Section 1: Principles of the American Republic
The two most important documents in the United States of America are the Declaration of Independence (from 1776) and the United States Constitution (from 1787). The Declaration of Independence lays out the core ideals behind and the political philosophy of the United States. The U.S. Constitution creates practical structures and rules both for the federal government and state governments.
Both the Declaration and U.S. Constitution can be read in less than an hour, and are essential reading for all citizens. Pocket versions of these texts are widely distributed by civic groups and are an especially convenient way to read them.
Find out more about ordering United States and Arizona pocket constitutions here.
Section 1: Principles of American Democracy
Section 1.1: The U.S. Constitution
The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land, establishing the federal government, defining that government’s powers and structures, and protecting the basic rights of all Americans. The Constitution’s status as supreme law of the land works in two ways. As long as an action of the federal government is authorized by the Constitution, that action supersedes any state or local law with which it might conflict. But not every action by the federal government is supreme-- federal activity must also follow from the Constitution or it too would be illegal.
Building off the idea “of the consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution begins with “We the People” announcing the purposes and goals of the Constitution before listing the structures and individual rights its authors created to implement those objectives.
The Founders wrote the Constitution to ensure the government remained bound to its principles and promises, but they recognized that to be a lasting document, it would need to change. Thus, they included Article V, which describes the process of making an amendment—a change or addition to the Constitution, in which Congress proposes an amendment and the states ratify it.
Section 1.2: The Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights and were ratified in 1791. These amendments limited federal power, both by protecting the rights of individuals and the states.
The members of the Constitutional Convention had originally argued that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary because of the doctrine of “enumerated powers.” (This doctrine means the federal government can only do what the Constitution specifically allows it to do.) For example, one did not need to specifically protect freedom of speech when the federal government had not been given explicit authority to restrict speech in the first place. Critics nonetheless demanded a Bill of Rights as an additional check and security before they would ratify the Constitution.
The Big Idea
“The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history… Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance… [T]he Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.. [And] interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”
- Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1862)
The provision that became the First Amendment includes the freedoms of:
- peaceful assembly
- and petitioning the government.
The freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment and applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment both enables one to practice one’s religion or to choose not to practice any religion at all.
Although other amendments have been proposed by Congress, only twenty-seven (27) amendments have been successfully ratified by the states to become constitutional amendments.
Section 1.3 The Declaration of Independence
In 1776 the Declaration of Independence announced the independence of the 13 colonies from Great Britain. This was because, according to the Declaration, humans are “endowed by their Creator” with “certain unalienable rights,” especially “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Society has the right to “alter or abolish” governments to protect these rights, and even to rebel against a government that systematically and consistently violated the people’s rights.
Most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of these abuses by the British government and the British refusal to correct them. This sustained refusal is what the colonists reluctantly believed justified their rebellion to create new governments that would protect their rights.
Section 1.4 The American Political Order
The economic system of the United States is a capitalist or market economy, in which almost all businesses are owned and operated by private individuals, partnerships, and stockholders rather than by the government. Although the government can regulate the market, most decisions about what to produce, buy, and sell, and at what prices, are made by consumers and sellers.
The “rule of law” is the idea that a consistent, and evenly applied set of rules, rather than the arbitrary will of those in power, binds all the members of society. These laws must be made by proper procedures and published in advance.
The binding nature of law means everyone—not just citizens, but the government, its leaders and officials—must follow and obey the law. Indeed, lawmakers, judges, and officers of federal and state governments must take a specific oath to faithfully follow the U.S. Constitution.