Government and Politics

Epluribus unum is perhaps the best-­known motto of the United States of America. Translated from Latin, it means “From many, one,” or “Out of many, one.” In working to achieve this goal, the nation's Founding Fathers and subsequent leaders faced a challenge of herculean dimensions. You have already learned that, from the very beginning, this land has been home to people of extremely diverse ethnicity, language, religion, social background, and political orientation. The colonial population was sharply divided into 13 political units, each of which was fiercely proud and semi-­independent, although under British political domination. In this chapter, you will learn how the United States became a strong and unified country guided by a constitution that would satisfy the great majority of its citizens.

Political decisions and government affect nearly every aspect of our lives and range in scope from local ordinances to national laws. It is human nature to complain about the government, and Americans often fail to realize the advantages they have. Few countries on Earth have a government that is more responsible, responsive, or enduring than that of the United States. For this, Americans are extremely fortunate.

Citizens are protected by laws, many of which strongly influence individual actions as well as those of society as a whole. Americans benefit from countless government services that range from police and fire protection to mail delivery, health care, and social security for the elderly. Public facilities are everywhere in the form of roads and highways, government buildings, monuments, and other structures. Land is divided by government survey systems, and both ownership and possible limitations on land use are established by laws that relate to property and zoning. Public lands—including national parks, monuments, forests, historical sites, and other areas—are set aside, protected, and maintained for public use and enjoyment. The United States has the world's strongest military, located on many bases. It has protected America's shores from foreign invasion and played a leading role in ending two major world wars. It also was instrumental in ending the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Governments impose restrictions on the use of land and other natural resources through laws regarding forestry, grazing, farming, mining, use of wetlands, hunting and fishing, and numerous other activities. Water and soil resources also are protected by both federal and local laws. Zoning restrictions limit the use of land in urban and most rural areas. Such restrictions are designed to protect the environment, as well as the well-­being of citizens.

Early immigrants to the United States came for a variety of reasons. Some were searching for riches and opportunity. Others had been persecuted because of their religion or because of oppressive authoritarian governments. Still others chose to come as indentured servants, and some were forced to come as slaves. With this diverse mixture of new Americans, there was great fear of a strong central government. Europe was infested with monarchies that were sometimes benevolent and sometimes not. Authority had long been vested in the king or queen in powerful countries such as England, France, SpainPortugal, and the Netherlands and in the tsar in Russia. The royal authority was believed by many to have been conferred by God. As a result, these monarchs often placed themselves above the laws that common people had to follow.


A government in which certain people are above the law is referred to as the “rule of man.” A more desirable situation exists when all citizens, even leaders, are subject to laws. This is referred to as the “rule of law.” Many of the immigrants who arrived in the New World before America became independent had fled from countries where the rule of man was exercised. This rule was often harsh and unfair and did not allow for upward social mobility, religious freedom, and many other basic rights. This meant that most early European Americans were very reluctant to create a strong central government for the newly independent United States.

Instead, early colonists experimented with a variety of governing structures. Some colonies tried to enforce established religions. Others wanted rights that had been granted in England under the Magna Carta. Still others wanted separation of powers so that no one part of the government became too strong. Colonists tried these and other ideas during the colonial era, and the lessons learned were used to create the U.S. government. A key idea that emerged from the colonial era was the notion of representative governments. This meant that people elected representatives to carry forward citizen issues and to protect the interests of the voters. This idea was a key element in the creation of the U.S. government and those of the various states.

At the time that America won independence, the early colonies were self-­governing and more like independent countries than the states they would later become. Small states also feared the power of big states. Primarily because of these factors and the continuing wariness about strong central governments, the 13 original colonies' first attempt at a national government was a system provided by the Articles of Confederation in 1776 in which there was a unified country with a weak national government. Each state retained sovereignty and powers, and the central government got what was left over. In practice, the leftovers were not enough for the young nation to move forward effectively and as a unified country. Major problems, including the national government's inability to tax or regulate trade and conflicts and affairs between states and the lack of power over citizens, quickly emerged. The latter became an issue because the state governments had retained the primary authority over citizens. By the mid-1780s, many key American leaders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had become very dissatisfied with the government under the Articles of Confederation and initiated efforts to move forward with a new government.

In 1786, Madison and others determined that a convention should be established and convened with the express purpose of developing a new constitution. The new constitution would have a stronger central government but would also preserve important rights for the states. The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Fifty-five representatives came from throughout the colonies and included important men such as George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. Of the 55 attendees at the Philadelphia convention, 39 later signed the Constitution. Some, like George Mason, did not sign the document. He believed that the Constitution should have a Bill of Rights and that senators should be elected rather than appointed by state legislatures as the original Constitution stated. Both of Mason's ideas would later be incorporated into the Constitution through amendments.


The constitution that was created during the hot summer of 1787 was developed by a diverse group of men that consisted of farmers, military men, politicians, businessmen, statesmen, and schemers. Their average age was only 42, and they came from throughout the colonies to design a better government for the newly independent country. Constitutions can be very important documents: They can serve as vital living contracts—the highest law in the country—between citizens and their governments. If ignored or trampled by leaders who are not held accountable, however, constitutions can become meaningless pieces of paper. Fortunately, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were serious-minded men who wanted a strong central government with separation of powers and checks and balances on the powers of important leaders and institutions.

To this end, the Constitution's framers developed three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Each not only had powers identified in the Constitution but also had its powers checked by the other branches. The executive branch is headed by the president, and this section of the government is charged with enforcing the law and administering government. The legislative branch, which is Congress, was established with two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. This branch is responsible for making laws for the country. The judicial branch serves as the system of justice, and the U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court. The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the laws of the United States.

As designed by the framers, there were many checks and balances established to keep the separation of powers strong and to keep any one branch from becoming too dominant. For example, many positions that require appointments by the president, such as cabinet posts or ambassadors, must be approved by Congress. Congress establishes the budget and laws but the president can veto these bills. Congress, however, can override vetoes with a two-thirds majority vote in both houses. Another example is Supreme Court justices: They are appointed by the president but must be confirmed by Congress. In a counter-check, laws or administrative policies that are determined by the U.S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutional will be thrown out. Thus, the judicial branch also has checks on the other two branches. Rogue judges or presidents can be impeached and removed by Congress. The checks and balances contained in the Constitution are many, and they have served their purpose well through time.

Various attempts have been made by one branch of government or another to usurp additional powers, but most have been successfully resisted. For example, in the mid-twentieth century, President Franklin Roosevelt wasn't getting the court decisions he wanted. He came forward with a court-packing scheme designed to increase the court from 9 to 15 justices. This effort failed, as did President Richard Nixon's attempt to hide information about the Watergate breakin during his term in office.

The Supreme Court unanimously voted to have him turn over the transcripts of tapes that were important in the investigation of the breakin and coverup. The repeated tests of the U.S. Constitution produced a republic that has lasted for more than two centuries, and few changes have been made in the original document. Clearly, the framers were brilliant visionaries. The only changes to the Constitution come in the form of amendments. These can be made by a lengthy and difficult process. To amend the U.S. Constitution first requires either a twothirds vote of both houses of Congress or of state legislatures (or state conventions) to propose an amendment. The proposed amendment then must be ratified (approved) by threefourths of the states through either the state legislatures or state conventions. With this challenging process, changes to the U.S. Constitution are infrequent when compared with those of most other countries.

From the implementation of the Constitution in 1789 until the publication of this book, only 27 amendments have been ratified. The first 10, called the Bill of Rights, were adopted immediately after the Constitution was implemented, when James Madison introduced them into the House of Representatives. The other 17 amendments have been the only changes to the Constitution in more than 200 years. This is less than one change every 13 years. The last was adopted in 1992.

The U.S. Constitution is today regarded as one of the most amazing and enduring documents in the world. Created more than two centuries ago, it has survived a variety of challenges, including westward expansion; the addition of new states; involvement in numerous wars, including the Civil War; and the end of slavery. It has also endured countless advances in technology, staggering population and economic growth, the expansion of civil rights, the space age, and terrorism. After elections, changes in political leadership are made smoothly, and the nation has survived the shock of presidential impeachments and even assassinations. Not only has the document survived, but its flexibility and the foresight it has provided have allowed the country to become the leading economic and military power in the world today.


Countries and organisms have much in common: They can grow, remain steady, or wither away. Europeans established a tenuous colonial toehold along the eastern seaboard four centuries ago, and, eventually, what was to become the United States grew to span the North American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the Pacific and beyond to Alaska and Hawaii. Like a giant picture puzzle, this vast country came together piece by piece.

In 1776, the United States of America was composed of the 13 former colonies. These lands were sandwiched between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains and extended from Maine to Georgia. By 1783, the country's territory had expanded to include nearly all of the area located east of the Mississippi River. Two decades later, in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase added nearly 828,000 square miles (2,100,000 square kilometers) of territory that roughly coincided with the interior onethird of the presentday country. For this land, France received about three cents per acre (seven cents per hectare) in what certainly ranks as one of the best real estate bargains of all time! The remainder of the West was gradually acquired from Spain or Mexico between 1819 and 1853. Two large pieces of the puzzle, the Pacific Northwest (Oregon Territory) and much of the Southwest, were both added in 1846. Finally, with the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, the territory occupied by the 48 adjoining states was all under the U.S. flag.

The final two pieces of the U.S. map puzzle to fall into place were Alaska and Hawaii. Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, or about two cents per acre (five cents per hectare)! Many Americans were very critical of the purchase, which came to be known as “Seward's Folly” (after U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who brokered the purchase). History, however, has smiled kindly on Seward's bold decision, because today Alaska contributes more revenue to the U.S. economy each day than it originally cost! Hawaii was annexed in 1898. Not until 1959 did Alaska and Hawaii became the fortyninth and fiftieth stars on the U.S. flag, respectively. In pursuit of its manifest destiny—the belief held by Americans that it was their “right” to expand from “sea to shining sea”—the United States faced many obstacles. Physical problems included huge distances, harsh weather (frigid cold in the winter and scorching heat in the summer), and rugged terrain that included soaring mountain barriers. Most of the land already was claimed by Spain, France, Mexico, or Russia, and, of course, it had been occupied for thousands of years by native peoples to whom it was home.


Think for a moment about your surrounding landscape, or the “look of the land.” How much of what you see is a part of the political cultural landscape? Actually, nearly everything you see has been affected in some way by political decisions. Public schools are paid for by taxes, the flags that wave above the buildings represent the state and nation, the street is public, and cars are licensed by state and county. Transportation (vehicle, rail, air, pipeline, and other) and communications that reach your community are government licensed and regulated. Your community no doubt has a number of public buildings, such as a city hall, a post office, and a number of other local, county, state, and federal office buildings (depending on the size and function of your community). Outside of the community, much of the land may be owned by the state or the federal government. Everywhere you look, the imprint of government is etched on the landscape.

The author has arbitrarily selected six acts of Congress that have had a profound effect on the nation's cultural landscape. There are, of course, many more.

Public Lands Acts (various dates)

The United States is a huge country, and much of it belongs to the public. In fact, about 765 million acres (310 million hectares)—nearly onethird of the total U.S. land area—is publicly owned! About 653 million acres (264 million hectares), or almost 29 percent of the country's total land area, is controlled by the federal government. The figure would be much higher if city-, county-, and stateowned lands were included in this tally.

In Alaska and Nevada, about 90 percent of the land is government owned. Federal lands fall within dozens of categories that range from parks and wilderness areas to Indian Trust lands, national forests and grasslands, and military bases, to name but a few. As elements of the cultural landscape, they have numerous “appearances.” If there is a common thread that unites most of them, however, it is the restriction of development and thereby protection of lands for public use and enjoyment.

Land Ordinance Survey (1785)

Perhaps more than any other political element, land survey systems impose a unique imprint on the land. In most of the eastern and southeastern United States, the landscape has a very irregular pattern. Surveying there was by a “metes-and-­bounds” system. There is little “order” to the land: Roads seem to wander aimlessly, fields are irregular in shape, and few features are oriented in the cardinal directions. By the time the Midwest and West were settled, however, this pattern had changed.

The Land Ordinance Survey of 1785 created the American rectangular survey system, which gave rise to a very orderly “checkerboard” system of land division. Nearly all cultural features are oriented in cardinal directions—that is, roads, community layouts, buildings, land holdings, fields, and nearly everything else is built “square” to north, south, east, or west. Where justified by population and land use, roads are spaced at onemile intervals, a feature that adds to a uniform (and some would say “boring”) landscape. In a few locations, Spanish land grants and the French long lot system also contributed to distinctive land division patterns.

Homestead Act (1862)

When traveling in the United States, many foreigners are amazed at the dispersed rural settlement that is so commonplace in the Midwest and much of the West. People live far from one another rather than in rural villages as is the case throughout most of the world. In 1862, the United States passed the Homestead Act, which was responsible for this uniquely American rural settlement pattern. The act granted homesteaders a title to 160 acres (about 65 hectares; a quarter section, or one-fourth of a square mile) of largely undeveloped land. There were few stipulations other than that the person had to be 21 years of age, build a small house on the land, and live on and develop the homestead for a period of five years. Those in a hurry could even buy the land on which they settled for $1.25 per acre ($2.50 per hectare) after only one year of successful homesteading. Lured by the “free” land, thousands of people moved westward, settled un(der)developed lands, engaged in farming, and lived scattered throughout the countryside.

Railroad Federal Land Grants (1862–1871)

As the nation began to move westward toward its vast and largely undeveloped frontier, it was widely recognized that rail linkages must be built if the region was to grow economically. Some settlers already were moving to the eastern margins of the western frontier, drawn by the lure of free land. In order to help defray the high cost of railroad building, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. This gave the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads a 400-foot right of way, plus 10 square miles (25.9 square kilometers) of land for every mile (1.61 kilometers) of track built. Subsequently, other railroads received similar incentives.

It is difficult to imagine what America would be like had it not been for the dense network of railroads that provided access to nearly every developed part of the country. Because of the lands granted to them, the railroads platted (mapped the plan for) and spurred development of thousands of communities along their routes. In fact, in the nation's heartland, up to 90 percent of all communities were established in this way. In much of the Midwest, it was determined that the railroad “carrying capacity” of the population and economy could support a small rural community located along the tracks at intervals of six to eight miles. This spacing is based on the fact that a farmer could drive his horse- or oxen-­ drawn wagon to town a distance of three to four miles each way and return home in time to do the evening chores. Every 40 to 70 miles, a larger community grew to serve the railroad and its various functions. This pattern can be seen on any detailed map that shows where railroads were located a century ago.

National Park Service (1916)

America is home to countless natural, historical, and cultural treasures. Long ago, many of the country's leaders realized that they should be protected from random development and be preserved for all people to enjoy. Yellowstone became the nation's (and the world's) first national park in 1872, but it was not until 1916 that the National Park Service was created. Today, this branch of the government oversees 390 national sites. They include 58 national parks and 230 other monuments, historical parks, memorials, seashores, trails, and other features. No other country comes close to matching the United States in protecting its natural and cultural heritage for public enjoyment and future generations.

Federal-­Aid Highway Act (1956)

Imagine driving across the United States on a twolane highway! In terms of speed and safety of travel and convenience, the 1956 legislation that created the Interstate Highway System was a momentous act. Today, an integrated network of “superhighways” crisscrosses the country. The impact of interstate highways has influenced much more than travel alone. In many states, it has altered population, settlement, and cultural landscape. As a general rule, communities on or near the highways are thriving, whereas those without easy interstate access are stagnant or even declining. In many instances, the “old” town has withered as a “new” commercial area has sprouted up near the highway. These adjustments have altered the cultural landscape, as have the strips of development that follow suburban interstate corridors, which range from shopping malls to warehouses and firms that depend heavily on interstate trucking. There are also the omnipresent motels, restaurants, gas stations, and convenience stores found clustered around many exits.


Government plays a very critical role in a nation's economy. Simply stated, good government is the foundation on which a strong economy can build. (The opposite, of course, also is true.) In the United States, a government-supported free market (capitalist) economy has led to the country's widespread prosperity. Establishing and promoting economic policy, however, is only one of many ways in which the government supports economic development. Most citizens and businesses depend on reliable government-­built, -supported, or -regulated transportation and communication. Government plays a very important role in agriculture, industry, and other businesses.

From resource exploitation to marketing, production to sales, waste disposal to taxation, or labor laws to import-export controls, the government exerts a strong influence. The following chapter investigates how the United States has become the world's greatest economic powerhouse.