In this video segment adapted from American Experience, historians examine how John Adams advocated for a separation of powers when he wrote the Massachusetts Constitution in 1779. Adams called for a strong executive branch, two legislative branches, and an independent judiciary branch. This state constitution became the model upon which the federal constitution was based.
Since its inception, the U.S. government has evolved over time to keep up with the changes in the nation. Still, many of the fundamental ideas held by the framers of the Constitution are still in place. Based on the model first developed by John Adams when he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, the U.S. Constitution calls for three separate branches to govern the nation. It is how these branches share the power—a system of checks and balances—that ensures that no one person or group has absolute control.
The legislative branch includes the Senate and the House of Representatives, which together are referred to as Congress. It is their job to write the nation's laws. The Senate has two members elected from each state, so, whether you live in a big state or a small state, you have the same number of senators working for you. The number of members in the House of Representatives is based on each state's population. For example, California has 53 representatives, while North Dakota has one.
In addition to passing laws, Congress controls national taxes and spending, and regulates foreign and interstate commerce. Congress also funds the military and can declare war on other countries.
If there is an issue of great public concern, or a debate about a new policy, Congress will hold hearings to take testimony about the issue. For example, Congress has held hearings about whether explicit language and lyrics can be used in rock and rap music. After a 1986 congressional hearing, the record industry decided to place "parental advisory" stickers on music products with explicit content.
The executive branch, led by the president, enforces the nation's laws. The president is elected to office for a term of four years. The framers of the Constitution created this term limit to make sure no one person held too much power. At the time, no European nation had term limits for their leaders, so this was a novel idea. In 1951, Congress further limited the president's time in office by allowing each president to serve no more than two terms, for a total of eight years.
The president's powers include serving as commander in chief of the armed forces, negotiating treaties with other nations, nominating ambassadors, and appointing federal judges. However, many of these tasks, such as writing international treaties, must be approved by the Senate. The president also approves bills passed by Congress, which then become laws. If the president doesn't approve of a bill, he or she can veto it.
People who work for the president as part of the executive branch include the vice president, cabinet members, and the heads of a number of different agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Cabinet members advise the president on policy issues, such as whether to trade with a foreign nation or how to set national education goals.
The judicial branch includes a series of federal courts that determine the meaning of laws and how they should be applied. The Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the country. There are nine justices on the Supreme Court, including the chief justice. Justices are appointed by the president, approved by the Senate, and hold their positions for life, unless they choose to retire, resign, or are impeached. It is the justices' job to decide disputes among different groups in government, such as those between two states. They can also determine if a law passed by Congress or an action of the executive branch is unconstitutional.
Court cases begin in lower state or federal courts. If a case is not settled, it moves on to higher courts. But only cases dealing with federal or Constitutional law may move all the way up to the Supreme Court. For example, in a 1985 case that began in a New Jersey court, the Supreme Court decided that school officials are not bound by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. This means they have the right to conduct searches of students' property without a warrant as long as the searches are considered reasonable.
Academic standards correlations on Teachers' Domain use the Achievement Standards Network (ASN) database of state and national standards, provided to NSDL projects courtesy of JES & Co.
We assign reference terms to each statement within a standards document and to each media resource, and correlations are based upon matches of these terms for a given grade band. If a particular standards document of interest to you is not displayed yet, it most likely has not yet been processed by ASN or by Teachers' Domain. We will be adding social studies and arts correlations over the coming year, and also will be increasing the specificity of alignment.