Define and provide examples of foundational ideas of American government, including popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, republicanism, federalism, and individual rights, which are embedded in founding-era documents.

Focus Question: What are the foundational ideas of American democracy?

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Popular Sovereignty
Popular sovereignty was the political doctrine which provided for the settlers of federal territorial lands to decide the status (free or slave) under which they would join the Union.
  • The concept was aired in the late 1840s, but was widely popularized by Stephen A. Douglas in 1854. Douglas, who coined the term, thought the settlers should vote on their status early in territorial development. Other supporters adopted a somewhat different stance, arguing that the status should be determined by a vote taken when the territory was fully prepared for statehood.
  • Popular sovereignty was invoked in the Compromise of 1850 and later in the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). The tragic events in “Bleeding Kansas” exposed the doctrine's shortcomings.
  • Popular sovereignty was often termed “squatter sovereignty” by its critics, which included proslavery Southerners and many New Englanders.

Constitutionalism is the idea, often associated with the political theories of John Locke and the "founders" of the American republic, that government can and should be legally limited in its powers, and that its authority depends on its observing these limitations.
  • This idea brings with it a host of vexing questions of interest not only to legal scholars, but to anyone keen to explore the legal and philosophical foundations of the state.
  • How can a government be legally limited if law is the creation of government? Does this mean that a government can be "self-limiting," or is there some way of avoiding this implication?
  • If meaningful limitation is to be possible, must constitutional constraints be somehow "entrenched"? Must they be enshrined in written rules? If so, how are they to be interpreted? In terms of literal meaning or the intentions of their authors, or in terms of the, possibly ever-changing, values they express?
  • How one answers these questions depends crucially on how one conceives the nature, identity and authority of constitutions.
  • Does a constitution establish a stable framework for the exercise of public power which is in some way fixed by factors like the original meaning or intentions? Or is it a "living tree" which grows and develops in tandem with changing political values and principles?

Republicanism is the ideology of governing a nation as a republic, with an emphasis on liberty, rule of law, popular sovereignty and the civic virtue practiced by citizens.
  • Republicanism always stands in opposition to aristocracy, oligarchy, and dictatorship.
    • Republicanism was a core value of many of the founding fathers, after the American Revolution. Such examples would be George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, just to name a few.
  • More broadly, republicanism refers to a political system that protects liberty, especially by incorporating a rule of law that cannot be arbitrarily ignored by the government.
  • As John Adams put it,
    • “They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men.” Much of the literature deals with the issue of what sort of values and behavior by the citizens is necessary if the republic is to survive and flourish; the emphasis has been on widespread citizen participation, civic virtue, and opposition to corruption."
  • Advocates of republicanism argue that it demands a citizenry that puts a premium on civil virtue and opposes corruption. Most authors argue that republicanism is incompatible with office holders using public power for personal gain.[1]
  • Many dictatorships have called themselves "republics," but generally do not protect the rights or liberty of their citizens.

Federalism is the theory or advocacy of federal political orders, where final authority is divided between sub-units and a center.
  • Unlike a unitary state, sovereignty is constitutionally split between at least two territorial levels so that units at each level have final authority and can act independently of the others in some area.
  • Citizens thus have political obligations to two authorities.
    • The allocation of authority between the sub-unit and center may vary, typically the center has powers regarding defense and foreign policy, but sub-units may also have international roles.
    • The sub-units may also participate in central decision-making bodies.
  • Much recent philosophical attention is spurred by renewed political interest in federalism, coupled with empirical findings concerning the requisite and legitimate basis for stability and trust among citizens in federations.
  • Philosophical contributions have addressed the dilemmas and opportunities facing Canada, Australia and Europe, to mention just a few areas where federal arrangements are seen as interesting solutions to accommodating differences among populations divided by ethnic or cultural cleavages yet seeking a common political order.

Individual Rights
"Individual rights" are the rights of individuals by virtue of their humanness, i.e. their nature as rational beings. Individual rights provide principles to delimit the interaction of individuals in society with respect to personal interactions and the distribution of goods and services.
  • Individual rights are sometimes held to be distinct from human rights, because the latter class is often considered to include human goods and benefits (positive rights) rather than rights proper (negative rights.) Individual rights are an individual's moral claim to freedom of action.
    • Such rights may be respected or recognized by others for reasons of reciprocity, contract, pragmatism, or as a moral imperative.
  • Some individual rights may be forfeited if an individual does not exercise reciprocal respect and restraint. Individual rights are distinct from civil rights; civil rights are rights granted by government and individual rights are assumed prior to government. Individual rights are often codified into law so that they may be protected by impartial third parties such as the government.
  • Governments that respect individual rights often provide for systemic controls that protect individual rights such as a system of "due process" in criminal justice.
  • Police states are generally considered to be oppressive because they do not respect individual rights. With respect to individual rights the role of the government is as a third party protecting, identifying and enforcing the rights of the individual while attempting to assure just remedies for transgressions.

To learn more about Individual Rights within a Democratic government, click here.

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Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.58.11 PM.pngNative American Tribes and Tribal Governments

Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction from the National Congress of American Indians

Tribal Sovereignty: History and the Law

Native American Tribes Unite to Fight the Keystone Pipeline and Government Disrespect from PRI, February 19, 2015