Lesson 1

The Power of Our Government


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, the students will study our form of government. In Part 1, they'll discuss its history. In Part 2, they'll compare our government with others and learn various ways of describing it. In Part 3, they'll see how it secures citizen freedoms. They'll investigate further through discussion questions and other activities. 


Content Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards


Learning Objectives:

The students will:

  • Trace the roots of self-government in America.
  • Review the events leading to American independence.
  • Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.
  • Define democracy.
  • Tell the differences between ancient and modern democracies.
  • Compare and contrast our system of government with others.
  • Identify the ways this system protects their rights.


Part 1: Our Government's History

Reproducible: Would You Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test? 

All prospective citizens must answer correctly some of the 100 questions on the U.S. citizenship test. This handout could serve as the opening activity of the citizenship unit. The answers are found here. Solomon M. Skolnick's book The Great American Citizenship Quiz provides details about these answers.



Early government. The British crown colonies in America were separated from Great Britain by an ocean, so even the earliest colonists needed to practice some type of self-government. There was no local government where the Mayflower landed in 1620, so male passengers had to sign an agreement before they were allowed to go ashore. The Mayflower Compact said unity was important for "better ordering and preservation."

For the next century and a half, colonists elected by their fellow citizens gathered each year in general assemblies to decide local matters. Any measures passed, however, had to be approved by the colony's royal governor.

The American Revolution. The colonists were not represented in the British lawmaking body of Parliament, but most were still loyal to the king and valued their British citizenship. By the middle of the 18th century, however, "taxation without representation" was causing a buildup of colonial resentment. They were forced to house British soldiers against their will, pay taxes on necessary items like paper, and were denied the right to trial by jury. This led to outright rebellion, and in April 1776, war broke out. The Declaration of Independence formally recognized the 13 colonies' separation from Great Britain. At its signing, each colony became a "free and independent" state with all the rights of a separate country.

The Articles of Confederation. The next year, as the war raged on, the states entered into a "firm league of friendship" through the Articles of Confederation. They agreed they would be united in defense and in their interactions with other nations. The Articles originally called for a strong central government, but many Americans were afraid of that type of system. All the unfair laws and unreasonable taxes the British had forced on the colonies were still fresh in their minds. They didn't want the new government to abuse its power and trample citizen rights.

So the Articles made the states much more powerful than the central government. The results? After the Continental army disbanded at the end of the war, the country couldn't raise money to defend itself. It was difficult to make decisions because all 13 states had to approve them. Citizens felt more loyal to their own states than their country. Some American leaders were frightened by an incident called Shays' Rebellion. Mobs of protesting Massachusetts farmers ran amuck until they were stopped by the state militia. The "United States" didn't seem united enough under the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitution. In 1787, delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles. (Rhode Island didn't send any because it feared giving up some of its power.) The "Constitutional Convention" included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. The group spent four months hammering out the details of a new system of government. It was a difficult task. By the time the Constitution was finished, only 39 of the 55 delegates approved it. Some had gone home, some refused to sign, but some, like Benjamin Franklin, realized it was the best they could do. Today, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest used by any country.


Discussion Questions:

  • How did the Mayflower Compact help the passengers survive? (Possible answers: They agreed to work together to establish the colony and to do what was best for the good of everyone. Behaving in an orderly way gave them the best chance for survival.)
  • Why do you think it was difficult for the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to agree? (Possible answers: They came from different areas of the country and had different needs and interests. They also came from different backgrounds: some were military men, some were merchants, and some were lawyers. Some came from large states, others from small ones.)
  • Why did Britain want to continue ruling the colonies, especially when it was inconvenient and expensive? (Possible answer: The British needed American goods and wanted to sell their goods to the colonies.)

You may want to refer to Level 2, Lesson 1 for additional background on this time period. 


MP3: The Constitution

Make copies of the lyrics if desired. After listening, discuss the song using the following questions:

  • "The Constitution ... written by our fathers to protect the freedoms of their sons ..." How does the Constitution protect our freedoms? (It limits the powers of the three branches of government. It's a permanent document that everyone can refer to.)
  • "The Constitution belongs to everyone":  Why does the Constitution belong to everyone? (All people are protected under the Constitution and its amendments, even non-citizens.)


Part 2: Our Government's Structure

When the United States was established, most of the world's governments were hereditary monarchies or aristocracies. The right to rule the country was passed down from one generation to the next or was given to a few in the upper class. Ordinary citizens had no say or representation.


Reproducible: Democracies Old and New

Make copies of the reproducible, if desired, to help present and discuss the following information.

Greek democracy. The idea of citizens ruling themselves was unusual but not new. Over 2,000 years ago, the ancient Greeks called this form of government demokratia from the words demos, meaning people, and kratos, meaning rule. The handout compares the ancient democracy of Greece with the modern democracy of the United States. 

Ancient democracies, also called direct democracies, did not allow women and male slaves to participate. Today, all Americans have the privilege of participating in their modern democracy if they are U.S. citizens, are over the age of 18, and have not been convicted of certain serious crimes. They have responsibilities like citizens of the ancient democracies, but are also guaranteed basic rights most Greeks did not have.

Direct democracies. A direct democracy would only be practical in areas with low population. Imagine the U.S. government asking each of its millions of citizens for an opinion before deciding an issue! Although we have a modern representative democracy, direct democracies do exist here. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine, for example, have been holding town meetings to make community decisions for more than 300 years.


Reproducible: Our Government 

Our government can be described as a representative democracy, because citizens elect representatives who make decisions for them. We can use other terms as well, which help us compare it with other terms as well, which help us compare it with other types of governments. The students will complete the blanks on their worksheets as they discuss the following points. Space is provided for notes as well.

The United States is a republic. A republic rules citizens with their approval. The people elect representatives who speak and act for them. In some republics, however, not all citizens are equal, and the rights of the minority are not protected as they are in the United States.

Compare a republic with a dictatorship. The ruler, or dictator, makes all decisions and does not need the approval of citizens. 

The United States has a federal system. Power is shared between the federal (central) government and local governments, but the federal government reigns supreme. The powers of each are clearly stated and are limited in some ways. Some countries have federal systems which help unite areas with different languages and traditions. The United States' federal system unites the 50 states. 

Compare a federal system with a unitary system, where the central government is very powerful. It can establish state and local governments, but can abolish them at any time and for any reason.

The United States has a presidential system. The United States created the presidential system of government, which has three branches. The executive branch is responsible for carrying out laws and includes the president, vice president, cabinet members and others. The president is the country's head of state and the commander of the military. 

The legislative branch makes the laws of the country. In the United States, Congress consists of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The judicial branch chiefly interprets or explains the law. The federal court system includes the Supreme Court, the country's highest court, as well as district courts and courts of appeal.

These three branches have limits to their power, and all officials have defined terms of office.

Compare a presidential system with a parliamentary system. The most powerful branch is the lawmaking branch, sometimes called parliament. The head of state does not have a strong veto as the president does. In some countries, the parliament's power is only limited by citizens voting legislators out of office.

The United States is a constitutional government. A constitution describes the government, listing its purposes and its laws and principles. It limits the government and its leaders, protects the rights of citizens and prevents the government's abuse of power. The United States is a constitutional democracy.

In a monarchy, power is usually passed from one generation to the next. A constitutional monarchy's ruler is limited by its constitution. An absolute monarchy has no constitution, so there are no limits to the monarch's power.


Discussion Questions:

  • What might be some disadvantages of the presidential system? (Possible answer: Decisions sometimes aren't made easily.)
  • Who represents the three branches of government at the state and local levels? (State: governor and lieutenant governor - Executive; state legislature - Legislative; state courts - Judicial. Local: mayor - Executive; city council or county commission - Legislative; county courts - Judicial)
  • Why did the ancient democracies fail? (Possible answers: The population grew and made them impractical; it was difficult to make decisions; no one was in charge)
  • Why might the state and local governments be abolished in a unitary system of government? (Possible answer: Disagreement with central government)


Part 3: Our Government's Protection

Reproducible: The U.S. Constitution: True or False?

As they review the following information, the students will decide if the statements on the worksheet are true or false and write T or F in the blank before the statement. If a statement is false, ask a student to give a related true statement. The answers are found here. 

According to the 6th Article, the U.S. Constitution is "the supreme Law of the Land." Laws must be fair and be written and approved in certain ways. All citizens, from the least to the most powerful and important, must follow the law, and they are treated the same if they break it. All government officials take an oath that they will support, protect and defend the Constitution when they are sworn into office.

The U.S. Constitution protects the rights of American citizens because:

The powers of the government are clearly listed in a permanent document. Some countries have unwritten or partially-written constitutions. Those who wrote the Constitution wanted a written agreement between the government and its citizens.

The government is separated into three branches. Their powers are limited through a system of checks and balances.

Congress can:

  • Refuse to confirm presidential appointments and treaties.
  • Rewrite laws which the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional.
  • Propose amendments that could add to or change the Constitution.
  • Impeach the president or federal judges (charge them with improper conduct).

The Supreme Court can:

  • Declare the president's actions unconstitutional.
  • Declare Congress' laws unconstitutional.

The president can:

  • Appoint federal judges.
  • Propose or veto legislation.

For the writers of the Constitution, the amount of representation citizens would have in Congress was a major hurdle. They were finally forced to compromise. Representation in the House is based on population. This ensures the largest states have enough representation. Equal representation in the Senate - two senators from each state - ensures even the smallest states will be heard.

The Constitution further protects citizens' rights because:

The powers of the federal (national) government are stated. The remaining power is given to the state governments. No state can take actions that could compromise the welfare of the United States, such as waging wars or making treaties with other countries. The federal government cannot create a new state inside an existing state, or change state boundaries without the consent of the state.

Citizens elect their representatives. They have the right to support or protest decisions which are made by them.

Terms of office are limited. According to the 22nd Amendment, the president may only serve two four-year terms. Senators serve six-year terms, and representatives serve two years. Supreme Court justices serve for life, but they may retire, resign or be impeached.

Each state's citizens have to approve any amendments (changes) to the Constitution. Three-fourths of the states must agree to the amendment.

The rights of all citizens are stated in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

When the Constitution was written, the term "people" or "persons" referred to white males only. Women, slaves and other groups were not guaranteed basic human rights, but eventually these were granted by a series of acts and amendments. The Bill of Rights is discussed in detail in Lesson 4


Discussion Questions:

  • Why is a written constitution better than one that unwritten or partially written? (Possible answers: Citizens know what to expect from the government and can hold it accountable; officials and citizens can refer to what is written; it's easier to understand.)
  • Why is the president limited to two terms of office, when there are no restrictions on any other officials? (He might gain too much power and influence over time.)
  • Why are federal court justices appointed and not elected by citizens? (Possible answer: If they wanted to be re-elected, their decisions might be influenced by citizens.)


Activity: "If the U.S. Wasn't a Democracy" Essay 

What would life be like if the United States was a dictatorship or monarchy? Invite your class or group to write a short essay describing the changes they might see in their family life, their school and their community. For instance, how might the government influence their membership in various groups and organizations?


Activity: Checks and Balances

This activity will combine the excitement of planning a classroom or group activity with learning the advantages and disadvantages of the checks and balances system.

1. Divide the large group into three smaller groups, representing the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Each group will elect a spokesperson. 

2. The other groups will watch the proceedings of the group that is meeting.

3. Since the legislative branch makes laws, the legislative group will meet first to decide on an activity.

4. The spokesperson will write the proposed activity on a piece of paper and give it to the executive group.

5. The executive branch carries out the laws that the legislative branch makes. Therefore, the executive group will meet and read the legislative group's proposal. It will then approve or veto it. If the group members want to make changes to the proposed activity, they will veto it as written and write a "veto message" to the legislative group, explaining their reasons for the veto.

6. If the executive group passes the proposal, go to Step 10.

7. The legislative group meets again. It will read the veto message from the executive group. The members can then either revise their proposed activity or completely rewrite it. Repeat Steps 4-6.

8. The legislative branch can override an executive veto with a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate. If two-thirds of the legislative group agrees, the activity as originally written can still be passed. If the vote looks like it will be close, the members may enjoy lobbying for support of their side.

9. Continue until the proposal has been approved by the executive branch or the veto has been overridden.

10. The judicial group will then rule on the "constitutionality" of the proposed activity. For instance, it may violate a school or group rule, or there may be a time conflict. If the proposal is unacceptable as written (if it's "unconstitutional"), the legislative branch must revise it, and the process begins again.

11. After the proposal passes,

  • Select a student to take the role of monarch or dictator. With absolute authority to pick the activity, what would he or she have the rest of the class or group do?
  • How did the process change? Was there an advantage to this way of making decisions? A disadvantage?

12. Ask a few students to form a small group, an "aristocracy," and secretly decide on the activity.

  • How was the decision made? Was there an advantage to this way of making decisions? A disadvantage?

13. With regard to the decision:

  • With a show of hands, how many in the large group are happy with the decision made by the dictatorship or monarchy? The aristocracy? The democracy?
  • In which type of government would citizens be more accepting of decisions? Why? 
  • If citizens in the dictatorship or monarchy were to complain about the decision, what consequences, if any, might they face? The aristocracy? The democracy?

14. If possible, carry out the proposed activity as planned by the groups.