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 2. Analyze the impact of historic documents and practices that became the foundations of the American political system during the early national period

Objective a. Evaluate the power and authority of the government on individuals


Power is the ability to control or direct something or someone. Sometimes people have the right to use power. Sometimes they do not. For example, if a group of students tries to force one of their peers to do something he/she does not want to do, they may have the power to do so. They do not have the right. On the other hand, when police officers control traffic, they have both the power and the right to do so.

Authority is power combined with the right to use that power. The right to use power usually comes from customs (traditions), laws, and/or principles of morality (basic ideas about right and wrong). For example,

  • Parents have the authority to punish their children in a reasonable way for wrongdoing. They get the right to exercise this power from custom, from the law, and from principles of morality.
  • Teachers have the authority to decide how to teach your class because the law gives him or her right to exercise this power.
  • Congress has the authority to pass laws because the Constitution gives it the right to exercise this power and the people consent to be governed under the Constitution.

It is important to note that customs, laws, and ideas about right and wrong, in addition to justifying the use of authority, can also justify limits on one’s right to use power. For example, because of Constitutional law, the government only has limited power to restrict free speech.

In the context of early United States history, there are many examples of debates over whether certain public policies were legitimate exercises of governmental authority or illegitimate acts of power without authority. For example, during the Revolutionary period, many colonists did not feel the British government had the authority to raise and collect taxes on them because they had not been given representation in Parliament. In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders made a list of actions taken by the King and Parliament that they felt were exercises of power without authority. Later, in the early days of the Republic, American leaders disagreed about whether or not the federal government had the authority to take actions that were not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, about the proper role of each branch of government, and about how authority should be distributed between the federal government and the states. Disputes over the nature of power and authority were addressed in landmark Supreme Court decisions such as Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden. Finally, the decades-long debate over slavery can be viewed in the context of the difference between power and authority. Proslavery interests argued that the federal government did not have the authority to limit the expansion of slavery on the grounds that such restrictions violated private property rights that had been established in the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, many abolitionists refused to obey Fugitive Slave Laws because they felt they were counter to principles of morality and a violation of the individual rights of slaves.

Resources for Objective 1.A.2.a:
CLARIFICATIONS | Lesson Seeds | Sample Assessments | Resource Links