A careful analysis of American government reveals the operation of ideas that have been developed over time in the discipline of political science. Concepts like legitimacy, rule by law, and democracy, undoubtedly influenced the structure of American government. Ideologies during the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th in Europe also helped shape the early form of American government.
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Lastly, a number of experiences during and after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 firmly set the pace for political discourse as well as direction for American government. Proceeding paragraphs examine these influences, with the aim of outlining the foundations of American government.
A fundamental and immediate influence, the European Enlightenment of the 17th-18th century coincided with the rise of the Union. John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, further refined the idea of government legitimacy and the natural rights of human beings.1 Rousseau, as opposed to Thomas Hobbes, devised a more humanistic framework of legitimacy that deeply influenced American democracy.2
Just as important as the Enlightenment philosophers, important English documents like the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Declaration of Right of 1628, provided templates for drafting the American Constitution. Their importance lies in the contribution they made to giving commoners a ‘voice’ in government and checking state power.3 Indeed, the influences of the Enlightenment philosophers served to establish a uniquely American democratic heritage.
Democracy is a form of government that gives power to the people. Indeed, its etymological roots reveal its nature.4 Democracy, designed in the Constitution in 1787 as essentially representative, ensured that American governments drew their legitimacy from the will of the people rather that the more obscure ‘will of God’.5
Fundamentally, the Declaration of Independence, drafted by representatives from thirteen initial states, showed the illegitimacy of King George III’s rule and simultaneously set out democratic values that would guide nation-building, that is, liberty, equality and justice.6 Clearly, the desire for democracy was an important aspect in rejecting oppressive British rule and guiding discourse.
Though the democratic theme recurrent in early American politics is central to the foundation of American government, the deliberations leading to the crafting of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights also influenced American political attitudes and policy making.7 The debates between federalists and anti-federalists cultivated a political culture where everyone has a right to be heard and opinion mattered .8 The document that resulted put into place a tradition of democracy, devolution of power and importance of public opinion.
These influences helped shape an American government that seeks to heed public opinion, protect democracy and protect the American people from tyrannous rule. As has been seen in the importance attached to such instruments as the Gallup polls, American democracy is as alive today as it was during the Constitution Convention.
Federalism: The Epitome of Synergy
A look into the Great Depression, urbanisation and immigration as well as World War II offers the opportunity to see the synergy of federal and national government at work. Since the Constitutional amendments of the 1780’s, their relationship has been strengthened through their dual approach to tackling major issues in American history.
The Great Depression provided for the concerted efforts of both the national and state governments to act. For instance, the national government worked to stem unemployment through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Civil Works Administration through Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ of 1933.9
States also overhauled their tax systems during this time, creating general sales taxes and personal income taxes for example.10 The Great Depression is regarded as a ‘defining moment’ in US history precisely because it transformed the way national and federal government’s work.11
Urbanisation spiked significantly in the years 1870 to 1920, raising challenges that would be more appropriately handled by federal governments.12 Federal governments contributed to suburbanization through subsidization programs and infrastructural improvements.13 European immigration between 1880 and 1920 led the national government to designate Ellis Island as an immigration station, regulating the influx of people into the US.14
World War II brought with it exponential growth at the federal government level. This was primarily because of increased spending on war-related goods and services.15 The war, constitutionally led by the national government, led to the growth of spending and staffing by federal governments.
Larger budgets by federal governments during the 1940’s could only be attributed to the decision of the national government to go to war. Stagnating private investment would have to be compensated by increased federal spending.16 In this instance, it is therefore clear decision by the national government had repercussions at the federal level.
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The citations above point to an apparent fact: significant events and phenomena in US society have historically been tackled at both the national and federal levels. Federalism as envisioned in the Constitution does indeed have a synergistic quality about it and there is no doubt that the recently passed ‘Obama-care’ will be handled from both sides of American government.
“American Government: Democratic Values – Liberty, Equality, Justice.” US History. Web.
“American Government: Foundations of American Government,” US History. Web.
Christiano, Tom. “Democracy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.
Higgs, Robert. “Government and the Economy since World War II.” Independent Institute. Web.
Smiley, Gene. “Great Depression,” The Concise Encyclopaedia of Economics. Web.
Snell, Ronald. “State Finance in the Great Depression.” National Conference of State Legislatures. Web.
“People: Urbanization of America.” The USA Online. Web.
Rockoff, Hugh. “World War II and the Growth of the U.S. Federal Government.” Rutgers State University of New Jersey. Web.
“United States Immigration before 1965.” History. Web.
Waluchow, Wil. “Constitutionalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.