- Influential Documents of American History and Democracy
- Government & Politics
The United States is a federal union of 50 states, with the District of Columbia as the seat of the federal government. The Constitution outlines the structure of the national government and specifies its powers and activities, and defines the relationship between the national government and individual state governments. Power is shared between the national and state (local) governments. Within each state are counties, townships, cities and villages, each of which has its own elective 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. 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 a 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 American Constitution is the oldest written constitution in force in the world. The authors of the Constitution built in a provision for amending the document when political, social or economic conditions demanded it.
The Executive Branch
The chief executive of the United States is the president, who together with the vice-president is elected to a four year term. As a result of a 1951 constitutional amendment, a president may be elected to only two terms.
The Legislative Branch
The legislative branch (the Congress) is made up of elected representatives from each of the 50 states. The Constitution sets up a bi-cameral body known as the U.S. Congress to raise and to spend national revenue and to draft laws.
The Judicial Branch
The judicial branch is headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the only court specifically created by the Constitution. In addition, Congress has established 13 federal courts of appeals and 95 federal district courts.
The state governments follow the same pattern as the federal government, with power divided among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The U.S. Bureau of the Census (part of the Commerce Department) has identified for the year 2002 no less than 87,900 local governmental units in the United States, including municipalities, counties, townships, school districts and special districts.
Today, there are two major political parties in the United States, the Democratic and the Republican.
The United States Constitution stipulates that a presidential election is to be held once every fourth year. The process of electing a president and vice-president, however, begins long before election day.
The Nation’s Capital
New York City was the first capital of the United States once the Constitution was ratified. George Washington took the oath of office to become the first President of the United States from the balcony of the old City Hall.
“Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.”
The National Anthem
During the night of September 13, 1814, the British fleet bombarded Fort McHenry in the harbor at Baltimore, Maryland.
The Great Seal
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution authorizing a committee to devise a seal for the United States of America. This mission, designed to reflect the the Founding Fathers’ beliefs, values, and sovereignty of the new Nation, became a reality on June 20, 1782.
The Pledge of Allegiance
The Pledge of Allegiance received official recognition by Congress in an Act approved on June 22, 1942.
The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty National Monument officially celebrated her 100th birthday on October 28, 1986.