American Civics 101
Recently, in conversations with friends and colleagues, I realize there is a misconception or misunderstanding of the basics of our Constitution and the founding of the United States of America. I decided to create this simple hub to explain the key points. It is not meant to be a comprehensive study guide on the Constitution, just to highlight the important pieces and the reason behind them. I hope this will help some of the young people today to have a deeper appreciation of our country and more importantly, continue with the tradition of defending our Constitution and preserving our liberty.
Why Is This Important?
It is George Santayana who said "those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I want the young people today to remember our history and hopefully never repeat it. It is knowledge that should have been taught in high school civics class. However, the state of our public education system is such that unfortunately, it is not taught properly.
It is President Reagan who once said "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free."
A United States of America
Why is our country different and superior to all other nations down through history? Why we are called a "United" States of America? The answer is we are a unique experiment in the way government is conducted. Prior to our existence, most countries were ruled by kings and tyrants. We started out as 13 colonies of the British Empire. The Founding Fathers after winning a war for independence came together to establish a new way of government. We are "United" because the 13 separate colonies came together and became the original 13 States.
Preamble to The Constitution
- Establish Justice
- Insure Domestic Tranquility
- Provide for the Common Defense
- Promote the General Welfare
- Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity
The Constitution contains 4,543 words, including the signatures and has four sheets, 28-3/4 inches by 23-5/8 inches each. It contains 7,591 words including the 27 amendments. The Constitution was ratified by specially elected conventions beginning in December 1787.
It is an amazing document considering the size and yet it has guided us for over 200 years with very limited modifications.
Some key points
- Three branches of government (Executive, Legislature and Judicial)
- Congress - two houses (Senate and House of Representatives)
- Enumerated Powers
- Bill of Rights - the first 10 Amendments
- First Amendment
- Second Amendment
- Amendment Process
Three Equal Branches of government.
- Executive - President enforces the laws.
- Legislature - Make laws.
- Judicial - Rule on the law when there is a question whether the law is constitutional.
The three branches are together to act as checks and balances so that the power is not concentrated in one branch. The legislature and the President is elected by the citizens. The legislature makes laws. The President execute/enforces the laws. The President appoints Supreme Court judges with the approval of the Legislature. The Supreme Court rules on laws that may not be constitutional and place limits on Congress.
Congress consist of two Houses
- Senate - 2 seats from each state
- House of Representatives - based on population and districts
Why are there two houses? The founding fathers wanted the people to have a say in how they are governed. The House of Rep. which serves a 2 years term is chosen based on population. That is one of the reasons we take census every 10 years. However, they also want to give smaller states an equal voice in dealing with important issues. The senate was established where each state will have two senators regardless of the size of the population. They serve 6 year terms. The genius of this setup is to allow for equal representation of the various states. Both houses are required to decide important issues and must be in agreement to pass a bill.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is widely cited as being an exhaustive list of Congressional power. But, in reality, there are a total of thirty (up to 35, depending on how they’re counted) Congressional powers that are listed throughout the document.
The reason for listing the powers is to limit the federal government to things are essential. The main one being national defense. Without a secure border, what is a nation?
Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments)
In order to convince the 13 states to ratify the Constitution, the Bill of Rights is the collective name for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. Proposed to assuage the fears of Anti-Federalists who had opposed Constitutional ratification, these amendments guarantee a number of personal freedoms, limit the government's power in judicial and other proceedings, and reserve some powers to the states and the public.
This is the most important of all amendments. It is what makes our nation unique and special.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
The freedom of speech is what gives us the power to dissent. It also protects the minority who may hold ideas that are contrary to the majority.
The freedom of the press is also a key component. The founding fathers knows human nature well. They knew that power corrupts the best of humans. The press is given the power to be the watch dog of elected officials. One example of this is the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration. It was the press that broke the story.
The freedom of religion is an interesting case. It clearly says that Congress shall make "no law respecting an establishment" of religion. This has been misconstrued by some judges to mean no religion in the public square including prayers... This clause was meant to prevent government overreach when it comes to religion. They do not want a National State Religion established as some European countries. They want people to have free choice even including no religion. I hope this is clear.
This is the one amendment that was put in place to insure our liberty will be preserved.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The founders realized that the only thing that can stop tyranny is an armed public. At the time of the revolution, the main threat was from the British which we just fought a war of independence. In trying to form a new republic, many groups were suspicious of a new federal government. They want to make sure that the new government won't turn to be a repressive one just like the British Crown. The 2nd amendment was put in place to be the last line of defense. It has nothing to do with hunting as some would have you believe.
10th Amendment (Federalism)
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
This is the amendment that has been instituted to adopt Federalism. Federalism means that the States and the people should have the rights to govern. The concept being the local people know their problems best and will have both the knowledge and intent to do what is most good.
It is also a way to "experiment" with new ideas and policies. If one state decides to implement a new policy, such as legalized pot, it is its prerogative as long as the people of that state voted for it. If this new policy works out well, other states may decide to adopt it or reject it. The point being, it is a local issue. If things don't go well, the whole country would not be put through the trial. It makes common sense.
One of the strengths of our republic over other forms of government, such as Communism, is this idea of local control. In Communism, the state is central and everything is dictated from the top. A one size fits all concept. In reality, that does not work very well. By having local control of most issues and a central government that takes care of national defense and a few other tasks, we can have the best of both world.
Article V - Amendment Process
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.
The founders in their foresight, realized that the Constitution is just a framework. They need to adapt to changing times and sentiments. They also realized the nature of man. They don't want changes to be made on a whim or be a popularity contest. The put in this process require 2/3 of the States to be in agreement. This is a high bar to clear.
How many amendments are there? The answer is 27 in over 200 years. The first 10 was part of the original document. Only 17 additional which among them are the ones that gave women the rights to vote, that ended slavery and limit the term of the Presidency to 2 terms.
Oath of Office
Our elected officials are required to take an oath before taking office and serving i.e.
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
It is sad that some of our leaders today do not seem to know the Constitution. How can they preserve, protect and defend something that they don't even know?
My one suggestion for improving our electoral process is for all candidates to pass a basic civics test.
What Are Some Requirements
The Constitution is a framework for governing by the people. In order for this to work, there are some requirements.
- A religious foundation
- An educated electorate - one citizen one vote
- A free press to act as watchdog
- A consent from the governed
- A mechanism for change over time (Amendment process)
- A commerce clause
Three Foundations - My Perspective
I believe our society is built on three pillars. They are Government, Church and the Family. They interact to create a functioning form of government. They act as the 3 legs of a stool. Any weakness of the legs will lead to the collapse of our society. We often hear the words "separation of church and state." What does it mean? The Founders wanted to make sure that a government will not intrude on the freedom of worship. It has been distorted by some to remove all aspects of religion from the public square.
Establishment clause - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
Our republic in 2015 is no longer strong. In my opinion, we have deviated from the vision of our Founders. The government is increasingly getting bigger and more intrusive in our daily lives. Our religious institution is under attack from all sides and losing their moral influence. Finally, our family is no longer in tact when our policies have created a whole dependent class of citizens that are encouraged to have babies out of wedlock. The current welfare program does a disservice to low income families where they are awarded for being single mothers and penalized when they want to work and yet lose benefits when they earn above a threshhold.
The three legs of the stool are tilted.
Who were these men? Here is a summary of our top 10 Founding Fathers. They risked their lives and fortune in declaring independence from Great Britain. They had the genius in crafting the Constitution with divine guidance.
Washington's Farewell Address
I quote this passage from the adress "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
Divine Guidance and Prayer
Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Thanksgiving Holiday was an offer of thanks to God for His blessing on our nation.
Capitalism is an economic policy that came out of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.
Smith held that individuals acting in their own self-interest would naturally seek out economic activities that provided the greatest financial rewards. Smith was convinced that this self-interest would in turn maximize the economic well-being of society as a whole.
Our Constitution was designed to limit government powers and allow "free enterprise" to flourish. Recently, this winning formula has been corrupted by both political parties. Some have advocated increasing government intervention to "level the playing field" and re-distribute wealth in the name of fairness. Some have used their money to influence politicians and created a crony capitalism system that distorts the "free enterprise" system. Both are detrimental to our republic.
A Living Document
The Constitution is often referred to as a "living document." However, it means different things to different groups. For Conservatives, like myself, the living document means that the Constitution is capable to be modified with changing times and changing sentiments. The Founding Fathers realized that they cannot phantom all possible outcomes and designed the Amendment process to allow for change. They made this a very high bar because they want to make sure any changes will be long lasting and not be willy nilly. They want the elected officials to debate it and vote on it with an overwhelming majority in agreement.
To the Progressives, a living document has a different connotation. They believe in using different interpretations of the words within the Constitution to justify their policies. They will appoint judges who have similar political leanings and use their judicial powers to legislate new laws. This bypasses the time consuming debates and short circuits the Amendment process.
A Citizen's Responsibility
The Constitution starts with the words "We the people..." We are given the responsibility to learn the civics, and participate in the process by doing our part - cast a vote on election day. It is sad to see that the participation rate on the 2012 election was only 57.5%. It is said "we get the government we deserve." In my way of thinking, if you don't vote, you have no right to complain.
A while ago,I wrote a hub on How to Vote. I hope this will give you a guide.
Some Recent Events...
Just to illustrate that civics play an important role and it has direct consequences on all of our lives, I am citing a few examples in the news lately.
Legalization of Pot is being debated all over the nation. So far, two states Colorado and Washington, have legalized the recreational use of pot and many states have reduced enforcement of small amount of pot possession. This is one issue that is being dealt with correctly in my opinion. The idea of Federalism is being used correctly. Each state is dealing with this issue locally. The experiment of Colorado and Washington over the next few years will lead to some conclusions. Either it will prove to be harmless and lead to more states adopting this or it could prove to be harmful especially to children and the other states may choose not to follow suit. That is the proper way to deal with this important issue.
The Executive Action of President Obama on immigration recently is one example of an unconstitutional act. This is not my opinion but that of President Obama himself on numerous times. He was quoted "I am not a King..." and he has said he has no power to change immigration laws on his own. However, right after the election of 2014, when his party was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters, he decided then it was OK for him to act alone.This was clearly a political move to appease his supporters. This one act has damaged our Constitution and I also believe it will hurt the very people that he is trying to help. Instead of going through the process of Congress changing the immigration laws, he has upset the system. In the short term, he has allowed some undocumented immigrants and their family to stay without being deported. However, they are still left in a "temporary limbo status" that will not help them in the future. Conservatives believe in the sovereignty of our nation and a border. Legal immigrants are welcomed when they follow the proper channels. Once here legally, they will be in a much better place and will have full rights as a citizen. That is the goal of conservatives when it comes to immigration reform.
The ACA (Obamacare healthcare law) is under scrutiny by the Supreme Court because of a challenge to one of the stipulations in the law. They are about to make a ruling in this case and it can have dramatic consequences for millions of people. The law which was over 2000 pages by the way, was not a well written law in the first place. In fact, most if not all Congressmen did not even read it before voting on it. This was back in 2010 when it was rammed through Congress with no Republican support. Now one of the details has come to light that subsidies to low income people are tied to being part of a State implemented exchange. Many states have chosen not to participate in these exchanges and defaulted to the Federal government to implement. The law clearly stated that the subsidies would not be available to Federal exchanges. Now, the Supreme court will be ruling on this shortly. Do they rule based on the exact wording of the law as they should, or are they going to come up with some tortured interpretation of the law and allow these subsidies to continue? That is the question. This illustrates when a law is poorly written in the first place, it can lead to bad outcomes.
In this hub, I have tried to teach the basics about our Constitution, a bit of our history and stress the importance of knowledge. You can learn more about our Constitution by attending online courses in the link below. Also, the history of our country is well documented. You can find books and actual writings of the original signers of the Constitution online. You can do your own research and come to your own understanding. You will appreciate what our Founders did more.
Please pass your knowledge to your friends and neighbors and your children. Let me know if this is helpful in the comment section.
Epilogue (June 25, 2015)
The Supreme Court just ruled on the ACA case and decided 6-3 on keeping the subsidies for millions of American. I disagree with the decision and thought they should have ruled based on the wording of the original Law and not the intent. I support providing subsidies to low income people but this was the wrong way to go about it in my opinion. They should have kicked it back to Congress and have them re-write the bill or amend the bill. If the bill was not written clearly, it's not up the the Courts to decide the intent. This will have long term implications on all future cases in front of the court. What good is having a bill if no one abides by what is in it?
I guess this proves one thing. Jonathan Gruber was right after all.
Some Related Information
- VIDEO: Millennials try to explain the First Amendment
This month, a new study was released analyzing Americans’ perception of the First Amendment, as well as their knowledge of what it entails. As many would expect, the results were bleak.
- Transcript of the Constitution of the United States - Official Text
- Americans (And Their Politicians) Don 't Know Much About the Constitution
Well this may be one reason we have so many problems right now: For five years now, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been conducting a national survey
- Democracy in America - Alexis de Tocqueville, Arthur Goldhammer - Google Books
Great Books for Kids
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Jack Lee