JOHN ADAMS, Thoughts on Government, 1776

American self-government is founded on a set of basic principles. Some grow out of the organic characteristics of the nation, and others have evolved from the practical application of the fundamental theses expressed in the preamble to the Constitution.

The judicial system is premised on a belief in the equality of all individuals, in the inviolability of human rights and in the supremacy of the law. No individual or group, regardless of wealth, power or position, may defy these principles. No person, for any reason, may be denied the protection of the law.

The incorporation of these and other fundamentals into an efficient and practicable pattern of self-government required the formulation of certain working principles. The nation's physical size and its large population made literal self-government an impossibility. In its place, the Founding Fathers elaborated the principle of representative government.

At regular intervals, the voters choose public officials to represent them in government. The voters delegate their authority to these officials, and to administrators appointed by them.

Public officials exercise the power given them by the people only so long as the people are satisfied with their conduct and management of public affairs. The people have a number of ways of expressing their will and of reminding officials that they are really public servants as well as leaders of the nation.

The essential control mechanism is the periodic election of the principal officers of the legislative and executive branches. Candidates for public office submit their platforms, or programs, to the voters for their scrutiny and approval. Elected officials can never forget they must face a day of reckoning at regular intervals.

The dialogue between the voters and their elected representatives is a continuing one. It includes the daily flow of mail, telegrams, telephone calls and face-to-face contact to which every elected official must respond. American voters are vocal about their views on public issues and do not hesitate to bring their opinions to the attention of their representatives. One study found that the average member of the U.S. House of Representatives received 521 pieces of mail per week, most of it from constituents. Some U.S. senators have reported receiving up to 10,000 separate communications in a one-week period.

It is also common for voters to visit their congressmen individually or in delegations to press for action on specific issues. When the legislature is not in session, it is a rare representative who does not return to his home district to sound out voters on upcoming legislative issues.

In these ways the voters maintain their control of the governmental process. In addition, the government is structured to prevent abuse of power by any single branch or public official. As has been noted previously, the three branches of the federal government -- legislative, executive and judicial -- are semiautonomous. Yet each has certain authority over the others. The pattern of checks and balances, implicit in the division of authority, guards against undue concentration of power in any one sector of the government at any level.

There is a price to be paid for maintaining these safeguards. A democratic government inevitably moves more slowly -- and sometimes less efficiently -- than a government where power is concentrated in the hands of one individual or a small group. But the American experience throughout history has been that hasty government action is often ill-considered and harmful. If the price of full public debate on all major issues is a relative loss of efficiency, it is a fair price and one the American people willingly pay. Moreover, in times of national emergency the government has proved it can move swiftly and effectively to defend the national interest.


The privileges and freedoms inherent in self-government are balanced by the duties and responsibilities citizenship. Citizens must help finance government according to their ability and must obey the laws and regulations which they, through the exercise of their franchise, have helped frame.

Foremost among the responsibilities of citizenship is the wise use of the power of the ballot. An informed electorate is the surest guarantee of the survival of democracy. Whether the issue is paving a street in the town in which they live or approving a major change in U.S. foreign policy, American voters have the duty to cast their votes on the basis of all the information available.

A second major responsibility is public service. Millions of American men and women have entered the armed forces to defend their country in times of national emergency. Millions more have served in peacetime to maintain the country's military strength. Americans, young and old alike, have joined the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations for social service at home and abroad. Nor is volunteer service confined to government-sponsored activities. From parent-teacher associations and Little League baseball groups at the local level, to consumer lobbies and foreign policy associations at the national and international levels, Americans contribute freely of their time and talents in support of causes in which they believe.

A relatively small number of persons choose politics as a lifetime career. But there are literally millions of citizens who have entered government service at all levels. Some are professionals in the field of public administration, with years of study at the university and post-graduate level behind them. Others have made their mark first in private enterprise and later in government service.

The judicial system relies on the service of citizens as members of juries in federal, state and local courts. Every American of legal age is subject to jury duty, unless he or she can show that such service would constitute a revere personal hardship. Grand juries have enormous powers to investigate wrong-doing by public officials as well as private citizens. Trial juries sit in judgment of their fellow citizens charged with violations of the law.


To exercise the right to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries, a person must be an American citizen. Under the Constitution, all persons born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction are citizens of the United States and of the district in which they reside. Under certain conditions, children born to American citizens while they are traveling or living outside the country are also citizens. Persons born in Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- all of which are part of the United States but are not states -- are American citizens as well.

A person born in a foreign country may become an American citizen through the process of naturalization. Aliens who live in the United States are not compelled to become citizens, nor are they penalized for not doing so. A great many noncitizens live in the United States and enjoy the same freedom of thought, speech and action accorded to natural-born Americans. They may not, of course, vote, and in some states citizenship is a requirement for applicants who wish to obtain licenses to practice law or medicine.

To be eligible for naturalization, a person must be at least 18 years of age. He or she must have entered the United States legally and must have been a resident of the country for at least five years, including at least six months in the state in which he or she applies for citizenship.

A candidate for citizenship makes application to the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Department of Justice. The agency notifies the applicant where and when to appear for examination. An officer of the agency aids the applicant in filing a petition for naturalization with a court. It is required that two American citizens, known to be truthful, must support the petition and swear that the applicant has fulfilled the residence requirements, is of good moral character, and will support the principles of the Constitution of the United States. Both the applicant and the witnesses are questioned by an examiner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to make sure the applicant is qualified.

The final step is taking the oath of allegiance to the United States. At least 30 days must pass between the filing of the petition and taking the oath. After the oath, a judge signs an order granting naturalized citizenship. A certificate of naturalization is issued and the new citizen is then eligible to vote and take an active part in the government.


Political parties are the basis of the American political system. Curiously, the Constitution makes no provisions for political parties nor for their role as the vehicle by which candidates for public office are proposed to the voters.

At the national level, the United States employs a two-party system that has remained remarkably durable throughout the nation's history, even though rival national parties have appeared and disappeared from the political scene. The Federalists, for example, who rallied around President George Washington, disappeared slowly after 1800; and the Whig Party, which arose in the 1830s in opposition to President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, collapsed two decades later. Today, the Democratic Party, which traces its origins back to the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson, and the Republican Party, founded in 1854, continue to dominate politics at the federal, state and local levels.

One explanation for the longevity of the Republican and Democratic parties is that they are not tight ideological organizations, but loose alliances of state and local parties that unite every four years for the presidential election. Both parties compete for the same broad center of the American electorate, and although Republicans are generally more conservative than Democrats, both parties contain relatively liberal and conservative wings that continually vie for influence.

Nevertheless, other parties are also active, and particularly at the state and local levels, they may succeed in electing candidates to office and in exercising considerable influence. During the early 20th century, for example, members of the Socialist Party were elected to the House of Representatives and as the mayors of over 50 towns and cities. The Progressive Party held the governorship of Wisconsin for a number of years and in 1974 an independent candidate became governor of Maine.


The Republican and Democratic parties contest public office at every level of political life including town councils, mayoralties, state governorships, Congress and the presidency. The selection of these officials is a two-part process, first, to win the party nomination, and second, to defeat the opposing party's candidate in the general election.

Methods of nominating candidates have evolved throughout U.S. history. The earliest, which dates from colonial times, is the caucus, an informal meeting of party leaders who decide which candidates they will support. As the nation developed and political organization became more complex, various local caucuses began to delegate representatives to meet with representatives from other local caucuses to form county and then state groups, which finally selected candidates. These enlarged bodies, known as conventions, were the prototypes of the great presidential nominating conventions of today. The third nominating method is the primary election. Primaries are statewide intraparty elections; which are designed to give voters the opportunity to select their party's candidates directly for various offices.

The electoral process culminates in the quadrennial election of the president of the United States. Party candidates are selected in nominating conventions held several months before the general election. Delegates to these conventions, chosen within each state, are generally pledged to vote for a particular candidate, at least on the first ballot.

General elections pit the candidates of the political parties against each other. In most cases, the party candidates for all offices -- federal, state and local -- run as a block or slate, although voters cast their ballots for each office individually. In addition, each party draws up a statement of its position on various issues, called a platform. Voters thus make their decisions on the basis of the individuals running for office, and the political, economic and social philosophies of the parties they represent.

It is possible for a candidate to run for office in a general election without the backing of a political party. To run as an independent, a person must present a petition, signed by a specified number of voters who support his or her candidacy. Still another device is the write-in vote: A candidate's name that does not appear on the ballot can be written in by voters in a space provided for that purpose.

Persons elected to office exercise the power to make and execute laws as representatives of the people. In certain circumstances, the people can exercise this power directly. The example of the New England town meeting is one such instance. In addition, in some states, a substantial number of voters may petition for the adoption of a law, bypassing the normal legislative process. The proposal, called an initiative, is submitted for approval of the voters at a general or special election. If approved, it becomes law without legislative action. In other cases, the people may be asked to express their opinions by voting on specific issues in a referendum. The referendum may be only an expression of the popular will to guide the legislature, or it may be made binding on the legislators. In the latter case, an act of the legislature may be overturned by the voters.


Voters cannot make sound decisions on the issues before them without a free flow of information and opinion. Freedom of information is a fundamental aspect of American democracy and is vital to its proper working.

The American voter has a virtually limitless supply of information. Sources include newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books, pamphlets and mailed communications. The press of the United States provides daily coverage of all important local, state, national and international developments. Speeches and statements of government officials are published and broadcast, Senate and House debates are widely disseminated and the press conferences of major officials are covered in detail.

The mass media are committed -- at least as an ideal -- to impartial, unbiased reporting of the facts. To enable voters to make intelligent decisions, however, the media also analyze the meaning of developments and, in clearly identified columns or broadcasts, express editorial opinions supporting or opposing the decisions of public officials. The broad freedom of the American press has, at times, been criticized as weakening the power of the government to act for the public good. But Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, had a ready reply to such criticism. In 1787 he declared:

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Several of the largest American weekly magazines, such as Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, are devoted exclusively to reporting and interpreting the news, and a number of radio stations similarly broadcast only news. Other publications and electronic media devote a substantial portion of their output to the news. Both the print and electronic media offer debates in public issues and interviews with persons who support or oppose specific actions. There are also special-interest publications devoted solely to the presentation of one or another side of various questions. During elections, the political parties make ample use of all the media to present their positions to the American people.


Given the resources available to the electorate for informing themselves on all sides of every question, it has become an axiom that, in a democracy, the people get the kind of government they deserve. If the people are not well served by their government, it is their own fault. If government functions well, the people deserve the credit.

The true measure of a government lies in how well it has served its people in all kinds of circumstances, both favorable and adverse, in times of peace and stability and in times of national crisis. By this standard, the U.S. system of self-government has been reasonably successful. It has guided and nurtured the nation from weak and chaotic beginnings, through phenomenal expansion in territory and population, through drought, war and scandal. It weathered a bitter civil war that threatened to destroy the unity of the nation. It has on many occasions defended the principles of freedom and self-determination from attack by hostile forces from within and without.

Few Americans, however, would defend their country's record as perfect. American democracy is in a constant state of evolution. As Americans review their history, they recognize errors of performance and failures to act, which have delayed the nation's progress. They know that more mistakes will be made in the future.

Yet the U.S. government still represents the people, and is dedicated to the preservation of liberty. The right to criticize the government guarantees the right to change it when it strays from the essential principles of the Constitution. So long as the preamble to the Constitution is heeded, the republic will stand. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

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