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The Core Principles of American Government

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  • 0:03 Core Principles
  • 1:05 Popular Sovereignty
  • 1:55 Limited Government
  • 2:48 Separation of Powers
  • 3:40 Checks and Balances
  • 4:36 Federalism
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine a few of the core principles of American government. We will pay special attention to the ideas of popular sovereignty, limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.

Core Principles

My name is George Washington, and I'm sure most of you recognize me as our country's first president. In this lesson, we're going to talk about some of our government's core principles, the deep-seated beliefs that Americans hold about what their government can and cannot do and the ways in which they participate in the political process. These important ideals help hold America together, give people a sense of national identity of being Americans and of belonging to a particular society, and allow the government to operate efficiently and with a certain continuity.

We Founding Fathers established these principles deliberately, and we enshrined them in the Constitution of the United States, which we signed on September 17, 1787. We had a vision for this country, and we're proud to have created a system of government that stands apart from nearly every other nation on Earth. A few of us will take turns introducing you to five of America's core principles: popular sovereignty, limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.

Popular Sovereignty

I'm Benjamin Franklin, but you can call me Ben. I once wrote that 'In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.' This sums up our first core principle in a nutshell. Popular sovereignty means that the government operates only with the people's consent and authority. The people are the source of the government and its power, not the other way around.

This is why you modern Americans still enjoy free elections in which the majority of voters decide who will represent them in the political process. It's also why you can voice your opinions to your leaders and hold them accountable for their actions. Popular sovereignty is designed to prevent the government from overstepping its boundaries and becoming a dictatorship, and it helps leaders understand their roles as public servants rather than despots who think they do not have to answer to the people that they govern.

Limited Government

People call me James Madison, the Father of the Constitution. A long time ago, I said, 'If men were angels, no government would be necessary,' but since men and women definitely aren't angels but rather very fallible human beings, they need to have some sort of government to keep them in line. I firmly believe, however, in the core principle of limited government.

In a limited government, the government's powers and functions are restricted and carefully described in the Constitution and other legal documents. The government is not all-powerful. It can only do what the people give it authority to do. What's more, the government must follow the law, and no one in office is allowed to break it - not the president, not a member of Congress, not a judge, not anyone. These limits prevent the government from become a tyranny, which could easily happen because people are not angels.

Separation of Powers

Unfortunately, you've probably never heard of me. My name is John Rutledge, and I was one of South Carolina's delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Later, I served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court under President Washington, so I know all about our next core principle.

The principle of the separation of powers divides the government into three branches, each with its own purpose and functions. The legislative branch, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, makes the laws; the executive branch, led by the president, carries out the laws; and the judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, interprets the laws. This system prevents any one branch of government from having too much power. We Founding Fathers didn't want to allow only a few people to have all the power, so we spread the authority around a bit and gave different responsibilities to different leaders.

Checks and Balances

My name is Alexander Hamilton. As a member of the Constitutional Convention from New York, I approved the separation of powers but only to a point. I also wanted to make sure that no one branch became more powerful than the others and tried to dominate the government, so I was especially interested in promoting a system of checks and balances.

Here's how it works: Each branch has some authority over the other two and can monitor their actions, check up on them, and thereby balance the power between them. For example, the president can veto Congress's legislation and nominate Supreme Court justices. Congress can impeach the president or, with enough votes, pass laws over his vetoes, and the Senate must confirm the president's Supreme Court nominees and other appointments. Finally, the Supreme Court can examine Congress's laws and the president's actions to make sure they are constitutional. This way, no branch can become too powerful.

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