AP US Government and Politics: Foundations of American Democracy Notes

Key Takeaways: Foundations of American Democracy

  1. Democratic ideals are reflected in early American documents. The Declaration of Independence provided a foundation for popular sovereignty. The Articles of Confederation provided an early structure for national government, ultimately proving too weak. The Constitution provided the structure and foundations for a unique form of political democracy and a republican form of government. The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the rights of the citizens from governmental abuse.
  2. The Federalists, proponents of a strong national government, believed that a large republic would help control the potential issues with factions by spreading governing authority to elected representatives as well as by dividing power between the national and state governments. Anti-Federalists feared that a strong central national government would diminish or violate the rights of individual citizens; instead, they preferred to delegate more authority to the state governments.
  3. The Great Compromise (the Connecticut Compromise), the Electoral College, and the Three-Fifths Compromise were direct results of the political negotiation that took place at the Constitutional Convention.
  4. Key constitutional principles, such as the separation of powers and checks and balances, help prevent one branch of government from becoming too powerful or subject to corruption. The three branches (the legislative, executive, and judicial branches) are allocated distinct powers and duties, and each branch has certain “checks,” or controls, on the other two. These ideas were advocated for in Federalist 51, in which James Madison expressed concerns about potential abuses by majorities.
  5. Federalism is one of the basic principles of American government, dividing powers between national and state governments. The Constitution’s supremacy clause states that the Constitution is “the supreme Law of the Land.” All public officials of the country must give oaths to support the Constitution, and states cannot override the national powers.
  6. The exact balance between state and national power has long been the subject of debate; the balance has changed over time, partly based on U.S. Supreme Court interpretation in certain landmark cases, such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and United States v. Lopez (1995).

Key Terms: Foundations of American Democracy

Democratic Ideals

  • The Declaration of Independence: Formal statement written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 declaring the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from Great Britain.
  • Popular sovereignty: The principle that a government derives its power from the consent of the people, primarily through their elected representatives.
  • Federalism: A key constitutional principle that calls for the division or separation of power across local, state, and national levels of government.
  • Bill of Rights: The first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which were added in 1789; protected rights include freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • Republic: A form of government in which the power to govern comes not directly from the citizens but rather through representation by elected officials.
  • Participatory model: A model of democracy that emphasizes broad citizen participation in government and politics.
  • Pluralist model: A model of democracy that emphasizes the need for different organized groups to compete against each other in order to influence policy.
  • Federalist 10: Essay in which James Madison argues that the power of factions is best controlled through a republican form of government.
  • Factions: Groups of like-minded people who try to influence the government and public policy.
  • Elite model: A model of democracy that emphasizes limited participation in politics and civil society.
  • Direct democracy: A form of democracy in which the citizens are able to decide on policy and governmental action directly.


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