School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic A. The Foundations and Function of Government

Indicator 1. Investigate the evolution of the U.S. political system as expressed in the United States Constitution

Objective b. Explain and summarize the principles of federalism, popular sovereignty, rule of law, consent of the governed, separation of powers, checks and balances, majority rule, limited government and how they protect individual rights and impact the functioning of government


Although the Constitution grants the national government far more authority than the Articles of Confederation did, it carefully balances the interests of individual citizens, state governments, and the central government. The ultimate goal is a central government that is strong enough to maintain order and operate effectively without trampling individual liberties and state rights. A number of important principles ensure that this happens.

The Constitution is based on the principle of popular sovereignty, which means rule by the people. Under the Constitution, the citizens themselves rather than any government body possess all governing authority. The citizens create the government and delegate some specific powers for day-to-day government to elected bodies. This principle is illustrated by the words "We the People… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Closely linked to the principle of popular sovereignty is the idea of "consent of the governed." This means that the government gets its power from the people and is only legitimate as long as the people approve of it. People born in the United States imply their consent by remaining in this country, participating in civic life, accepting the laws, saying the "Pledge of Allegiance," etc. Theoretically, the people have the right to dissolve the government and form a new one if they believe the existing government is not meeting their needs. By granting their consent, the governed also agree to obey the government they have created.

Another way that the Constitution prevents tyranny is through the idea of rule of law. Rule of law means that both the citizens and the government must abide by the laws. No individual or government body is above the law.

The Constitution helps safeguard individual liberties by establishing a limited government. Unlike an unlimited government, in which the rulers can use their power however they want without respecting laws or answering to the people, a limited government carefully restricts the power of those who rule by holding them accountable to laws and providing opportunities for the people to exert their authority over the rulers through elections. A limited government, then, is one that upholds the principles of rule of law, popular sovereignty, and consent of the governed.

The Constitution creates a federal system of government. Under federalism, the people delegate certain powers to government bodies, dividing the powers between the national and state governments. Any powers not expressly given to the national or state governments remain with the citizens themselves. This is in contrast to a unitary government, in which the national government possesses all power, acting directly on the people and granting limited powers to local governments.

The very structure of the United States government also restrains governmental power. Through the separation of powers, specific powers are divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, each of which is independent of the others. Through the system of checks and balances, the powers are divided in such a way that no one branch is stronger than the others, and each branch is provided with various ways to prevent the other branches from taking certain actions, thus checking their power. For example, the legislative branch has the power to make laws, but the executive branch can prevent the passage of a law through veto and the judicial branch can nullify a law by declaring it unconstitutional.

The principle of majority rule also protects citizens from tyranny. The passage of laws, election of officials, and other government actions are determined by the will of the majority of citizens. This rule helps prevent any individual or small group from dominating government and oppressing others. Majority rule is not perfect, however. It is possible for one faction or interest group to constitute a majority and force its will on everyone. Therefore, it is important that the majority consider what is best for all citizens, and the Constitution provides safeguards for individual liberties that help prevent the majority from trampling the rights of the minority.

Resources for Objective 1.A.1.b: