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 d. Describe the significance of principles in the development of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Preamble, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights

Clarification

The American political system and the documents that serve as its foundation were created to reflect a set of guiding principles that were largely shared by the Founders. Among these are federalism, representative democracy, popular sovereignty, consent of the governed, separation of powers, checks and balances, rule of law, limited government, and majority rule.

In listing the colonists’ complaints about the British government and stating reasons for the formation of the United States as an independent nation, the Declaration of Independence provides insights as to the Founders’ basic ideas about government. For example, the Declaration’s opening passage, which states that it is “self evident that all Men are created equal,” is evidence of the Founders’ belief in individual rights. Subsequent passages in the Declaration indicate the principles of consent of the governed (“to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed”); limited government (“whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”); representative democracy (“he has refused to pass other Laws … unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature”); and rule of law (“He has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, an unacknowledged by our Laws”).

In 1777, Congress adopted the U.S.’s first constitution, known as the Articles of Confederation. Although the Articles created a highly decentralized political system that was not sustainable for the long term, they also were a reflection of the Founders’ belief in basic governmental principles that are the foundation of American government. For example, the Articles established a weak central government that lacked the power to tax, to regulate interstate commerce, or to conduct foreign policy in a unified manner. Although each of these features eventually presented problems leading to the demise of the Articles, they also reflected the Founders’ adherence to principles of rule of law and limited government.

The delegates at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 (now known as the Framers*) who agreed to draft a new constitution shared a set of basic ideas about government. These principles would be included in the U.S. Constitution. Among them were the idea that

  • the national government should be a constitutional government of limited powers
  • the purpose of government should be to protect fundamental rights and promote the common good
  • a strong central government was needed to protect fundamental rights
  • a republican form of government of elected representatives was needed to make sure that government served the common good
  • a system of separation of powers and checks and balances was needed to prevent the abuse of power

The opening passage of the Constitution, known as the Preamble, announces the purpose of the document and also reflects the Framers’ belief in the principle of consent of the governed. The words “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution” illustrates the Framers’ conviction that constitutions and political systems are in effect contracts between the people and the representatives they select to govern them.

The structure of the political system established by the Constitution reflects the guiding principles of the American system of government. For example, through the Constitution the Framers delegated specific powers to the national government, reserved others for the states, and allowed both to share still other powers. In doing so, they created a federal (as opposed to unitary or confederate) system designed to create an appropriate balance of power between the central government and local entities. In addition, by establishing a bicameral Congress, the Presidency of the United States, and the federal court system, the Framers formed a governmental structure grounded in the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. Finally, selection procedures for various officeholders as well as the process for amending the Constitution are evidence of the Framers’ belief in popular sovereignty and majority rule.

After the Anti Federalists voiced concerns that the Framers had created a central government that was too strong, proponents of ratification agreed to draft a bill of rights that would be added to the Constitution in the interest of protecting individual as well as states’ rights. The Bill of Rights, which consists of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, reaffirmed the Founders’ belief in creating a governmental structure whose purpose was to protect the individual rights of American citizens. The 10th Amendment, which states that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, also reinforces the principle of federalism.

*The Founders, also known as the Founding Fathers, were political leaders of the original thirteen colonies who participated in the American Revolution. In contrast, the Framers were delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 who thus played a role in the drafting of the Constitution.

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