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American Civics 101

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Jack is retired. Before retiring, he worked at IBM for over 28 years. His articles have over 120,000 views.


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 article 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

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
  • Federalism
  • Amendment Process

Some Details...

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.

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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.

Enumerated Powers

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.

1st Amendment

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.

2nd Amendment

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.

Founding Fathers

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.


Economic Freedom

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.


In this article, 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.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Jack Lee

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