historians say more. The League of Nations did not intervene as these were considered internal matters. As World War II raged, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference in 1943. At this war strategy meeting, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill decided—among many other things—that a new body should be formed to replace the League of Nations and that the United States would be a part of the new body. In 1945, representatives from fifty nations met in San Francisco to write a charter for the new organization, the United Nations (UN). The UN Charter stated it would provide the "foundation and cornerstone on which the international organization to keep the peace will be built" (Charter of the United Nations, 1945). Its Security Council would take over the peacekeeping mission of the League of Nations, and would have five permanent members: the victors in WWII.
The U.S. ratified the UN charter in December of 1945, ensuring U.S. participation. The role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is a diplomatic post. Like all ambassadorships, candidates are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
United Nations Security Council
The UN has 193 member nations. It has five parts, or organs: the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, and the Security Council.
The United Nations Security Council has the mission of peacekeeping. This group has 15 members. Five are permanent, and as the victors of World War II, they include the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China. (The Soviet Union was later replaced by the Russian Federation. China originally represented by the government now in Taiwan, is currently represented by the Communist government in Beijing.) The other 10 members of the Council are elected for two-year terms. Currently, 69 nations have never had a seat on the Council.
The Security Council’s resolutions are enforced by countries that voluntarily send troops to enforce peacekeeping missions. The UN’s website lists 16 ongoing peacekeeping missions in 2014.
Permanent members of the Security Council have a crucial veto power. Under the League of Nations, decisions had to be unanimous, giving every country an effective veto. Under the United Nations, however, only the five permanent members of the Security Council have this veto power. This gives them more power than non-permanent members. Yet even with fewer nations able to veto resolutions, the Security Council is often gridlocked. , During the Cold War, for example, the United States frequently vetoed Soviet-backed measures. The Soviets, meanwhile, often used their veto to block American initiatives.
A study of the Security Council’s make-up and history, is helpful in evaluating its effectiveness and success. One should also consider the wisdom of U.S. membership in the UN, keeping alive the debate over U.S. entry into the League of Nations. Congress has considered various measures to reform U.S. interactions with the UN and many of the General Assembly’s resolutions. Although these resolutions are not binding on the United States or U.S. citizens if they are not passed by Congress and signed by the president.
The Definition of Rights
These controversies sometimes originate because the United States and other countries have different understandings of the term “rights.” These differences can be crucial. What are they? It is illuminating to compare the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Bill of Rights to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Declaration of Independence states clearly that human rights are natural.
They come from “Nature or Nature’s god,” as the Declaration says. We are all created equal, that is, born with an equality of rights no one is born with the right to rule over others without their consent. Government does not “give” or “grant” anyone rights. These are inherent in our humanity. Yet what makes a government legitimate, the Founders believed, is that it protects the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, including one’s property, by safeguarding citizens against invasion or violation of rights. Without a stable rule of law to equally protect the rights of all, the strong would easily rule over the weak. No one’s rights would ever be secure.
The Bill of Rights places limits on government in order to protect several “negative” rights—rights that do not require anyone to act on your behalf (except the right to trial by jury which requires citizens to act on behalf of defendants in trials).
These negative rights include freedom of religion and freedom of speech. No one has to provide you with anything in order for you to freely believe in God (or no God). You do not have to take anything from anyone in order to exercise your natural right to speak freely. You also need to be secure in exercising these rights and the government has the responsibility to ensure that rights are protected and preserved. The Bill of Rights also places limits on government (originally only the national government, but now on all levels of American government) for the protection of due process rights. These protections work to ensure that the rights of criminal defendants are safe. Accused persons are people who are often disliked, and whom a majority of people might wish to see imprisoned or even killed. The federal, state, and local laws on the books in the United States today are so extensive, encompass so many aspects of life, and change so often, that it’s almost impossible for the average citizen to know them. Prominent members of Congress have even stated publicly that they themselves have not even read laws before they voted to pass them! So the old adage is true that protections for criminal defendants protect us all. You never know when you might find yourself falsely accused. Thanks to several Bill of Rights protections, government cannot search you without a warrant proving probable cause, detain you without showing why, deny you your lawyer, force you to testify against yourself, or declare you guilty without the chance of a jury trial. If you are found guilty, it cannot excessively fine you, or give you a cruel or unusual punishment.
Finally, it is important to note that the Bill of Rights is not intended to serve as an exhaustive list of rights. James Madison and other supporters of the Constitution knew that listing every right would be impossible. It could also lead to the incorrect notion that government granted you your rights.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights does attempt to provide a list of rights. In contrast to the way American charters define and protect rights, the UN Declaration of Human Rights treats rights as granted by government, and lists positive rights. It says that people have a “right” to be provided with certain things.
The UN Declaration has a few sections that resemble the U.S. Declaration and Constitution. For example:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” (Similar to the Declaration of Independence)
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” (Similar to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)
“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” (Similar to the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” (Similar to U.S. protections for habeas corpus.)
However, the similarities end when the UN document begins listing services to which people are entitled as rights.
“Everyone has the right to work... to rest and leisure... periodic holidays with pay... food, clothing, housing, and medical care... [and] education to the full development of the human personality” (United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948).
Working, resting, eating, learning, and receiving medical care are undoubtedly good things. But should they be considered “rights”? If so, what happens when someone does not have access to them? What would happen if they cost too much for government to provide them? Another difference between the UN Declaration and U.S. Constitution is the difference that is frequently found between the right on paper and in practice. It is true that, especially in times of war and the “War on Terror,” the U.S. has relaxed constitutional protections and threatened liberty. But several provisions in the UN Declaration truly strain credibility. For example, several member nations who agreed on paper that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” did not—and still do not—allow their people to leave. Some countries headed by totalitarian rulers, dictators, or monarchs signed on to the idea that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” Others who agreed on paper that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” provide the death penalty for blasphemy (United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948).
Finally, one stark difference between the U.S. and UN conception of rights and the purpose of government comes in Article 29.
This article sets forth that:
“(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations” (United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” 1948).
In the American political tradition, rights need to be made secure and the purpose of government is to protect them. As conceived by the United Nations, however, rights are negotiable and can be compromised to protect the governing body that grants them.
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Law of Demand
As prices decrease, the quantity demanded increases or as prices increase, the quantity demanded decreases.
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Except where authorized by people through the Constitution, government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
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.
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.
Fairness or reasonableness in the way people are treated or decisions are made.
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.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
(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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The government must interact with all persons according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all persons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An introductory statement, preface, or introduction.
Cruel and unfair treatment by people with power over others.
Using power over people in a way that is cruel and unfair.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
The group of people who actually attended the Constitutional Convention and participated in writing the Constitution.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
The legislative body of the United Kingdom (known as Great Britain or England during the Founding era).
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.
The right to vote.
A government in which the power belongs to citizens through the right to vote.
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.”
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.”
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 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.
Not planned or chosen for a particular reason; done without concern for what is fair or right.
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.
An arbitrary order or decree.
Something that is owned by a person, business, etc. This includes possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, and the fruits of one's labor.
A government in which the power is held by the people.
A body of electors chosen by each state to vote for the president and vice president of the United States.
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.