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TEACH: Great Lakes Law & Policy

3 | United States Government: History and Organization

History
George Washington. Click for larger image. One of the first precursors to the American Revolutionary War against British rule was the Declaration of Independence, 1776, written by Thomas Jefferson and signed by representatives of the 13 British North American colonies. The Declaration declared the colonies independent and called for the liberty of the citizens of the United States. The war lasted from 1775-1783 and ended with the Treaty of Paris, where Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. In 1789, George Washington was elected the first president of the United States of America.

The Constitution of the United States of America, 1789, outlines the fundamental powers the U.S. federal government and guarantees individual liberty for the citizens of the United States. Limiting the powers of the federal government, the Constitution empowers the states and citizens to govern themselves. The most significant limitations to government's power over the individual were added in 1791 in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Included in the Bill of Rights is the freedom of speech and religion (I), the right to bear arms (II), the right to due process of the law (V) and the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (VIII). The Constitution has been amended 27 times since its inception.

Organization
The United States government is a democratic republic. Under this type of government, power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected representatives who are responsible to the citizens and must govern according to U.S. law. The first three Articles of the Constitution created the three branches of the U.S. federal government: executive (President), legislative (House and Senate) and judicial (courts). Through this "separation of powers," each branch acts independently of one another. However, there are built in "checks and balances" to prevent concentration of power in any one branch. The capital of the United States is Washington, District of Columbia.

The executive branch includes the president, the vice president, department heads (cabinet members) and independent agencies. Presidential duties include nominating Supreme Court justices, acting as commander in chief of the military, appointing all cabinet members and approving or vetoing bills passed by Congress. The vice president is the president of the Senate and becomes president if the president is unable to serve. The cabinet members and independent agencies advise the president on policy issues and help execute those policies. Some examples of cabinet departments include agriculture, defense, labor and education; examples of independent agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Postal Service and the Peace Corps.

Unites Stated Capitol building. Click for larger image.The House of Representatives and the Senate, together called the Congress, make up the legislative branch. The Senate shares with the House of Representatives responsibility for all lawmaking within the United States. For an act of Congress to be valid, both houses must approve an identical document. The House currently consists of 435 members who come from every state in the country; the number of representatives from each state is based on population. Members of the House can initiate laws and decide if a government official should be put on trial for crimes committed against the country (impeachment). The Senate consists of 100 members - two from each state. Members of the Senate can approve or veto presidential nominees of cabinet members or the Supreme Court, can ratify or reject bills passed by the House, and can approve or reject a recommendation of impeachment by the House.

Supreme Court building. Click for larger image. The Constitution established the judicial branch of government with the creation of the Supreme Court. Lower federal courts and state courts are also included in the judicial branch, but the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal. The Supreme Court exercises complete authority over the federal courts, but it has only limited power over state courts. The courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws and whether they violate the Constitution. Nine Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president, with the approval of the Senate, and a justice can remain in the job for life.


Graphics: George Washington, first U.S. president; United States Capitol building; U.S. Supreme Court Building.

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