Our American Government

What Is It? How Does It Function?

300 Questions and Answers

A comprehensive story of the history and functions of our American government interestingly and accurately portrayed

Questions and answers relative to our American government

(1955 Edition)


  1. What is the purpose of the American Government?

    The purpose is expressed in the preamble to the Constitution, which states : “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.”

  2. What are the essentials of a republican form of government?

    A republic may be defined as a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during the pleasure of the people electing them, for a limited period, or during good behavior.

  3. What is a pure democracy?

    A form of government in which the management of public affairs remains in the hands of the people themselves, so that they make the laws, levy taxes, decide questions of war and peace, and determine all other matters of public business of such a nature as to require personal and continuous attention.

  4. What is a representative or indirect democracy?

    In a representative democracy, the people govern themselves, but they do so by entrusting the entire administration of the state to their representatives, whom they choose by ballot.

  5. What form of government do we have in the United States of America?

    The founders of our country decided that our form of government should be that of a republic or representative democracy. They recognized that a pure democracy is neither practical nor liable to endure.


  1. What is the “supreme law of the land”?

    The Constitution, laws of the United States made “in pursuance of” the Constitution, and treaties made under authority of the United States. Judges throughout the country are bound by them, regardless of anything in separate State constitutions or laws.

  2. Was a new Constitution the expressed object of the Convention of 1787?

    The Philadelphia convention of May–September 1787 was the result of a suggestion by the delegates to a trade convention held at Annapolis in 1786. The idea was that representatives of all the States should meet to consider the defects in the existing system of government and to formulate “a plan for supplying such defects as may be discovered.” This suggestion did not meet full approval of George Washington and others until it was approved and made official by the Continental Congress. The Congress in giving its approval did so with the express restriction that the convention should be “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provision therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”

  3. How may the Constitution be amended?

    Amendments may be proposed on the initiative of Congress (by two-thirds vote in each House) or by convention (on application of two-thirds of the State legislatures). So far, there has never been a convention called under this authority. Ratification may, at the discretion of Congress, be either by the legislatures or by conventions, in three-fourths of the States. To date, the 21st amendment, repealing the prohibition amendment, is the only one to have been ratified by State conventions.

    The first 10 amendments were practically a part of the original instrument (being ratified in 1791), the 11th amendment was ratified in 1795, and the 12th amendment in 1804. Thereafter, no amendment was added to the Constitution for 60 years. After the War Between the States three amendments were ratified (1865–70), followed by another long interval before the 16th amendment became effective in 1913. The last amendment to be ratified was the 22d in 1951. This amendment limits the President to two terms.

  4. What is the meaning of “separation of powers”?

    The Constitution contains in separate articles provisions for three great departments of government—legislative, executive, and judicial. There is a significant difference in the grants of power to these departments : The first article, treating of legislative power, vests in Congress “all legislative Powers herein granted” ; the second article vests “the executive Power” in the President ; and the third article states that “the judicial Power of the United States” shall be vested in the Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress may establish. The doctrine of separation of powers is that no one of those three branches is to encroach upon another, except insofar as authorized by the Constitution. Essential functions of the legislature are not to be usurped by the Executive nor by the judiciary. In this way a dangerous concentration of power is avoided, and respective powers are assigned to the departments best fitted to exercise them.

  5. What is the Bill of Rights?

    The first 10 amendments to the Constitution, adopted in 1791, are commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights. As a matter of fact, the first 8 really set out the substantive and procedural personal rights associated with that description, while 9 and 10 are general rules of interpretation of the relation between the State and Federal Governments—all powers not delegated by the Constitution to the United States, nor prohibited to the States, being reserved to the States or the people.

  6. What are the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights?

    It should be noted that the Bill of Rights is in form primarily a bill of “don’ts” for Congress—in other words, it is not a theoretical enumeration, but a series of prohibitions of the enactment by congress of laws infringing certain rights. Aside from the three perhaps most commonly discussed—freedom of religion, speech, and press—the rights include :

    • Right to assemble, and to petition Congress (amendment 1).
    • Right to bear arms (amendment 2).
    • Right not to have soldiers quartered in one’s home in peacetime except as prescribed by law (amendment 3).
    • Right to be secure against “unreasonable searches and seizures” (amendment 4).
    • Right in general not to be held to answer criminal charges except upon indictment (amendment 5).
    • Right not to be put twice in jeopardy for the same offense (amendment 5).
    • Right not to be compelled to be a witness against oneself (amendment 5).
    • Right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law (amendment 5).
    • Right to just compensation for private property, taken for public use (amendment 5).
    • Right, in criminal prosecution, to trial by a jury—to be notified of the charges, to be confronted with witnesses, to have compulsory process for calling witnesses, and to have legal counsel (amendment 6).
    • Right to a jury trial in suits at law involving over $20 (amendment 7).
    • Right not to have excessive bail required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted (amendment 8).
  7. What distinction, if any, is there between citizenship of the United States and of a State?

    Neither the Constitution nor act of Congress had defined citizenship or distinguished between United States and State citizenship before the 14th amendment. By the terms of that amendment, a person acquires United States citizenship by birth or naturalization in the United States (and subject to its jurisdiction), but to acquire State citizenship such a person must further be a resident of the State concerned.

  8. How long may a proposed amendment remain outstanding and open to ratification?

    The Supreme Court has stated that ratification must be within “some reasonable time after the proposal.” Beginning with the 18th amendment it has been customary for Congress to set a definite period for ratification. In the case of the 18th, 20th, 21st, and 22d amendments the period set was 7 years ; but there has been no determination as to just how long a “reasonable time” might extend.

    On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the 3 States of Connecticut, Georgia, and Massachusetts, which had never taken action on them, ratified the first 10 amendments which had been a part of the Constitution for a century and a half.

  9. What is the “lame duck” amendment?

    The 20th amendment, adopted upon ratification by the 36th State on January 23, 1933, and certified in effect on February 8, 1933.

    Prior to this amendment the annual session of Congress began on the first Monday in December (Constitution, art. I, sec. 4). As the terms of Members commenced on March 4, this meant that Members elected in November of the even-numbered years did not take office for 4 months, and normally did not take part in a session of Congress for 9 months more ; that is, the session which began in December immediately following election included Members who had been defeated at the polls or had not stood for reelection ; for this reason it was known as the lame duck session, and the 20th amendment which shifted the dates involved is called the lame duck amendment. It has not entirely obviated the inconsistency of legislation by a Congress which does not represent the latest choice of the people, as witness the last part of the session of the 81st Congress.

  10. Why was a constitutional amendment necessary to change the date of the beginning of the terms of President, Vice President, and Members of Congress?

    The Constitution fixes the terms of President and Vice President at 4 years, of Senators at 6 years, and of Representatives at 2 years. Any change of date would affect the terms of the incumbents. It was, therefore, necessary to amend the Constitution to make the change. This shortened the terms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President John N. Garner, and all Senators and Representatives.


  1. Were political parties contemplated by the Constitution?

    The framers of the Constitution did not anticipate having political parties control the election of the President, and established the device of an electoral college. The States were to choose the members of this college, by whatever method the local legislature should determine—and the college then was to elect the President. There is no hint in the Constitution of any preelection machinery ; the thought was that the electors would be chosen on their merits and would in turn elect a President on his merits. The person having the second highest number of votes was to be Vice President, without regard to his possible relations with the first-choice President.

  2. What incident led directly to the formation of political parties?

    The independent action of two electors in 1796 (when one from Virginia and one from North Carolina voted for Adams instead of Jefferson, who was the choice of the two States at large) brought two lists of party candidates for electors in the next election. Thus, that provision of the Constitution, which was intended to prevent political parties, actually caused the formation of political parties. Instead of the electors choosing our Presidents, the electors have been little more than puppets to register the vote of the people of their State.

  3. What were the first two major political parties?

    The Federalists and the Republicans. The Federalists, under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, were identified with policies calling for nationalistic legislation and a liberal construction of the Constitution ; the opposition party, under Thomas Jefferson, was known indiscriminately as Republicans or Democrats, and stood for a strict construction of the Constitution and States’ rights.

    The Federalist Party practically disappeared after the War of 1812 ; and was succeeded by the National Republicans and Whigs. The Whig Party in turn disintegrated after 1852 and the (present) Republican Party took form in 1854, its first Presidential candidate being John C. Fremont in 1856. The name “Republican” was formally adopted by a State convention at Jackson, Mich., on July 6, 1854, although local groups in Ripon, Wis., and Exeter, N. H., claim to have been the first to adopt the name.

    The original Jeffersonian Republican Party gradually came to represent not so much a single cohesive party as a collection of factions. Under Andrew Jackson these groups amalgamated under the name of Democratic Republicans, which was soon shortened to Democratic (the present party designation).

  4. What President called the first national political convention?

    Jackson, in 1832. The meeting was organized in Baltimore to nominate candidates for President and Vice President on the Democratic ticket.

  5. Why did Jackson originate the national convention?

    The congressional caucus as a means of nominating presidential candidates had become unpopular, particularly in Jackson’s day. He knew he could not control Members of Congress. He therefore organized a convention in which delegates chosen directly by the citizenry could participate. Jackson contended that the people should choose delegates to nominate presidential candidates, who would thus be the nominees of the public instead of the choice of congressmen. Ever since 1832, all Presidents have been nominated in this method.

  6. What is politics?

    Webster’s definition says politics “is the science and art of government ; the science dealing with organization, regulation, and administration of state ; the theory or practice of managing or directing the affairs of public policy or of political parties.” It is through politics that the people rule. The unthoughtful person who says that he is not interested in politics or politicians is saying he is not interested in his own Government or his own business or occupation or profession. It is only through politics that the people control their Government and remain the sovereign power of our country.

  7. What is a politician?

    Webster’s definition of a politician is : “One versed or experienced in the science of government.” The same definition applies to statesman. It is through politicians that the people express their will. Woodrow Wilson said : “A democracy is a government established upon the will of the people.” Therefore without politicians there could not be a democracy because it is only through politics that the people have a vehicle to express their wishes and demands so that they can be carried out.

  8. What is the importance of politics in a representative democracy?

    It is through political organizations that individuals initiate and collectively express opinions on governmental problems or policies and thereby focus public scrutiny on established or proposed governmental activities. Without politics and politicians, a representative democracy could not function. The public has a fertile, honest, intelligent mind. The collective mind acting through the medium of politics has provided our country, the United States, with the greatest Government on the face of the earth. The totalitarian leaders, prior to World War II, said we would not fight—that there would be so much disunity and dissension among people under a government such as our own where every person could so freely express himself, that we could not carry on a successful, coordinated warfare against our enemies. Events of the past are convincing of how wrong they were.

  9. What is the electoral college?

    The “college” comprises the whole number of Presidential electors—equal, in each State, to the number of Senators and Representatives to which the State is entitled. They are the persons actually voted for on election day, who in turn meet at their State capitals and vote for President. No Member of Congress may be “appointed” (that is, elected) to the electoral college. In a few States, electors are bound by State law to vote for the party choice for President ; but in most States their vote for the party choice is simply a matter of course.

  10. How did the electoral college originate?

    The framers of the Constitution thought that a convention of qualified electors would be the best way to choose a President. The electors were not pledged to any particular candidate but were chosen as men who could make a calm and wise decision on who should be President.

  11. How and where do the presidential electors vote?

    The electors whose party wins in a State’s balloting for President meet at a place designated by the State legislature, usually the State capitol. They meet on the Monday following the second Wednesday in December in a presidential election year and vote as a unit for their candidate. Six copies of these votes are made. One is for the President of the United States Senate ; two for the secretary of state ; two for the Secretary of State of the United States ; and one for the district judge. The electors’ action is a mere formality and occurs long after the Nation knows the outcome of the presidential election.

  12. How are Senators and Representatives elected?

    By popular vote on the day fixed by Congress—first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in the even-numbered years (except in Maine where Congressmen are elected in September instead of November). The qualifications of voters at this general election are the same as for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures—the Constitution merely adopting State provisions on the subject.

  13. Why are Congressmen elected in the State of Maine in September instead of November?

    The Constitution provides that unless Congress directs otherwise, the time of holding elections for Senators and Representatives “shall be prescribed in each State by the legislature thereof.” During the early days of the Federal Government no law on the subject was passed. In 1845 Congress fixed the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November as the day for choosing Presidential electors and that day is still national or general election day. The same day was designated for the election of Representatives, but an exception was made in the case of those States in whose constitutions a different day was specified. Accordingly, for many years, three States—Arkansas, Oregon, and Maine—elected their congressional Representatives earlier than November. Arkansas and Oregon later changed their constitutions to confrom with the act of 1845. Maine is the only State in the Union which continues to hold these elections on a different day. Election day in Maine was placed in September during the early days of the Republic when traveling facilities were poor and when bad roads and cold weather frequently would ahve prevented the rural inhabitants from going to the polls late in the fall. All the States, including Maine, elect Presidential electors on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

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