Part I: the ap united states government course examination

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The Founders created the Constitution during the late 18th century ö an era when European philosophers were strongly criticizing governments dominated by imperialism and monarchy. The design of the Constitution reflected the influence of the European Enlightenment and the newly emerging beliefs in democracy, liberty for more individuals in society, and the importance of checking the self-interest inherent in ordinary human interactions. At the same time, the founders were far from unanimous in their admiration for direct democracy, and the Constitution they created reflects restraints on democracy. While they believed that monarchies were repressive, they knew that complete freedom would lead to disorder. Their main challenge was to fashion a government that struck a balance between liberty and order.


The European Enlightenment grew out of the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, a time of amazing discoveries that form the basis of modern science. Scientific success created confidence in the power of reason, which enlightenment thinkers believed could be applied to human nature in the form of natural laws. Every social, political, and economic problem could be solved through the use of reason.


A seventeenth century English thinker of the 1600s - John Locke - believed that in the "state of nature people are naturally free and equal, but that freedom led inevitably to inequality, and eventually to chaos. Locke agreed with other philosophers of the day (such as Thomas Hobbes) that the state of nature changes because humans are basically self-centered. However, he believed that they could be rational and even moral. Even though people serve self-interests first, they fear violence, particularly violent death. He argued that people have natural rights from the state of nature that include the right to "life, liberty, and property." In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke stated that people form governments to protect these natural rights, giving up their freedom to govern themselves through a social contract between government and the governed. The only valid government is one based on the consent of the governed. This consent creates a social contract ö an agreement between rulers and citizens ö that both sides are obligated to honor. If for any reason the government breaks the contract through neglect of natural rights, the people have the right to dissolve the government.


The founders generally were educated men who had read Locke and Hobbes, as well as French philosophers, such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who were concerned with freedom, equality, and justice. John Locke, in particular, directly influenced the thinking of the founders, as reflected in the Declaration of Independence. Compare the words of Jefferson with those of John Locke:



"When any one, or more, shall take upon them to make laws whom the people have not appointed so to do, they make laws

without authority, which the people are

not therefore bound to obey; by which means they come again to be out of subjection, and may constitute to themselves a new legislature."

"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another, and to

assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them..."

Whosoever uses force without right...puts

himself into a state of war with those against whom he so uses it, and in that state all former ties are canceled, all other rights

cease, and every one has a right to defend himself, and to resist the aggressor..."

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same

object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government..."

"A state also of equality, wherein all the

power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another..."

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal;"

"[men] have a mind to unite for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties,

" that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

" To great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property...."

" that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."


John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, created theories of democracy, republican government, pluralism, and elitism that guided the Founders as they shaped the new government of the United States in the late 18th century.


At the time of the founding of the United States almost all other political systems in the world were authoritarian regimes in which rulers fully controlled the government, and often held sway over economic and social institutions as well. Ironically, the European country with the most controls on the power of its monarchs was England, the very political system that the Americans so protested for its oppressiveness. In fact, democratic theory has very strong roots in British history, although it may be traced back to much earlier civilizations, such as Ancient Greece. Democracy is a form of government that places ultimate political authority in the hands of the people. Democratic theory has two basic models:

  • Direct democracy-In this form of democracy, citizens debate and vote directly on all laws. In Ancient Athens, the legislature was composed of all of the citizens, although women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded because they were not citizens. Direct democracy requires a high level of participation, and is based on a high degree of confidence in the judgment of ordinary people. Many of the Founders of the United States were skeptical about the ability of the masses to govern themselves, being too prone to the influence of demagogues (charismatic leaders who manipulate popular beliefs) and too likely to overlook the rights of those with minority opinion. The latter leads to majoritarianism, or the tendency for government to do what the majority of people want.

  • Representative Democracy - The Founders chose to establish a republic, or an indirect democracy in which people elect representatives to govern them and to make laws and set policies. This form is also referred to as an indirect democracy. In the United States, the people came to hold the ultimate power through the election process, but all policy decisions were to be made by elected officials or those that they appoint. A representative democracy, then, is a compromise between a direct democracy and an authoritarian rule, and has become the most accepted form of democracy in the world today.


How can a republic claim to be a democracy if only a few people actually make political decisions, even if they are elected by the people? Elite theory holds that a representative democracy is not really based on the will of the people, but that there is a relatively small, cohesive elite class that makes almost all the important decisions for the nation. Another version of elite theory argues that voters choose from among competing elites. New members of the elite are recruited through a merit-based education system, so that the best and brightest young people join the ranks of the elite. Elite theorists argue that the founders believed that a privileged majority should rule in the name of the people with a controlled amount of input from citizens.


Another theoretical perspective is pluralism, the argument that representative democracies are based on group interests that protect the individual’s interests by representing him or her to the government. The theory is grounded in the notion that in a diverse society such as the United States, too many interests exist to allow any one coherent group of elites to rule. Government decisions are made in an arena of competing interests, all vying for influence and struggling to speak for the people that they represent. Some pluralists have argued that the founding fathers represented different interests (such as rural vs. urban, or north vs. south), and that many points of view were actually represented. The model still works today, as pluralists argue, creating strong links between government officials and their popular base.

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