School Improvement in Maryland
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Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic A. The Foundations and Function of Government

Indicator 3. Evaluate roles and policies of the United States government regarding public policy and issues

Objective a. Examine the effect that national interests have on shaping government policy, such as the abolitionist movement and slavery, states' rights, and regional commerce


In the United States a public policy is an agreed-upon way that our federal, state, or local government fulfills its responsibilities, such as protecting the rights of citizens and promoting the welfare of all the people. Some public policies are written into laws by legislatures. Other policies are contained in rules and regulations created by executive branches of government.

When people become aware of problems in their communities, states, or the entire nation, they often want government to develop and carry out policies to deal with these problems. These may be problems for which there are existing policies that do not work well, existing policies or laws that are not being enforced, or no policies or laws at all.

Citizens of the United States have a right to say what they think about what government should do about problems in their communities, states, and in the nation as a whole. They have the right to influence the decisions people in the government make about all of those problems.

Because they come from such a wide variety of perspectives, participants in the political process enter the arena of public discourse representing ideas and interests that can be very different and often in conflict with one another. Political ideas are underlying concepts, values, or ideals that are important to stakeholders in the policymaking process. States rights, the abolition of slavery, and belief in universal public education are examples of ideas held by major figures from early United States history. Interests are benefits or advantages that particular stakeholders stand to gain from government policies. For example, Southern planters of staple crops opposed tariffs designed to protect mostly Northern manufacturers because they benefitted from free trade with Great Britain and France. A key to developing students’ understanding of how the political process works in a democratic system of government is nurturing their ability to identify and then critically evaluate prominent regional, national, and international perspectives on contemporary and historical public policy issues.

Throughout the course of U.S. history, citizens with common ideas and interests transcending regional and state concerns have come together to influence the government’s formulation of public policies. These national ideas and interests often have emerged as a result of common philosophical, moral, or religious beliefs about the purposes of government. They often have been at odds with ideas and interests that favor the interests of individual states or regions of the country.

An example of national ideas shaping government policy in early U.S. history is the abolitionist movement. Rather than being motivated by regional concerns about the impact of slavery on their economic well-being, abolitionists opposed slavery strictly on moral and often religious grounds. Indeed, abolitionists were confronted with often harsh resistance from regional proslavery economic interests from the North. On the PBS Web site “Africans in America” ( historian Eric Foner describes acts of violence committed by Northerners to disrupt gatherings of abolitionists, and explains that “many northerners were deeply implicated in the institution of slavery itself – the trade of cotton, the financing of cotton.” Between 1776 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the abolitionist movement shaped government policies at both the state and national levels. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in territories northwest of the Ohio River. The Framers of the Constitution agreed to abolish the slave trade in the United States by 1809. By the early 1800’s, every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River had banned the institution.

Similarly, national interests came in to play when proponents of internal improvements proposed the construction of canals, roadways, and later railroads that they thought would benefit the United States as a whole. Proponents of these improvements, such as Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, favored using federal revenues to finance them on the grounds that they were intended to unify and strengthen the nation as a whole. They often were opposed by leaders who were concerned that the growth of federal power would undermine the sovereignty of individual states as well as the interests of specific regions.

Resources for Objective 1.A.3.a:
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