The Role of State Traditions & History in Government

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  • 0:00 Distinct State Governments
  • 0:37 Early Ideas in Government
  • 1:38 Unicameral vs. Bicameral
  • 2:29 A Modern Unicameral
  • 3:18 State Traditions
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Do all state governments operate the same way? This lesson looks at what is similar and what is different between states as well as some of the history behind these traditions.

Distinct State Governments

Is a state just the location where you live in the country? Or, is it something more than that, a set of traditions and a shared history that set it apart from other states?

While many states have a great deal in common, each has its own approach to how to handle government. This has changed over time, too, with some states taking on new ways of representing their people.

This lesson examines the past and present of Pennsylvania and Nebraska governments as examples. We'll consider how states can be quite unique from one another and what they have in common.

Early Ideas in Government

It's 1776, and you're a Pennsylvanian who has just fought in the revolution against British rule by a king. What kind of government do you want to set-up at the state level?

The answer for some Pennsylvanians was to have a government that had no one acting remotely like a king. Since all states were establishing their government with three branches of government, there would definitely be executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Yet, how do you create an executive branch without a head executive?

Pennsylvania's answer to this question was to create a Supreme Executive Council, which consisted of 12 people, according to the State Constitution of 1776. This met the need of the time to avoid a governor who had any resemblance to a king.

Another 14 years later, Pennsylvania would ultimately change its approach and include a governor, but its unique early government is an example of how states can inject their own flavor into the structure they choose for themselves.

Unicameral vs. Bicameral

For the legislature in Pennsylvania, a one-house approach was chosen, rather than two houses like that of the British Parliament. This one-house design is described as unicameral. You can remember this term by thinking of how 'uni' means 'one,' like the one horn of a unicorn.

With one house of government, early Pennsylvanian leaders like Benjamin Franklin believed that the people would have a more simplified and direct impact on laws that were created.

Most colonies had used a one-house approach at first, but by the birth of the United States, two house, or bicameral, systems were popular in most other states, and still are today - the Senate and the House of Representatives make up a bicameral system. Ultimately, by 1890, Pennsylvanians would decide that this was the way to go for them as well. But this wasn't the end of the unicameral system among U.S. states.

A Modern Unicameral

As of 2015, all U.S. states except Nebraska use a bicameral legislature. Unicameralism in Nebraska wasn't always the case. The state started out with two houses. Their path to one house got a boost from government reformers, like progressive politician George Norris, who believed that good things would come from this change. He argued that it could be much more efficient and effective to discuss and create law with one group of elected officials. After a great deal of campaigning, he saw this dream come to fruition in Nebraska in 1934.

In addition to the change to one house, Nebraska legislators would no longer be identified with political parties on the ballot, which made the legislature nonpartisan in addition to being unicameral: another unique feature of their state government.

State Traditions

You might wonder how and why states from the same country can end up with such different ways of governing compared with one another. Aren't we all the same nation, after all?

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