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The ideas at the heart of US government

AP.GOPO:
LOR‑1.A.1 (EK)
Learn about natural rights, limited government, and popular sovereignty: key ideas that inform government in the United States. 

Key points

  • The US government is based on ideas of limited government, including natural rights, popular sovereignty, republicanism, and social contract.
  • Limited government is the belief that the government should have certain restrictions in order to protect the individual rights and civil liberties of citizens.

Introduction

In 1776, the
Second Continental Congress
issued the Declaration of Independence, stating their specific grievances with the British monarchy and why they were going to create a separate government. After the colonies separated from the British monarchy and formed the United States of America, they had to answer some crucial questions: 1) If not a monarchy, what type of government was the United States going to have? 2) What kind of government was going to protect the people without violating their individual liberties?
The Framers
decided to create a limited government based on ideas of natural rights, popular sovereignty, republicanism, and the social contract. We can see some of these ideas pop up in the foundational documents of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But what are these democratic ideas and why has the United States continued to hold onto them for more than 250 years?
This article describes each of these democratic ideas and explains why the Framers used them as a basis for government.

What is a limited government?

After the colonies decided to separate from the British monarchy, the Framers had to develop a system of government that would gain the support of all of the Patriots. They agreed on a system of limited government.
Limited government is a political system in which there are certain restrictions placed on the government to protect individual rights and liberties. This decision to create a limited government was a deliberate departure from the British monarchy, which the Framers felt violated their rights. They intentionally created a limited government that would have to abide by a set of rules designed by the people of the country.
Now that the Framers had a plan for the type of government they were going to have, they had to decide a few things:
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of this government?
  • How will the government respond to the will of the people?
To answer these questions, the Framers turned to political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, whose ideas about what makes a government successful inspired the current system of government in the United States today.

What are natural rights?

The main argument in the Declaration of Independence was that the British monarchy violated the natural rights of the American people. Natural rights, sometimes called unalienable rights, are rights the Framers believed all people are born with and can never give up. The Founders argued that the government’s central purpose should be to protect and uphold these rights.
John Locke, an
Enlightenment
philosopher, described natural rights as the rights to one’s own “life, liberty, and property.” His work inspired Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, who described unalienable rights as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Having defined these natural rights, the Founders of the United States then had to answer the question: “How do we make sure society safeguards natural rights without giving the government too much power?”
Painting of John Locke.
Portrait of John Locke. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

What is a social contract?

For the government to protect the natural rights of American citizens, people would have to see the government as an authority they must respect. They would enter into a social contract with each other, meaning that American society as a whole would agree to give up some freedoms to be protected by the federal government. Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher, theorized that the social contract was the foundation of government.
If the people did not give up some freedoms, then the government would have no way to rule over them. For instance, you can’t just walk into someone’s house if the door is open and claim that the house is now yours. That is a freedom that you give up so the government can protect you from someone else doing the same thing to you. However, by ensuring that the government was limited, the Founders created a system that protected the freedoms granted to the people.
Still,
the Founders
were concerned about a strong central government turning into a tyrannical monarchy again. They faced yet another question: how do the people ensure that the government does not get too powerful and start restricting all of their freedoms?

What is popular sovereignty?

The Founders believed that the United States should be founded on the principle of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty is the idea that the government’s power comes from the will of the people or the “consent of the governed.” If the government started to violate the will of the people, Americans would have the right to change that.
This idea is the main argument within the Declaration of Independence, which claimed that the British monarchy had become too powerful and was not listening to the needs and desires of the colonists, who therefore had the right to rebel.
In the United States, we see popular sovereignty at a smaller level in most elections when the power of the government shifts from one political party to another. When control of the government shifts from one party to another, it shows that the will of the people has also changed.
Changes in leadership gives us insight into what the people want from their government. Political parties play a vital role in American politics, as they represent the opinions and needs of the people to the government.

What is republicanism?

Leading up to the Revolutionary War, a famous phrase was “No taxation without representation!” To feel like their wants and needs were being heard by the government, the colonists wanted direct representation, but the British were unwilling to grant that to the colonies. Keeping that in mind, the Founders wanted to make sure that they were creating a political system that represented the people. But how do the people get the government to listen to their will?
The Framers believed that the best form of government is one in which elected leaders represent the interests of the people. This is known as republicanism.
The Framers wanted the will of the people to be reflected in the daily decisions of government and to prevent a tyrannical government from rising. By creating a system of government in which the people elected their leaders, the Framers believed that there was less of a chance of a government that would hold onto power and refuse to give it up.
Despite the Framers' desire to create a representative government, they extended the privilege of voting only to a small portion of US citizens: white, landowning men. It took nearly 200 years to extend voting rights to all people in the United States, meaning that not every person’s needs and wants were heard or represented in government for a lot of American history.

What do you think?

How do some of these democratic ideas continue to show up in American politics today?
How do these democratic ideas influence the decisions and actions of American politicians?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Tommy Artic
    What are the terms conservative, liberal and independent about?
    (16 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Grace Boyle
    One of the biggest arguments today is how much power the federal government should have. Should the government be able to repeal the second amendment? Or does that take away civil rights? Where is the line between protection and liberty?
    (16 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user M P
      You can repeal the Second Amendment, but it would't change anything. The right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental, unalienable right not conferred by the Constitution nor the government the Constitution created. No man nor government can take the right away.

      The Constitution states what the federal government is responsible for, who can participate in the separate branches, an owner's manual of sorts. It is not where the rights of the people come from; what is not in the Constitution are rights the people retain.

      During the ratification process of the Constitution, some were afraid that, if ratified, the federal government could still grow too strong. That is where the Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment come from. The Second Amendment is merely another set of chains on the government reminding it that it has no power to infringe on the right to keep and bear arms. Repealing the Second Amendment takes away a reminder. The right, however, remains intact.
      (13 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Henley H. Chan
    How to prevent tyranny of the majority?
    (11 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Matthew Flores
    I love that the United States of America is the country I was born in. I think that the values that the Founders created are still in play to this day! We see it in our elections, we see it in new bills being proposed and laws being formed, but we also see the social contract being used as well. When there is a pandemic, such as the Coronavirus, or maybe a foreign adversary, we see our government take steps necessary that ensure our safety and make sure we are protected and have what we need. Now don't get me wrong, some people might chose to say that the government isn't doing the best job and others say which party does the best, but those are just more examples of the freedoms and rights and values we have been given that go all the way back to the founding of this great country. Is there any specific time or event that could come where the government might have to overstep in order to ensure the protection of the American people? Has there been a time where might be an example of the government overstepping its authority?
    (7 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user T  H  A  N  O  S
    are there any other parties in the united states, or is it just democrats and republicans?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Taylor VanSant
    So the thing is, the Founding Fathers wanted to create a government where all were equal, but they only let wealthy white men vote. There was still slavery and woman couldn't vote yet. So why are they saying they want an equal government yet nothing is equal about that?
    (5 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Andrew Miles
      There were those that saw this, and some women and minorities tried to get the founding fathers to allow voting for all. For example, Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, wrote a letter to her husband when they were trying to create a government. The gist of the letter was asking John Adams to "remember the ladies" so that he would include them in the right to vote. Now, John Adams's reply basically just laughed at her, but you can see that there were people that truly wanted equality for all.

      The founding fathers you have to remember, were all elite, white men. Most of them believed that only the elite educated people could dilligently participate in the government. They were afraid of what they called "Mobocracy". Mobocracy is when a mob builds up and is swayed by one fancy-talking politician and they all vote for him. The founding fathers hoped that if only elite, educated men were allowed to vote, then maybe those men wouldn't be persuaded as quickly and mobocracy wouldn't happen.
      (4 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user nmendez722
    How was the government created in the first place?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user orw292
    How does a limited government impact our nation's political experience?
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user tyron.major
    Why did Locke want to limit the governments ?
    (4 votes)
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    • female robot ada style avatar for user Faben Tesfazion
      He wanted to limit the government because of what happened with Great Britian. The 13 Colonies were under a monarch rule and they hated it becuase they weren't treated as British equals. Locke, as well as a lot of other settlers, believed that if they set up a strong central government, the government would take advantage of their power and won't accurately represent the people's wants and needs.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user jazmin gunn
    How do the democratic ideas in the founding documents continue to show up in American politics today? How do these democratic ideas influence the decisions and actions of American politicians?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user gaurimd29
      The founding documents, like the Constitution, established the the rules and politics of America. In addition, these political rules established in the Constitution influenced future politicians by showing them the boundaries. For example, a nine-year old who wants to be president might need to study more, even if they think they are ready. Of course, that doesn't mean you can't change parts of the democratic ideas (also known as the 27 amendments and counting to the Constitution).
      (2 votes)