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American Political Values

The values underpinning the United States political system are little understood.

People accustomed to the Westminster parliamentary system often fail to understand the competing values that contribute to the unique American political culture.


This involves a division of powers between the Federal and State governments. The Founders were reluctant to establish a unitary system of government as existed in Britain, against whom they had fought a war of independence. The division between State and Federal government was seen as a way of “checking power with power”, a form of double security for the people. The Constitution makes these divisions quite clear by giving power to the States to set voting qualifications, to appoint Senators and to nominate delegates to the Electoral College that chooses the President. Moreover, the very existence of the Senate, where each state is equally represented, further reinforces the importance of the federalist idea, as does the 6-year terms for senators, a term three times that given to members of the House of Representatives.

Separation of Powers

James Madison, who wrote a series of works known as “The Federalist Papers”, expressed the views of many others that it was dangerous to put too much power in the hands of any one individual or arm of government. Madison said that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Hence the law-making, law-enforcing and law-interpreting functions are allocated to different branches of the government. The legislature (congress) alone has the power to make laws, the chief executive (president) enforces them, and the judiciary (Supreme Court) interprets them.

Checks and Balances

For nearly every power given to one arm of government an equal power or control was established in the other two branches. Power is checked and balanced in a complex grid of competing forces.

Fear of Despotism

Following their experiences with George III, there was deep suspicion of giving too much power to any one person. The president was to be a citizen like all other citizens, not a king. (In January 1997, lawyers for Paula Jones argued that President Clinton should not be able to have her sexual harassment case postponed because this was tantamount to treating him like a king, rather than an ordinary citizen.)

Fear of Concentrated Power

By giving some power to the congress, some to the president and some to the Supreme Court, and by allowing each to check and balance the other, we can see that the Framers were determined not to permit the concentration of power. This was evident also in the fact that the members of the Senate were originally appointed by the State legislatures, not elected. There was a concern that even a democratic method of election in the House could concentrate power, hence the House was also limited to a 2 year term, whereas the Senate was given 6 year terms. However, the power to raise taxes was given exclusively to the House, again acting as a counter to the influence of the Senate.

A Fear of Giving Too Much Power to the Lower Classes

Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 took place in Massachusetts and involved farmers protesting against State laws regarding the payment of debts. The rebellion was put down by a military force established by the Continental Congress. Thereafter, the Framers of the Constitution who were mainly men of property and means (Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a slave owner) were fearful of allowing the mass of the population to have too much power. Hence, the House was limited to two-year terms of office and the power to confirm presidential appointments was given to the Senate, as was the power to ratify treaties and such like.

A Belief in the Right to No Taxation Without Representation

To counter-balance the previous analysis, the Framers also believed that the citizenry should have the final say over the question of taxation. Hence, any measure imposing taxation has to be introduced in the House of Representatives. In January/February of each year, for example, the President’s budget is always introduced into the House.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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