Government in a Nutshell: Overview of the Constitution
I’m pretty sure that everyone knows by now that I work as a committee clerk in a state legislature. Due to my job, I’m always getting questions online and off about government, government issues, and what this or that means in the real world. I know that not everyone was awake through or interested in their government classes in school, and frankly, even classes don’t always get it right. So, in the next few weeks, I am going to start a blog series on American government, what it is, what it means, and try to explain how it works.
At the core of American government is a document, penned and created in the 1790s, the Constitution. The Constitution is the basis of government and how America operates. Unlike some previous laws, it is not written in stone (literally or figuratively!). In addition to provisions on how the government will work, it provides a dynamic way of changing itself, called amendments. The constitution has been amended eighteen times, once for the first ten Amendments (called the Bill of Rights) and then seventeen more times, for a total of twenty-seven amendments! I’ll talk more about Amendments in a later blog.
American government is split into three parts: The Executive, the Judiciary, and the Legislative. (again, I’ll get into each of these in more detail in future blogs, I promise!) Each part is spelled out in the Constitution, its powers, and its responsibilities. None of the branches of government has total power. Each of the branches can check any of the others, creating what is hopefully a balanced government.
In addition to spelling out exactly how America will be governed, the constitution spells out the relationship between the states and the Federal government. This is where things can get a bit sticky. The Constitution creates a strong group of states, but also allows for states to have their own laws as long as they do not conflict with Federal statutes and the Constitution itself. This is why, for example, the requirements for a driver’s license vary from state to state. Each state decides what its own requirements are, and passes laws enforcing that. Interestingly, before the Civil War, America was plural. People said “The United States are.” The country was seen as a group of states connected with each other for their own benefit and protection. People would refer to themselves as being from Connecticut or Pennsylvania or Georgia or Tennessee instead of being from the United States. After the Civil War, it changed to “The United States is” as America started to have its own identity as a coherent country.
So, that, in a nutshell, is an overview of the Constitution and its parts. It is notable that the main Articles of the Constitution do not have anything to do with rights or what many of us think of when we think about the rights we have as Americans. That is the Bill of Rights, and that is for another week. Next week, come back for a conversation about the Legislative Branch, Article I of the Constitution!
Do you have any questions about the nuts and bolts of the Constitution? Do you have any questions about anything relating to government that you would like to see me tackle in a future blog? Please let me know in the comments! I’d love to answer your questions!