Topic 64 – American institutions. The constitution. Territorial organisation. The presedent. The congress. Political parties and the electoral system

Topic 64 – American institutions. The constitution. Territorial organisation. The presedent. The congress. Political parties and the electoral system

The constitution is the basic instrument of government and supreme law of the US.

The social and economic problems that had become evident after the revolution were an important element in the closer union of the states. In 1786 a meeting was called in Annapolis, Maryland, to resolve commercial difficulties. Only representatives from 5 states came. But the result was the drawing up of the Federal Constitution.

Its main characteristic is the concern for protecting individual rights against the pretensions of authority. James Madison was the principal author of the document. The constitution defined a central authority but maintained the existing structure of state and local authority as a check on the central authority.

Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, ,and James Madison were the man who made possible the establishment of the new government.

Characteristics of the seven original articles of the constitution:

Provide for a union of states, each with its own constitution, republican form of government, and reserved powers, within a federal system.

The national government is responsible for external affairs and has concurrent powers with states over domestic matters.

The chief of the states is the president of the US.

Division of powers:

Legislative: Congress

Executive: President

Judicial: Supreme Court

Each branch has some constitutional authority that it can use to impede the functioning of the other branches, which involves the existence of a system of checks and balances, in order to prevent the concentration of power in a small group of politicians. A compromise is continuously kept among the three branches.


The constitution may be amended (corrected, modified or expanded) by a two-thirds vote of each house of congress.

The first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights (1791):

Freedom of religion



Right to assemble

Keep and bear arms

Petition the government

Since the Bill of Rights, seventeen additional amendments were adopted until 1992:

Abolishing slavery

Giving women the right to vote

Establishing the age for voting at 18


The country is a union of 50 states:

Delaware, maryland, , new hampshire, new york, new jersey, connecticut, rhode island, massachussets, south carolina, pennsylvania, north carolina, virginia, georgia.

California texas arkansas nevada utah washington nebraska idaho iowa michigan maine minnesota mississippi kentucky alabama louisiana wisconsin colorado alaska hawaii misouri north dakota south dakota arizona florida montana new mexico oregon ohio oklahoma tennessee vermont west virginia wyoming.

The states are not allowed to:

Conduct foreign relations

Enter into treaties or alliances

Lay tariffs

Coin currency

Levy taxes on interstate commerce

Prevent the movement of persons across their borders

The states are supposed to:

Control voters´eligibility requirements

Administrate state and national elections

Promote and regulate commerce, industry, agriculture

Maintain highways, prisons, hospitals, etc

Support systems of higher education

Promote social services as wefare, medical care for indigents, employment services.

Counties: every state is divided into counties (3043)

Lousiana is divided into Parishes

Alaska is divided into Boroughs

Relatively populated areas are divided into municipalities.


He is the chief executive officer of the federal government

Administrative head of the executive department of the government

Commander in chief of the armed forces.

Head of his party


Exercise executive authority over the various government departments and agencies.

Appoint the justice of the US supreme court (subject to confirmation by the Senate)

Submit requests for legislation

Veto legislation enacted by Congress

Execute the laws of the US

Direct foreign policy

Formulate and direct the military strategy of the nation in war


The term of office is 4 years. The 22nd Amendment provides that no person will be elected president more than twice.

Once inaugurated the president may be removed from office only on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery, or high crimes.

In 1868 Andrew Johnson was impeached but not convicted.

In 1974 Richard Nixon was impeached, and he resigned from office.

In 1999 Bill Clinton was impeached but not convicted.


It consists of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate contains 100 senators, two representing each state. The 435 members of the House are elected by different states on the basis of their population at the most recent US census. California, 52, Delaware, Vermont, 1.

Powers of House

Power to tax

Borrow money and pay debts

Coin currency and regulate its value

Regulate commerce among states

Initiate revenue bills

Initiate impeachments

Powers of Senate

Confirmation of presidental appointments

Try all impeachments


Interpret the meaning of laws and admnistrative regulations (statutory construction)

Determine whether any law passed by Congress violates the US constitution. (judicial review)


Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, ,and James Madison were the man who made possible the establishment of the new government.

In 1778, they sign an alliance with France. In the 1790s, Hamilton wants an open war with France (France and England were supposed not to respect maritime American rights), breaking the alliance. Adams was opposed to the war. Both were of the Federalist Party, but as a result of the disagreement, Hamilton abandones it.

The signing of the Jay Treatment with Britain, divided the public. Two parties emerged: the Federalist (in favour of the treaty) and the Democratic Republicans Washington and Hamilton, they are opposed to the treaty, and to every involvement in European affairs. They try to erase the vestiges of the French Alliance.

When Jefferson becomes president in 1801 he maintains the same position, but when the British and French renew attacks on American shipping, he decrees an embargo on all foreign commerce. The majority was against, and Congress has to repeal the act.

James Madison (1809) renews the embargo and in 1809 America goes to war with Great Britain. At the end of the war, if there is a winner, that is the Republican Party, who claims to have won honourably against a powerful enemy. The Federalists can´t help being considered in the enemy´s part, and disintegrate.

Nowadays, there are two main parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. In the late 20th century the democrats were split into two major factions. The Northern democrats :

National action to solve social problems

Government regulation of economy

Strong action to aid minorities.

The southern democrats:

The contrary



Since the early decades of the 20th century, the influence of primary elections and mass media, has gradually weakened the ties of parties to both candidates and voters.

Primaries: Individual voters have the powers to select candidates.

The media: emphasizes on candidates as individuals more than as agents of parties.


Held at regular intervals (every 4 years) different England

Organization: state and local governments.

State, county, and municipal election boards administer elections. These boards establish and staff polling places and verify the eligibility of individuals who come to vote.

Officially, the president is not chosen by direct vote of the people. They are elected by members of the electoral college. The candidate who wins a majority of the popular votes in a state also earns all the votes of the state´s electoral college members. Each state has the same number of electoral college members as the total of its senators and representatives. However, candidates can win most of the electoral college votes even without winning most of the popular votes. It was the case of John Quincy Adams (1824) Rutheford B Hayes (1876) and Benjamin Harrison (1888). Current campaign strategy targets populous states with the most electors, California, Florida, Texas, NY, Illinois.

In US, elections have had their greatest impact during times of “critical realignment” (periods when the balance of power between the major parties shifts). 1860, when Abraham Lincoln, from the newly formed republican party, became president, and in 1932, when Franklin D Roosevelt led the democrats to victory during the great depression.