The Speaker
Friday, 14 June 2024 – 06:43
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How US Democracy Works

One of the first things to know about American democracy is that it is not technically a democracy at all, it is a republic.

The difference is really minimal, a republic simply means that it is a government by the people; in the famous words of Abraham Lincoln, America is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

The major difference that distinguishes America from a traditional democracy is that the President is not actually elected at all. As the Constitution states, the President is selected by the Electoral College – which admittedly is determined by the result of a vote. Whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state will gain their Electoral Collage vote and whichever candidate gains a majority of the Electoral College votes becomes President.

Read through the below to learn more about democracy in the United States.

The US Constitution

The United States Constitution was written following the War of Independence at a Constitutional convention in 1787 – 11 years after America’s victory over the British in the war. The founding fathers spent three months at Independence Hall, Philadelphia writing what has become one of the most famous and important political texts in history.

The founding fathers came up with many different proposals for the Constitution, with James Madison’s Virginia Plan and William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan being the main blueprints that the framers of the Constitution could not agree on. In the end, the Constitutional convention resulted in many compromises, the most famous being Connecticut Compromise; this ensured that the Senate would give each state equal representation (two Senators) and a proportion of representatives in the House of Representatives that was determined by the state’s population.

The convention also decided on three distinct branches of government: Executive (President), Legislature (Congress), and Judiciary (Courts), which would provide checks and balances on the other branches to prevent any from becoming too powerful.

Articles of the Constitution

  • The first article of the Constitution discusses the legislature, how it will be formed and sets the term limits for House representatives and Senators. Originally, Senators were appointed by the states, but this was changed in 1913, with the ratification of the 17th amendment, which ensured that they were elected.
  • Article Two of the Constitution lays out the executive branch, outlining many of the President’s powers, such as being the Commander in Chief. The powers of the President have since been expanded significantly during the subsequent 250 years since the Constitution was written.
  • The third article outlines the judiciary, which states are given some power over. However, it outlines the Supreme Court and its powers, stating that it has the power to interpret the laws and is the highest court in the land. Directly, above the Supreme Court Chamber in Washington D.C., there is a basketball court, jokingly referred to as the actual ‘highest court in the land’.
  • Subsequent articles (there are 7 in total) outline the functions of government. Article IV highlights the relationship between the Federal Government and the states, V outlines how to amend the Constitution, VI states that Federal law takes precedent over the states, and the final article outlines how the Constitution is ratified (by 9 of the total states having to ratify the Constitution for it to be legitimized).

The Bill of Rights

  • In Washington D.C. the National Archives holds a secure glass cabinet, set in a dark, ambient room, kept at a cool temperature to preserve the important documents set behind inches of glass. Inside is the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and perhaps most importantly, the Bill of Rights.
  • The Bill of Rights was an amendment to the Constitution, in fact the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which outlined the rights of the American people. Ratified four years after the Constitution, in 1791, it is perhaps most famous for its second amendment, the right to bear arms.
  • The 1st Amendment outlines the right of free religion, with the prevention of any national religion and outlawing the prevention of any Americans from practicing their religion.
  • Amendment IV ensures that Americans are protected from unwarranted search and seizures by the authorities, whilst amendments V, VI and VII regard the rights of American’s within the legal-justice system, preventing unfair trials.
  • The 8th Amendment ensure that nobody is subjected to “cruel and unusual punishments”, causing a lot of contention amongst those who believe it outlaws the death penalty. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that this amendment did not mean that those sentenced to death had a guaranteed right of painless execution.
  • The 10th Amendment sets out state’s rights, leaving much legislative power up to them, unless explicitly outlawed within the constitution.

Founding Fathers

At the Constitutional Convention there were 55 delegates, each drawn from the 13 states that made up the USA at the time. The founders spent May-September drafting the document that would later become the Constitution, before all signing it

After the constitution was written, three of the founding fathers; Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, wrote the Federalist Papers, a series of 77 essays that were aimed at building support for the constitution across America. The papers are still often referred to by the judiciary when trying to interpret the constitution, as it is believed it gives a true representation of what the founding fathers intended when they first wrote the document. The journey to ratifying the Constitution was long and arduous, with many states finding it difficult to support the new document. The Federalist Papers were successful in the end, as on 21st June 1788, almost a year after the Constitutional Convention was ended, New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify, bringing it into effect.

Not all of the founding fathers signed the constitution at the end of the convention, of the 55 delegates, only 39 signed the document; these signatures can still be seen on the bottom of the original document held at the National Archive. The most famous of these is John Hancock, who signed his name larger than anyone else, hoping it would make him prominent in history; he may be a lesser known founding father now, but his name has become a slang term for your signature, so his plan worked.

The founding fathers are amongst the most famous people in American history, many of whom went on to serve either as early Presidents, or in high positions within the American government. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison were all members of the Convention who served as President, whilst John Quincy Adams (John Adam’s son) and James Monroe, are also considered founding fathers, but were not at Independence Hall in 1787.

The first founding father to be President and undeniably the most important American in history, George Washington shaped the entirety of the presidency. A largely unintellectual man, especially when compared to founders such as George Mason and James Madison, the presidency was largely built around the strengths and talents of Washington. The former general was also extremely important in setting Presidential precedents during his time in office, such as serving just two four-year terms, which every President, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was elected four times) stuck to.

Image: Portrait of George Washington, Founding Father and First President of the United States

Checks & Balances

The United States federal government has a system of checks and balances, where all of the branches of government act to check the power of every other branch, with a balance of powers between the branches. This was motivated by a desire to avoid the tyranny of government, something that had occurred under the former rule of the British Empire and was vital for the founding fathers to avoid.

The most famous check on any branches’ power is perhaps the ability of the legislature to impeach the President, with Congress holding the ability to remove the President from office. Equally, the legislature can impeach justices from the judicial branch, preventing any one branch becoming too powerful over another. Furthermore, the judiciary has a power of judicial review, which allows them to decide the constitutionality of any law passed by Congress, this can mean that the interpretation of existing laws can be changed if brought before the court, such as in 2013, where the Obergefell vs Hodges case allowed the reinterpretation of legislation and permitted same-sex marriage for the first time.

The Supreme Court cannot act proactively, meaning it cannot decide which cases are brought before its 9 justices. This prevents them from becoming too powerful in interpreting the law, whilst Congress has the ability to rewrite legislation if they disagree with the court’s interpretation of it.

Another significant check on power is the ability of the President to impeach any legislation passed by Congress and placed on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. This power has been used frequently throughout history, with Franklin D. Roosevelt issuing 635 bills, the most in American history.

Balances are also a significant part of the constitution, which means that no branch of government can act without the support of the others. Most notable in this is the need for the legislature to approve the federal budget for the year. The executive must work with the legislature and decide the budgets for the different executive departments, before the House of Representatives votes on it to approve the legislation.

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