The origins of American democracy date back to1776, when the Declaration of Independence was first issued. 1778, the year when the Constitution was ratified by the states, was another important historical turning point. However, the real birth of American democracy did not happen up until 1794 – the year when the newly proclaimed values were put to the test. On September 19, 223 years ago, President Washington published his farewell address, transferring his power peacefully and solidifying the country’s status as a stable and democratic state. This essay ponders the key values and principles of American democracy that persist to this day and describes landmark Supreme Court cases that have contributed to the formation of the political system.
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Basic Ideas and Principles of American Democracy
The democratic government of the United States is built upon the following principles:
- Limited government. The first principle is outlined in the first three words of the Preamble to the Constitution – “We the People…” It means that the government does not have any God-given powers – it exists and enjoys its power only because US citizens came to a consensus. The government is not omnipotent and cannot cross the limits of what it is authorized to do (Merriam, 2017);
- Separation of powers. This principle ensures that while the government has power, it is limited in its ability to turn totalitarian and tyrannic. Only the legislative branch (Congress) can pass laws; only the executive branch (the President) can reinforce them; only the judicial branch (the Supreme Court) can review and interpret the law (Merriam, 2017);
- Checks and balances. The US political system ensures that each decision undergoes review and revision by different institutes even if it means decreased time efficiency (Wright, 2017);
- Federalism ensures the distribution of powers: some of them are held by a centralized national government while others are transferred to the various state governments (Wright, 2017).
Landmark Supreme Court Cases
The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the Judicial branch of the government. In compliance with the democratic principles of the US political system, the Judicial branch is separated from the Executive and Legislative. The Supreme Court was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789 – a year after the Constitution was ratified (Baum, 2018). The importance of this institution cannot be underrated: while the main responsibility of the Supreme Court is interpreting the Constitution, its decisions impact the lives of millions of people.
Singling out the most important Supreme Court cases is not an easy task as each of them had its own weight and leverage. Yet, probably one of the most foregoing cases was Marbury v. Madison (1803) that ruled that the province and the Judicial Department could ultimately decide what the law is. This decision granted the Court the right to ban laws on the grounds of them being unconstitutional through a process called judicial review. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) started a fueled debate around slavery and was among the events that triggered the onset of the Civil War (Baum, 2018). This Supreme Court ruling concerned the rights of Congress to abolish slavery in free territories. The last example is Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that was an important decision that brought closer the repeal of segregation (Baum, 2018).
Over more than two centuries of democracy, the US has developed a logical political system that operates on comprehensive principles. Those include the limited government, separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, and federalism. Together, they help to avoid tyranny and impose boundaries on the scope of the government’s rights and abilities. The Supreme Court represents one of the branches of power and can interpret and review laws. US history knows many important Supreme Court cases that contributed to the formation of the modern political system and human rights promotion.
Baum, L. (2018). The supreme court. Washington, DC: CQ press.
Merriam, C. (2017). A history of American political theories. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
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Wright, B. F. (2017). American interpretations of natural law: A study in the history of political thought. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.