Citizenship in the Nation
The United States of America is located on the continent of North America. There are 50 states in the U.S. Forty-eight of the states form the contiguous United States. The U.S. borders on Canada to the north, and Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. On the east coast, the U.S. is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the west coast it is bordered by the Pacific Ocean.
To the northwest of Canada is the state of Alaska. The state of Hawaii is located in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of California.
In addition to the 50 states, the U.S. has several territories and possessions, located in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
- PreAmble to The Constitution
- The United States Constitution (PDF 397KB)
- National Historic Landmarks (PDF 818KB)
- National Monuments
- Text and Image of the Declaration of Independence
- Constitutional Amendments 11-27
- The "Bill Of Rights"
- Historical Speeches
- Name Your Two (2) Senators
- Find the member of Congress from your congressional district
- Write Your Representative
What Does it Mean to be an American?
I do not choose to be a common man.
It is my right to be uncommon.
If I can seek opportunity, not security,
I want to take the calculated risk
to dream and build, to fail and to succeed.
I refuse to barter incentive for dole.
I prefer the challenges of life to guaranteed security,
the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.
I will not trade freedom for beneficence,
nor my dignity for a handout.
I will never cower before any master, save my God.
It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid.
To think and act for myself,
enjoy the benefit of my creations;
to face the whole world boldly and say,
"I Am A Free American"
What it means to other Americans (PDF 310KB)
The United States is sometimes referred to as a "nation of immigrants." You may have also heard the phrase "melting pot." In its short history the United States has seen many waves of immigrants come to its shores and borders. For reasons such as political or religious persecution or in search of better economic conditions, many people have fled their native lands to live in America, the land of the free. This has resulted in a very diverse U.S. population. People living here have different heritages, religious beliefs, ethnicity, languages, and national origins. Though there are these differences, Americans are bound together by basic political values and principles described in historical documents.
However, living in the United States does not automatically make one an American citizen. Residents of the United States can be aliens, nationals, or citizens. Aliens are people who have emigrated from a foreign country. They have some of the same freedoms and legal rights as U.S. citizens, but they cannot vote in elections. American nationals are natives of American territorial possessions. They have all the legal protections which citizens have, but they do not have the full political rights of U.S. citizens. Persons born in the U.S. or born to U.S. citizens in foreign countries are automatically citizens of the United States. Persons born in other countries who want to become citizens must apply for and pass a citizenship test. Those who become citizens in this manner are naturalized citizens.
The Oath of Citizenship
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God. In acknowledgement whereof I have hereunto affixed my signature.
In some cases, INS allows the oath to be taken without the clauses:
"… that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform non-combatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law…"
Duties and Responsibilities of Citizens of all Americans
Men can be asked to serve in the armed forces. During times of war, any man who is physically able can be called upon to fight for the US. In peaceful times, there can be a draft or men can enlist voluntarily. The U.S. has had both systems in the past, and the system changes from time to time. In some states or local areas, any person may be ordered to help the sheriff arrest a criminal or to enforce peace and order.
Every person is expected to obey the laws of the community, state and country in which he/she lives. All Americans are expected to respect the rights of others. All persons living in the U.S. are expected to pay their income taxes and other taxes honestly and on time. The tax money is used by different government agencies to pay for the services provided to Americans. Sometimes, the government gets too involved in peoples lives and vectors off the path they should be on. The Pre-Amble to the constitution is what the Government is only supposed to be doing.
Voting as a duty
Before voting in an election, each citizen should be well informed about the issues and candidates. Resources such as GPO Access can help citizens keep current on issues facing the Congress and how members of Congress vote on these issues. The political parties distribute brochures, pamphlets and newsletters about their candidates, the party platform, and the party view on important issues. Citizens can read this information to learn about the differences among the parties. Some candidates are independent and do not belong to a political party. These candidates distribute their own information. Radio, television, newspapers, and magazines provide information, also. Each citizen needs to make his/her own decision about who would be the best representatives by considering all sides of the issues.
State and local elections involve voting on issues or laws that are of concern to the citizens, such as businesses, schools, neighborhoods, transportation, safety or health. In many states, the voters have a direct part in the lawmaking process. For example, a law that has been passed in the state legislature may be sent back to the voters to accept or reject. The voters decide directly if a new law should be put into effect. This is known as the power of referendum. Another form of direct lawmaking by the voters in some states is the initiative. In this process, a group of voters signs a petition asking for a specific law. If enough people have signed the petition, the qualified voters must be given a chance to vote for or against the proposed law. The law will go into effect if more than half (a majority) of the votes are in favor of the law. These two processes, referendum and initiative, show the authority of the people in the U.S. system of government and the importance of being a well-informed citizen. To keep the laws responsive to the needs of state and community, it is important to vote and be represented.
The "Right" to Vote
There is no constitutional "right to vote". The "right to vote" is a duty as well as a privilege afforded by law. It is important for all educated citizens to vote in every election to make sure that the democratic, representative system of government is maintained. Persons who do not vote lose their voice in the government. This author truly believes that if you don not educate yourself enough to make a rational decision to vote. Stay Home, you'll be doing the country a disservice.
Have you ever heard someone say, "That's unconstitutional!" or "That's my constitutional right!" and wondered if they were right? You might be surprised how often people get it wrong. You might also be surprised how often people get it right. Your best defense against misconception is reading and knowing your Constitution.
The Constitution contains many phrases, clauses, and amendments detailing ways people cannot be denied the right to vote. You cannot deny the right to vote because of race or gender. Citizens of Washington DC can vote for President; 18-year-olds can vote; you can vote even if you fail to pay a poll tax. The Constitution also requires that anyone who can vote for the "most numerous branch" of their state legislature can vote for House members and Senate members.
Note that in all of this, though, the Constitution never explicitly ensures the right to vote, as it does the right to speech, for example. It does require that Representatives be chosen and Senators be elected by "the People," and who comprises "the People" has been expanded by the aforementioned amendments several times. Aside from these requirements, though, the qualifications for voters are left to the states. And as long as the qualifications do not conflict with anything in the Constitution, that right can be withheld. For example, in Texas, persons declared mentally incompetent and felons currently in prison or on probation are denied the right to vote. It is interesting to note that though the 26th Amendment requires that 18-year-olds must be able to vote, states can allow persons younger than 18 to vote, if they chose to.
Pre-Amble to the constitution
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. "
Explanation of the "The Preamble"
The Six (6) Functions of Government
- To form a more perfect Union,
- Meaning: —
- establish Justice,
- Meaning: —
- insure domestic Tranquility,
- Meaning: —
- provide for the common defense,
- Meaning: —
- promote the general Welfare,
- Meaning: — not provide
- and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
- Meaning: —
The United States Constitution
The United States Constitution (PDF 397KB)
The United States Constitution (External HTML link)
The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. It provides the framework for the organization of the United States Government. The document defines the three main branches of the government: The legislative branch with a bicameral Congress, an executive branch led by the President, and a judicial branch headed Supreme Court. Besides providing for the organization of these branches, the Constitution carefully outlines which powers each branch may exercise. It also reserves numerous rights for the individual states, thereby establishing the United States' federal system of government.
The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later ratified by conventions in each state in the name of "The People"; it has since been amended twenty-seven times, the first ten amendments being known as the Bill of Rights. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was actually the first constitution of the United States of America. The U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation as the governing document for the United States, and transformed the constitutional basis of government from confederation to federation, also making it the world's oldest federal constitution. The Constitution has a central place in United States law and political culture. The handwritten, or "engrossed", original document is on display at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
Bill Of Rights (10 Original Amendments to the Constitution)
Constitutional Amendments 1-10 make up what is known as The Bill of Rights.
When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, many people were concerned that it did not protect certain freedoms. They thought that the Constitution should be changed or amended to protect these freedoms. On December 15, 1791, ten amendments were added to the Constitution. The first eight amendments set out or enumerate the substantive and procedural individual rights associated with that description. The 9th and 10th amendments are general rules of interpretation of the relationship among the people, the State governments, and the Federal Government. These amendments guarantee certain freedoms and rights, so they are known as the Bill of Rights.
The "Bill Of Rights"(Complete Details)
Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights (Constitutional Amendments 1-10 make up what is known as The Bill of Rights. ) cover many subjects. The majority of the seventeen later amendments stem from continued efforts to expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787. Although the United States Constitution has been amended a total of 27 times, only 26 of the amendments are currently used because the twenty-first amendment supersedes the eighteenth.
Before the creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, constitutional amendments had already been instituted as part of several early state constitutions. The pioneering framers of these state constitutions recognized the need to incorporate an element of flexibility into Constitutional Law, and they provided for constitutional amendment through the legislature or through special conventions. However, the first national Constitution of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, did not have such flexibility. Amendment of that document required a unanimous vote of Congress, nearly impossible to achieve.
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to avoid the inflexibility of the Articles of Confederation. James Madison, one of the principle architects of the Constitution, argued in The Federalist Papers that the new compact's amendment procedures, unlike those of the old Articles, protected "equally against that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable, and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults."
Proving the truth of Madison's contention, the first ten amendments to the Constitution were passed as a package by the first session of Congress in 1791. This group of amendments is called the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights fulfilled a promise that the backers of the Constitution, known as the Federalists, had made during the ratification procedure of the Constitution. It guarantees specific liberties relating to:
- rights of conscience, including the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and peaceable assembly (First Amendment);
- rights of the accused, including freedom from "unreasonable searches and seizures" (Fourth Amendment), freedom from compulsory Self-Incrimination (Fifth Amendment), the "right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury" and with legal counsel (Sixth Amendment), and freedom from "excessive bail" and "cruel and unusual punishments"(Eighth Amendment); and
- rights of property, including freedom from seizure of property without "due process of law" (Fifth Amendment).
Subsequent amendments have dealt with many different issues, including the extent of federal judicial jurisdiction (Eleventh Amendment ), the method of electing the president (Twelfth Amendment ), the Abolition of Slavery (Thirteenth Amendment ), legalization of the Income Tax (Sixteenth Amendment ), granting women the right to vote (Nineteenth Amendment ), presidential succession (Twenty-Fifth Amendment ), and the voting age (Twenty-Sixth Amendment ).
The Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which holds that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without Due Process of Law; nor deny to any person … the Equal Protection of the laws," has arguably been the most important and far-reaching of all the amendments, particularly with regard to its Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. Through the Fourteenth Amendment, most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights were eventually applied to the states.
In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was formally proposed by Congress. The ERA, which would have forbidden discrimination on the basis of sex, failed to gain ratification within the seven-year deadline proposed by Congress, even after a 39-month extension through June 30, 1982.
Complete details of Constitutional Amendments 11-27
Declaration of Independence
The United States Declaration of Independence was a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, announcing that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain were no longer a part of the British Empire. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration was a document formally explaining why Congress had voted on July 2 to declare independence from Great Britain, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. Philosophically, the Declaration stressed two Lockean themes: individual rights and the right of revolution. The birthday of the United States of America—Independence Day—is celebrated on July 4, the day the wording of the Declaration was approved by Congress.
Contrary to a widely held belief, Congress did not sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The Declaration was first published as a typeset broadside; the famous handwritten version was created after July 19, and was signed by most Congressional delegates on August 2. This copy, usually regarded as the Declaration of Independence, is now on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The central idea of the Declaration - the right to revolt against an oppressive government - continued to be widely held by Americans, and had an influence internationally, in particular the French Revolution. Abraham Lincoln, beginning in 1854 as he spoke out against slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, provided a reinterpretation of the Declaration that stressed that the unalienable rights of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" were not limited to the white race. "Lincoln and those who shared his conviction" created a document with "continuing usefulness" with a "capacity to convince and inspire living Americans." The invocation by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address of the Declaration of Independence defines for many Americans how they interpret Jefferson's famous preamble:
The original Declaration is now exhibited in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, DC. It has faded badly, largely because of poor preservation techniques during the 19th century. The document measures 29¾ inches by 24½ inches.
People who watched the popular movie "National Treasure" want to know. On the back, at the bottom, upside-down is simply written: "Original Declaration of Independence / dated 4th July 1776." Regarding the message on the back, according to the National Archives, "While no one knows for certain who wrote it, it is known that early in its life, the large parchment document was rolled up for storage. So, it is likely that the notation was added simply as a label." There are no hidden messages.
Branches of Government
There are three branches in the United States government as established by the Constitution. First, the Legislative branch makes the law. Second, the Executive branch executes the law. Last, the Judicial branch interprets the law. Each branch has an effect on the other.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention faced a difficult challenge. They wanted to ensure a strong, cohesive central government, yet they also wanted to ensure that no individual or small group in the government would become too powerful. Because of the colonies' experience under the British monarchy, the delegates wanted to avoid giving any one person or group absolute control in government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the government had lacked centralization, and the delegates didn't want to have that problem again. To solve these problems, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created a government with three separate branches, each with its own distinct powers. This system would establish a strong central government, while insuring a balance of power.
The "Separation of Powers" is the distribution of power and authority among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government.
Governmental power and functions in the United States rest in three branches of government: the legislative, judicial, and executive. Article 1 of the Constitution defines the legislative branch and vests power to legislate in the Congress of the United States. The executive powers of the President are defined in Article 2. Article 3 places judicial power in the hands of one Supreme Court and inferior courts as Congress sees necessary to establish. A complete diagram of the branches of the U.S. Government may be found in the U.S. Government Manual (PDF, 430KB).
Though in this system of a "separation of powers" each branch operates independently of the others. However, there are built in "checks and balances" to prevent tyrannous concentration of power in any one branch and to protect the rights and liberties of citizens. For example, the President can veto bills approved by Congress and the President nominates individuals to serve in the Federal judiciary; the Supreme Court can declare a law enacted by Congress or an action by the President unconstitutional; and Congress can impeach the President and Federal court justices and judges.
The legislative branch of government has the authority to make laws for the nation. It was established in Article I of the Constitution with the creation of Congress. Agencies such as the Government Printing Office, Library of Congress, Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office, that provide support services for the Congress are also part of the legislative branch.
Congress is bicameral, that is, it is made up of two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. This system was created by the Founding Fathers after much debate. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from larger and more populated states wanted congressional representation to be based upon population. Fearing domination, delegates from smaller states wanted equal representation. The Great Compromise resulted in the creation of two houses, with representation based on population in one and with equal representation in the other.
Now members of Congress are elected by a direct vote of the people of the state they represent. It has not always been this way for the Senate. Prior to 1913 and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, Senators were chosen by their state legislatures. The Senate was viewed as representative of state governments, not of the people. It was the responsibility of Senators to ensure that their state was treated equally in legislation.
The Legislative Branch:
- Checks on the Executive
- Impeachment power (House)
- Trial of impeachments (Senate)
- Selection of the President (House) and Vice President (Senate) in the case of no majority of electoral votes
- May override Presidential vetoes
- Senate approves departmental appointments
- Senate approves treaties and ambassadors
- Approval of replacement Vice President
- Power to declare war
- Power to enact taxes and allocate funds
- President must, from time-to-time, deliver a State of the Union address
- Checks on the Judiciary
- Senate approves federal judges
- Impeachment power (House)
- Trial of impeachments (Senate)
- Power to initiate constitutional amendments
- Power to set courts inferior to the Supreme Court
- Power to set jurisdiction of courts
- Power to alter the size of the Supreme Court
- Checks on the Legislature - because it is bicameral, the Legislative branch has a degree of self-checking.
- Bills must be passed by both houses of Congress
- House must originate revenue bills
- Neither house may adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other house
- All journals are to be published
The judicial branch of government is established in Article III of the Constitution with the creation of the Supreme Court. This court is the highest court in the country and is empowered with the judicial powers of the government. There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Rather, Congress deemed them necessary and established them using power granted from the Constitution. Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they break the rules of the Constitution. A court's authority to decide constitutionality is called judicial review.
The Judicial Branch:
- Checks on the Legislature
- Judicial review
- Seats are held on good behavior
- Compensation cannot be diminished
- Checks on the Executive
- Judicial review
- Chief Justice sits as President of the Senate during presidential impeachment
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the executive branch of government, they gave the president a limited term of office to lead the government. This was very different from any form of government in Europe and caused much debate. The delegates were afraid of what too much power in the hands of one person might lead to. In the end, with a system of checks and balances included in the Constitution, a single president to manage the executive branch of government was adopted.
The executive branch of Government enforces the laws of the land. When George Washington was president, people recognized that one person could not carry out the duties of the President without advice and assistance. The President receives this help from the Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), heads of independent agencies, and executive agencies. Unlike the powers of the President, their responsibilities are not defined in the Constitution but each has special powers and functions.
The Executive Branch:
- Checks on the Legislature
- Veto power
- Vice President is President of the Senate
- Commander in chief of the military
- Recess appointments
- Emergency calling into session of one or both houses of Congress
- May force adjournment when both houses cannot agree on adjournment
- Compensation cannot be diminished
- Checks on the Judiciary
- Power to appoint judges
- Pardon power
- Checks on the Executive
- Vice President and Cabinet can vote that the President is unable to discharge his duties
Many laws enacted by Congress require agencies to issue regulations. Executive branch agencies are granted the power to implement regulations relating to matters within their jurisdiction. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) makes regulations regarding medical issues. Regulations are published daily in the Federal Register and are then codified in the Code of Federal Regulations once a year.
- President: Leader of the country and Commander in Chief of the military.
- Vice President: President of the Senate and becomes President if the President is unable to serve.
- Departments: Department heads advise the President on policy issues and help execute those policies.
- Executive Agencies: Makes regulations to help implement laws.
- Independent Agencies: Help carry out policy or provide special services.
Checks and Balances
Checks and Balances is a system of limits imposed by the Constitution of the United States on all branches of a government by vesting in each branch the right to amend or void those acts of another that fall within its jurisdiction. The "Separation of Powers" is the distribution of power and authority among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government.