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Foundations of American democracy: unit review

A summary of the important terms, documents, and concepts in this unit. 

Unit overview

This unit introduced some of the foundational ideas of US government, and the origins of debates about government that remain with us today. For example, what is the best way to preserve individuals’ rights and liberties while still maintaining order in society? Should everyone participate in government, or just the highly-educated or wealthy? How much power should government have, and how can we keep government power from getting out of hand? Which level of government should have the most power: states or the federal government?
These questions, and the shifting answers to them over time, form the basis of political debate in American government.

Key terms from this unit

checks and balancesAspects of the Constitution that require each branch of the federal government to gain the consent of the other two in order to act.
commerce clausePart of Article I of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce (buying and selling of goods across state lines).
Electoral CollegeA body of representatives from every state in the United States who formally cast votes to elect the president and vice president.
enumerated powersPowers of the federal government that are explicitly named in the Constitution.
factionAn interest group seeking to influence government for the benefit of its members.
federalismA political system that organizes government into two or more levels with independent powers.
implied powersPowers of the federal government that are not explicitly named in the Constitution but are implied by the “necessary and proper” clause.
limited governmentA political system in which the government’s power is restricted by laws or a written Constitution.
natural rightsThe right to life, liberty, and property, which no government may take away.
necessary and proper clausePart of Article I of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to create laws that they find “necessary and proper” for carrying out its constitutional responsibilities.
separation of powersAspect of the Constitution that ascribes different elements of power to different branches of the government, which act independently.
social contractAn agreement between people and government in which citizens consent to be governed so long as the government protects their natural rights.

Key documents and cases from this unit

Articles of Confederation — The first government system of the United States, which lasted from 1776 until 1789. The Articles placed most power in the hands of state governments.
Bill of Rights — The first ten amendments to the US Constitution, which explicitly protected individual liberties such as freedom of speech.
Brutus No. 1 (1787) — An Anti-Federalist essay, which argued against a strong central government based on the belief that it would not be able to meet the needs of all US citizens.
Constitution (1787) — The fundamental laws and principles that govern the United States.
Federalist No. 10 (1787) — An essay written by James Madison, which argued that a strong representative government would be able to control the effects of factions.
Federalist No. 51 (1788) — An essay written by James Madison that explained how the structure of the new government under the Constitution would provide the necessary checks and balances to keep the government from becoming too powerful.
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) — A Supreme Court case that guaranteed the supremacy of federal laws over state laws.
US v. Lopez (1995) — A Supreme Court case that stopped Congress from using the commerce clause to ban guns in schools.

Key takeaways from this unit

The birth of the Constitution: The first government system of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, had a weak national government due to concerns about centralized power stemming from the American colonies’ experiences with the British monarchy. The US Constitution sought to remedy the weaknesses of the Articles without giving the central government so much power that it would become tyrannical. Passing the Constitution, however, required many compromises, such as the inclusion of the Electoral College and a dual system of representation in Congress. These compromises have had far-reaching consequences that still affect government in the United States today.
Balancing state and federal power: The proper balance of power between the federal government and state governments has been a source of ongoing negotiation since the beginning. In some instances, federal power has been enhanced at the expense of state power, such as the ruling in the case McCulloch v. Maryland that federal laws are supreme over state laws. But federal power is limited, and the Supreme Court has also ruled that the government has overstepped its authority in cases such as US v. Lopez.
Balancing liberty and order: From the beginning, the US government has attempted to balance individual rights and liberties with the government power necessary to, as the Constitution puts it, “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, [and] provide for the common defense.” The Framers passed the Bill of Rights after the ratification of the Constitution as a safeguard for individual liberties.
Complex policymaking processes: The structure of US government established in the Constitution purposely makes policymaking complicated, requiring various branches, institutions, and individuals to work together to accomplish goals. It deliberately places parts of government at odds with one another so that they rein each other in. These measures help to ensure that the people’s will is represented by permitting many people to influence the policymaking process, as well as preserving freedom by limiting the power of government.

Review questions

What aspects of US government, as described in the foundational documents, promote individual liberty? What aspects promote order and public safety?
Name three measures the Framers took to ensure that government power is limited and that the people’s will is carried out.
Which of the compromises made at the Constitutional Convention do you think was the most important? Why?
Did the Framers intend for ordinary people or for elites to have more influence in government? Provide two pieces of evidence to support your position.
The balance of power between the federal government and state governments has shifted over time. What caused those shifts? Do you think the balance of power at present is shifting more towards the states or towards the federal government? Why?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user AndrewWei10000
    1. The US governments' requirement to protect individual rights promotes individual liberty. The strict guidelines about how the government should be run at all levels promotes order and public safety.
    2. Three measures that the Framers took to ensure that government power is limited is creating multiple levels of government, distributing power, and creating checks and balances.
    3. I think that the great compromise was the most important because it gave larger states more power, but smaller states enough power to have a say.
    4. The Framers intended for ordinary people to have more influence in the government because they required representatives to be elected by the people, and they also protected the rights of citizens.
    5. The balance of power between the federal government and state government has shifted because of fluctuating governmental needs throughout history. I think the balance at present is shifting more towards the federal government because there is a growing need for unified corporation between states.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user