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Constitution 101
Scripps Howard News Service


September 16, 2005

Question: Name the oldest, federal, democratic republic in the world?

Answer: The United States of America, which turns 218 this year if you count from the adoption of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, or 221 if you count from the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation.

Question: What makes it different from other governments?

Answer: While all power is vested in the people, it is exercised through a delicate system of checks and balances that seeks to ensure that no individual, party or agency of government exercises total control. In addition, certain rights are guaranteed to the people, not the government, which ensure the supremacy of the electorate.

Question: How is the federal government organized?

Answer: It is divided into three branches, executive, legislative and judicial, none of which has total control.

The executive branch, headed by the president, conducts the business of the republic, but cannot appropriate funds nor make laws, powers delegated to the legislative branch.

The legislative branch makes rules for its own operations, but its laws are subject to testing within the judicial branch topped by the Supreme Court.

Question: How do the states and the federal government relate?

Answer: The Constitution specifically divides duties and powers between the state and federal governments, with the provision that any power not specifically assigned to the federal or state government is reserved to the people. No other form of government bases its power in the people alone.

Question: How are members of the executive and legislative branches selected?

Answer: At regularly established elections. The president and vice president are elected every four years, while senators are elected every six years and members of the House of Representatives every two years. The mixture of terms is intended to ensure that the elected officials are responsive to the people and that there is a continuity that should mitigate against extreme or radical changes in the mood of the people.

Question: Why are Supreme Court justices not elected?

Answer: Supreme Court justices are appointed for life by the president upon the advise and consent of the Senate in order to ensure that they will not be subject to the fluctuating passions of the times, and will be able to make rulings based upon the law.

Question: Has this constitutional, federal republic worked?

Answer: Yes, although the nation had to resort to force of arms during the Civil War to establish the right of the federal government to ensure the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" of all people in the nation.

Question: Are there any other nations like the United States of America?

Answer: No, although many countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and Germany have a parliamentary form similar to ours, but without the strong position of the people. There were no true federal republics before the United States was formed.

Question: Why is that?

Answer: Because the group of free-thinking, practical philosophers, who met in Philadelphia to draw up our government, were unlike any other before or since. They were willing to compromise to achieve the greatest good possible, a trait that seems to be diminishing in our time.

Question: Why were they able to achieve our form of government?

Answer: Because they were agreed that the majority should rule with the consent of the minority, and that the individual citizen should be free to think and do as he or she liked, so long as no other citizen's rights and privileges were abridged.


Joe Crankshaw is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers.

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