Citizens in Communities

During the War of Independence, British North Americans expanded the principles of federalism and separation of powers by being among the first Europeans to codify their practices in written constitutions. Several colonial charters and their subsequent revisions established a practice of protecting the interests of towns, villages, and communities by securing their economic interests as well as their participation in colonial governments.

The Framers of the first American state constitutions drew heavily upon the practices of colonial assemblies, contemporary political ideas, the English common law tradition, and the effects of the western frontier.

Colonial assemblies, especially in Virginia and South Carolina, developed legislative rules that secured the sanctity of vested interests and prevented the most populous areas of their colony from dominating the rest. For example, in South Carolina following an uprising in the 1760s known as the Regulator Movement, colonial assemblymen commenced requiring “supermajorities” well beyond 50 percent of votes to pass laws. Consequently, the practice protected the vested interests of some minority settlements since those groups exercised a check upon laws deemed detrimental to their communities.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, ideas about natural rights and limited government, popularized by the English Whigs and the Scottish Enlightenment, challenged earlier assumptions that human flourishing only occurred under strong, centralized political power. Men like Algernon Sidney, John Locke, John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, David Hume, and Adam Smith encouraged the notion that human beings, when left alone, could take care of themselves without constant political oversight. These ideas circulated throughout colonial America in newspapers and popular pamphlets.

But ideas alone were not enough to foster a commitment to federalism. The long practice of the English judicial system served as a reminder that custom could, over time, establish an orderly society. The common law system of England created the rule of law without political codes or legislation. In the ancient English judicial system, judges “discovered” the accepted patterns of life established by generations of custom. For the North American colonists, differences in the types of courts (criminal, civil, etc.) and how they grew in each colony established multiple, concurrent jurisdictions, which often competed with one another to establish legal practices. In effect, the competition in jurisdiction limited the total amount of power each court could exercise over a population.

Finally, the western frontier played a critical role in American federalism. Even though American Indians occupied much of the “west,” they and European settlers rarely formed cultural attachments beyond their surrounding communities. The vast diversity of frontier cultures created a kind of cultural competition not unlike that created by the common law system over judicial matters. But despite the diversity and sometimes violent conditions between groups, those on the frontier lived and traded together and even intermarried. Rural conditions and vacated space also beckoned those living in the East to entrepreneurially start afresh when economic conditions warranted. The frontier was not necessarily an “escape valve” for people to leave their responsibilities behind them. Rather, it ensured that no person, place, or institution would exercise supremacy over the rest. When things got tough or it appeared that someone or some thing tried to command a free person’s complete obedience, people moved to open territory.

Drawing from these intellectual and cultural conditions, new constitutional governments within the independent United States worked to protect communities, states, and regional cultures of the country.

In short, American society was “federal” long before there was a federal government. But not everyone understood the benefits of federalism. Political leaders after 1776 worked to centralize the country’s political power and tame its diverse communities. For example, the first proposal to create a single, national government for the United States—the Articles of Confederation—initially called for a highly centralized government until the Continental Congress revised it for ratification. Many of the perceived weaknesses of the Articles resulted from nationalist politicians being prevented from controlling the national economy. They then easily discredited the Articles and called for national reforms. At the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, leading nationalists proposed a more centralized government than the Articles, only to meet stiff resistance from those wanting a government that was “partly national, partly federal.” Anti-Federalist critics of the proposed Constitution, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, wanted even more checks upon centralized political power. They nearly sabotaged the Constitution because they feared it would undermine generations of federal traditions.

In exchange for ratifying the Constitution, Anti-Federalists insisted on specifically limiting its power over things best left to state governments.

The First Amendment offers an excellent illustration. While preventing the central government from politically supporting a national church, it ensured that only state governments could establish a religious denomination or not. Massachusetts and New Hampshire, for example, kept their religious establishments; Virginia kept none. All three maintained their diverse religious communities in their own way—and incidentally, religion flourished throughout the United States. This was real federalism at work.

It took time, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Americans settled into a familiar pattern of a limited, dull, national government; innovative state governments; and diverse and protected local communities. The result was an incredible and unmistakable freedom of association. Their flourishing fostered an endless array of parallel societies occupying the same country in a way that was truly exceptional among other nations. Social relationships grew in both number and complexity. While visiting the United States in the 1830s, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville invented the term “individualism” to explain what he saw. He argued that the source of American “democracy” lay in the intermediary institutions that existed between the individual and the national government—things like extended families, churches, trade associations, and even a myriad political offices at the state and local levels. The term he should have used, however, was “federalism.” At the time he wrote his famous Democracy in America, Americans were not individuals in the sense that intermediate institutions totally insulated them from political power. Instead, Americans found their attention pulled from innumerable directions and came to define freedom, not as a set of liberties granted to them by the government, but as membership in an abundance of relationships and associations. In short, freedom and federalism meant voluntary fellowship with one another.

Government, far from being at the top of society, became just another kind of association, equal to the rest and equally competing for a person’s attention.

At the same time, federalism also gave an uneasy lack of permanence to life if only because Americans constantly struggled with anything commanding their complete devotion. Until the twentieth century, no American city dominated the national culture. In fact, it was not until the 1830s that New York City exceeded the size of ancient Athens. There was nothing like a Paris, Berlin, or London let alone a sectional, ruling class setting the standard for what the rest of the country must believe. For that matter, there was no national culture. State and regional cultures flourished, and generations later, increased immigration and urbanization at the beginning of the twentieth century compounded the diversity.

Even those things many wanted to be supreme—religion, marriage, home and family—competed for a person’s time and attention. For Americans, possessing strong communal commitments led to a highly complex level of existence. In the twentieth century, many Americans found it easier to dedicate their lives to a limited number of things such as a factory, a union, a reform crusade, a local church, or even to simplistic, national political ideals made popular in the Progressive era. For this reason, political movements like Progressivism challenged both the inherent federalism of American common life and the federal political institutions that sustained it. The progressives’ main goals were to centralize the national economy, culture, and political system under their leadership, in order to exercise their dominance. But despite the best efforts of progressive politicians, educational reformers, and intellectuals, their success at centralizing American life could not overcome the instilled, communal mindset of Americans.

Dedicated as they were to a myriad of social relationships, Americans resisted progressive efforts at consolidation of a national culture. Even what was arguably the single greatest progressive reform—twelve years of age-graded, public education—served to further differentiate Americans by race, class, and cultural interest. While the end of racial segregation in the 1950s coincided with the emergence of a youth culture built around film and Rock and Roll music, the national youth culture quickly broke apart by the end of the 1960s. Within another generation, American public schools became proving grounds for a wide variety of youth cultures ranging from “jocks” and “geeks” to “hipsters” and “millennials.” Even the values of a national culture built by progressives and their intellectual descendants fell apart by the 1980s. The progressives insisted on instilling democratic values of inclusiveness, dedication to the national government, and a detachment from local communities. Ironically, their efforts often backfired and led to rising levels of migration, insular communities, and strong animosity toward national political policies. Perhaps the final defeat to nationalist measures emerged in the 1990s as the internet provided Americans with new forms of social networking. At odds with the progressive instinct for controlling information, the internet breathed new resilience into the American dedication to social federalism. It is likely these developments will erode progressive centralization of political power and reinvigorate political federalism.

To be clear, federalism and modern, liberal democracy are not synonymous. Indeed, they often work against each other. Modern democracy rests on the inherent equality of individuals, whose dignity as human beings derives from their inclusion and participation in a political system. In this regard, citizenship means exercising political power. Public service, voting, familiarity with political institutions, and advocacy that brings an ever increasing number of once private matters into public decision making, all identify good citizenship in a democracy.

Federalism makes no claims about political power being a means of acquiring human worth. Indeed, federalism seems to be the exact opposite. Centralized political power threatens the natural diversity of human interests and communities. Under federalism, human dignity, like human freedom, depends on the degree to which people associate with one another. Political obligations are merely one of countless ways people may interact, which in turn takes from politics its claim of superiority.

New social networking technology demonstrates how federalism often works against democratic, political institutions. Take voting for example. In a democracy, a person exercises power when he or she votes for a candidate. If one decides not to vote, then she technically has no real power or influence. Nonvoters are limited in ways to “promote” their interests. Social networking and the internet changed this. Now, through blogging, answering political surveys, social network postings, and “liking” countless human activities, people engage political life in ways previously unknown. Today, everyone is his/her own politician. Everyone can advocate, and anyone with an internet connection can campaign for a preferred interest. While they may not access taxpayer money, they still shape political policy and even the actions of many businesses and social groups through channels outside the political system. The end result could be further weakening of popular attachments to political institutions.

Federalism in all its forms also means that citizenship takes on a whole new role, especially for Americans. Americans shape their world in a variety of ways that are rarely political in the sense that they relate to government policies. Good citizenship does not require one to swear fealty to the government or its leaders. Instead, good American citizenship instills a willingness to defend those associations such as families, businesses, and social networks, that define us as members of our communities, that give us human dignity, make our lives worth living, and allow us to govern ourselves instead of being governed from above.

Explore Readings

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The right to vote.
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.
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.
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.
Electoral College
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.