Topics on this page

  • Women, African Americans and LBGTQ Legislators

Separation of Powers
Checks and Balances
Republican Government or Representative Democracy
Popular Sovereignty
House of Representatives
Net Worth of American Politicians
  • Special Topic page for Money and Politics

United States Presidential Flag, 1960 to present
United States Presidential Flag, 1960 to present

Focus Question: What are examples of key constitutional principles in the governments of the United States and the state of Massachusetts?

rotating gif.gifFor structural characteristics of American democracy, see United States History I.14.
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Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Federalism as "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.

  • For more about Federalism, see Federalism.
primary_sources.PNG Click on the following link to view the text of each of the Federalist Papers.

Women, African Americans and LBGTQ Legislators

Hattie Caraway, first elected female senator
Hattie Caraway, first elected female senator

  • Click here to visit Women in Congress, a website devoted to the 260 women who have served as members of House of Representatives or the Senate.

Joseph Rainey
Joseph Rainey

Rotating_globe-small.gifClick here to visit Black Americans in Congress.

Joseph Hayne Rainey, first African American elected to Congress

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Senator Tammy Baldwin, 2013
Senator Tammy Baldwin, 2013

List of the first LGBT Holders of Political Offices in the United States

Senator Tammy Baldwin official website

Oregon Governor Kate Brown official website

lessonplan.jpg Lesson plan on creating your own Law

Separation of Powers

The American system of government is based on a separation of powers among its different branches. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Number 51, "the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments [the Federal government and the governments of the several states], and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments [the executive, the legislative, and the judicial]."

To learn more about the branches of the government and their respective powers, go to Ben's Guide to U.S. Government. Click here for a video explaining the Separation of Powers

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a link to several lesson plans on the concept of the separation of powers, provided by the National Constitution Center.
rotating gif.gifFor more, see Separation of Powers.

Flag of the Speaker of the House of Representatives
Flag of the Speaker of the House of Representatives

The System of Checks and Balances

The American government also includes an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure that no one branch has too much power of the other branches.

Paul M Johnson, a political scientist at Auburn University offers the following examples:
  • The two houses of Congress may finally agree on a compromise to pass or repeal a law, but the President can veto it.
  • President and Congress can agree on passing a law, but if the federal judiciary declares it to be unconstitutional the courts will refuse to treat the law as valid or enforceable.
  • The courts can issue orders and injunctions for particular individuals to act or refrain from acting in particular ways, including public officials, but the power of the law enforcement agencies in the executive branch is needed to enforce them if the individuals in question decide to disobey.
  • The Congress cannot control the way a judge will rule in a particular case before him, but Congress has the power to define and redefine the jurisdiction of the various federal courts.
  • The President has general supervision of the conduct of foreign policy and military policy, but his treaties must be ratified by the Senate before they enter into force, and only Congress can appropriate public money to pay for such things as the raising of an army or the dispensing of foreign aid.
The official flag of the United States Senate.
The official flag of the United States Senate.

Multimedia.pngCrash Course video about checks and balances.

Click on the following link for the Powers of Congress.

Check out a debate in congress between Senators John McCain (R) and Dick Durbin (D)
School House Rock " I'm Just a Bill"

game_icon.svg.pngClick here for a fun game about checks and balances.
Multimedia.pngFor more information on the executive branch, see How the President Works from the website, How Stuff Works.
rotating gif.gifFor more about checks and balances, see here (Checks and Balances).

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 9.41.22 AM.pngThe Impact of the Iroquois Nation on The U.S. Government

Republican Government or Representative Democracy

Democracy in America primarily takes the form of a republican form of government or a representative democracy. Unlike a direct democracy where the people decide every issue (for example, a New England town meeting), in a representative system, the people allow their democratically elected representatives (members of Congress and state legislatures as well as the President and state governors) to make political decisions and choices.

lessonplan.jpgLesson plan packet for high school for representative democracy.

Popular Sovereignty

As the Ohio Historical Society has noted: popular sovereignty is a political term that simply means that the “people are the rulers.” The concept of rule by the people is central to the American system of government. Issues and questions of national, state and local importance are decided democratically by the will of the people as expressed by their votes in elections. Here is an article from the New York Times that explains popular sovereignty.
rotating gif.gifFor more about popular sovereignty, see USG 2.4.

House of Representatives

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Click here for the 10 (really 12) Most Important Things to Know about the House of Representatives.

primary_sources.PNGClick here for Oral History of the House of Representatives, a collection of interviews with former House staff members.
Multimedia.pngClick here for a live feed of the House of Representatives when it is in session.

external image 200px-Dollar_Sign.svg.pngNet Worth of Members of Congress

For information on the Net Worth of Members of Congress, see Personal Finances from the OpenSecrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics. Data made available under the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act.
  • Median net worth in 2012 was $1,008,767.
  • Democrats had higher median net worth ($1.04 million) than republicans ($1 million).
  • Net worth of Senators ($2.7 million); House members ($896,000).
  • As of 2014 the average net worth of American politicians was $301,000 while the median for all Americans was $45,000. These numbers show the difference between the government and the people they serve.

Map shows the Richest Politician in Every State 2017