Key Documents and Principles


The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence announced the colonies’ break from England and the rule of King George the Third. The Declaration contains justifications and reasons for the American Revolution. These justifications combine general principles with particular grievances about the king’s actions. American government is based upon the theory of natural rights. The document’s opening paragraphs outline the “natural rights” that all people have, calling them “self-evident truths,” and uses them to form the basis of a government. The second section of the document outlines how King George the Third had infringed upon those natural rights.

[Here’s the beginning of the document:]

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …

[What follows are statements saying that if a government destroys these freedoms, it is the right of the people to abolish the government and institute a new government. After that, there is a long list of complaints about how King George had mistreated the thirteen colonies, and how the King has ignored the complaints.]

[The last paragraph restates the declaration to become independent, and the last sentence explains what backed the declaration and what the signers were willing to risk. Here it is:]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

 

The Constitution of the United States

The purpose, form and structure of the U.S. government are described in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution, written in 1787, is the “supreme law of the land” because no American law may be passed that contradicts its principles, and no state or local government or American citizen is exempt from following it.

The Constitution establishes a federal democratic republic form of government. “Federation” means we have an union of 50 sovereign states that now have a common relationship. It’s a democracy because people govern themselves. It’s representative government because people choose elected officials by free and secret ballot. And it’s a republic because the government derives its power from the people.

The purpose of our Federal Government, as stated in the Preamble of the Constitution, is to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” To achieve this purpose, the Founding Fathers based the government on several principles:

The Rule of Law:  This means that the country is governed by laws which are rules that everyone must follow.  In other words, no one is above the law or exempt from the law.  Even leaders must obey the law. (Alternatives to rule of law are rule by force and rule by kings or dictators.)

Popular Sovereignty:  The power of the government, comes from the people. The government serves the people; the people are not servants of the government.

Self Government: Government is by the people, and not some ruler.

Limited Government:  The federal government does not have unlimited power. The states have many powers; and ultimately, as mentioned, the people are sovereign.

Separation of Powers: Branches of government have different powers.

Checks and Balances:  Not only are there three separate branches, but they each have some ways to check or limit the power of the other two branches.

Self-correction:  It’s not usually mentioned in most lists of principles, but the Constitution’s amendment process allows it to evolve to meet new needs that the founders couldn’t have foreseen.

Inherent rights:  People have rights just because they are human. Rights are the reason that even though a majority rules in this country, a majority can’t vote and say, “A majority has voted to shoot you!” or “A majority has voted to put you in jail because we just don’t like your religion.”

 

Summary of the Constitution

After the Preamble (printed below) there are seven sections or “articles”  to the document. Following the seven articles are the 27 amendments that were added over time. They are considered part of the Constitution.

The Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Article One establishes the legislative branch of government, the U.S. Congress, which includes the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Article Two
describes the executive branch and the Presidency.

Article Three
describes the court system, (the judicial branch), mainly focusing on the Supreme Court.

Article Four
describes the relationship between the states and the Federal government, and between the states. The fourth section of Article Four requires the United States to protect the states from invasion and to guarantee to each state a republican form of government.

Article Five
describes the process necessary to amend the Constitution. It establishes two methods of proposing amendments: by Congress or by a national convention requested by the states. Under the first method, Congress can propose an amendment by a two-thirds vote (of a quorum, not necessarily of the entire body) of the Senate and of the House of Representatives. Under the second method, two-thirds (2/3) of the state legislatures may convene and “apply” to Congress to hold a national convention. Then Congress must call such a convention for the purpose of considering amendments. To date, only the first method (proposal by Congress) has been used.

Once proposed—whether by Congress or through a national convention—amendments must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states to take effect. Article Five gives Congress the option of requiring ratification by state legislatures or by special conventions taking place in the states. The convention method of ratification has been used only once (to approve the 21st amendment). Article Five places only one limitation on amendments: No amendment can deprive a state of its equal representation in the Senate without that state’s consent.

The Supreme Court has stated that ratification must be within “some reasonable time after the proposal.” Beginning with the 18th amendment, Congress has set a definite period for ratification. In the case of the 18th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd amendments, the period was 7 years, but no specific time-frame has been set as a general rule.

Of the thousands of proposal amendments, only 27 amendments have passed.

Article Six
establishes the Constitution, and the laws and treaties made in accordance with it, to be the supreme law of the land, and that “the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the laws or constitutions of any state notwithstanding.” This means that the states’ constitutions and laws should not conflict with the laws of the federal constitution– and that in case of a conflict, state judges are legally bound to honor the federal laws and constitution over those of any state.

Article Seven
sets forth the requirements for ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution wouldn’t take effect until at least nine states had ratified the Constitution in state conventions especially convened for that purpose.


Liberties Guaranteed in the Constitution (before the Bill of Rights was added.)

1. Writ of habeus corpus may not be suspended (except during an invasion or rebellion).  This means that someone who is arrested must appear before a court to determine if the arrest was for a good reason or not.

2. No bill of attainer may be passed by Congress or the states. This means that a law cannot be passed that declares someone guilty of a crime and decides the punishment. In other words, a trial by jury is required.

3. No ex post facto law may be passed by Congress or the states. This means that if a law is passed that makes a certain action illegal, a person cannot be punished for doing that action before the law was passed. Nor can the penalties for a crime be increased after a person has committed the crime.

4.  The citizens of each state are entitled to the privileges and immunities of the citizens of every other state.

5.  There can be no religious test or qualification for holding federal office.

6.  The states can make no law that overrules the obligations created by legal contracts.

 

The Bill of Rights and other Amendments

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, many people believed that it failed to guarantee certain freedoms. So in 1791, ten amendments were added to the Constitution. The first eight amendments describe specific individual rights. The 9th and 10th amendments offer general rules interpreting the relationship among the people, the State governments, and the Federal Government. Because these ten amendments guarantee certain rights, they are known as the Bill of Rights.

Amendment 1:  Citizens have freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, and also the right to petition the government

Amendment 2:  Citizens have the right to own guns.

Amendment 3:  In times of peace, no one can be forced to house soldiers.

Amendment 4: Unreasonable searches or seizures are not allowed.

Amendment 5:  This amendment guarantees four things:  A jury indictment is required to prosecute a person for a serious crime. A person cannot be tried twice for the same offense. A person cannot be forced to testify against himself or herself. There can be no loss of life, liberty, or property without due process.

Amendment 6: All citizens have a right to a speedy, public and impartial trial with defense counsel and the right to cross-examine witnesses.

Amendment 7: Citizens have a right to a jury trial in civil suits where the value exceeds $20.

Amendment 8: Punishments for crimes cannot be too great: no excessive bail or fines, no cruel and unusual punishments.

Amendment 9: Unlisted rights are not necessarily denied.

Amendment 10: The powers not delegated to the United States federal government or denied to the states are automatically reserved to the states.
And here are summaries of the rest of the 27 amendments. [Source: Wikipedia:]

  • Eleventh Amendment (1795): Clarifies judicial power over foreign nationals, and limits ability of citizens to sue states in federal courts and under federal law.
  • Twelfth Amendment (1804): Changes the method of presidential elections so that members of the electoral college cast separate ballots for president and vice president.
  • Thirteenth Amendment (1865): Abolishes slavery and grants Congress power to enforce abolition.
  • Fourteenth Amendment (1868): Defines United States citizenship; prohibits states from abridging citizens’ privileges or immunities and rights to due process and the equal protection of the law; and repeals the three-fifths compromise. (The three-fifths compromise counted slaves as 3/5s of a person for the purposes of taxation and for representation in the House of representatives.)
  • Fifteenth Amendment (1870): Prohibits the federal government and the states from using a citizen’s race, color, or previous status as a slave as a qualification for voting.
  • Sixteenth Amendment (1913): Authorizes unapportioned federal taxes on income.
  • Seventeenth Amendment (1913): Establishes direct election of senators.
  • Eighteenth Amendment (1919): Prohibited the manufacturing, importing, and exporting of beverage alcohol. (Called “prohibition.”)  Repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment.
  • Nineteenth Amendment (1920): Prohibits the federal government and the states from using a citizen’s gender as a qualification for voting.
  • Twentieth Amendment (1933): Changes details of Congressional and presidential terms and of presidential succession.
  • Twenty-first Amendment (1933): Repeals Eighteenth Amendment. Permits states to prohibit the importation of alcohol.
  • Twenty-second Amendment (1951): Limits the president to two terms.
  • Twenty-third Amendment (1961): Grants presidential electors to the District of Columbia.
  • Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964): Prohibits the federal government and the states from requiring the payment of a tax as a qualification for voting for federal officials.
  • Twenty-fifth Amendment (1967): Changes details of presidential succession, provides for temporary removal of president, and provides for replacement of the vice president.
  • Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971): Prohibits the federal government and the states from forbidding any citizen of age 18 or greater to vote simply because of their age.
  • Twenty-seventh Amendment (1992): Limits congressional pay raises.

 

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