Unit 1 Overview: Foundations of American Democracy

8 min readjanuary 29, 2023

Riya Patel

Riya Patel


Daniel Bacharach

AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

240 resources
See Units

Government. It’s something we interact with every day of our lives—whether it’s hopping into a bus or car to get to school, buying that snack at the end of the school day, or taking a hot shower at the end of a long day. We regularly see the effects of government on our life—but in this unit, we’ll be exploring just how the government of the United States came to be structured the way it was, and how that structure has led to the government we have all come to know today.
As you prepare for the AP US  Gov and Politics exam, there are nine Foundational Documents that you’ll need to know well—these are the focus of the Argumentative Essay that you’ll write for FRQ 4. This unit contains the vast majority of these documents, since, as their name implies, they are crucial points at the foundation of our system of government!

Origins of American Democracy

It’s time to throw it way back—all the way to John Locke, whose ideas of natural rights, the social contract, and limited government had a major impact on the Founders of the United States. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (FOUNDATIONAL DOCUMENT), he made it clear that these basic democratic ideals were at the heart of the formation of a new nation. After experiencing life under a monarchy with King George III, the Founders placed the idea of limited government front and center, putting explicit limits on the power that a government could have.
The foremost limit placed on the government was that it had to protect its people’s natural rights—namely life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Since America was to be based on popular sovereignty, meaning that government received its power to govern from the people, the people also had the right and responsibility, according to Jefferson, to “alter or abolish” the government should it no longer protect these natural rights.

Theories of Democratic Government

Based on these ideas, it’s clear the United States was structured to have a democratic government—that’s something we can all agree on. There are a few different theories of democratic government, though, that attempt to explain how democratic government actually works in practice. Which of these theories best describes American government is up for debate, but you should know all three for the AP exam!

Participatory Democracy

There’s participatory democracy, which argues that power in a democracy is based on the participation of individual citizens. We see this through town hall meetings, contacting representatives, and more formal mechanisms like initiatives and referendums.

Pluralist Democracy

There’s pluralist democracy, which argues that power in a democracy is largely in the hands of organized groups of citizens who fight for a common goal. Interest groups, like the ACLU, NRA, Sierra Club, and Black Lives Matter, influence the political decisions of our government. This embodies the idea of pluralist democracy.

Elite Democracy

Finally, there’s elite democracy, which argues that the wealthy and educated elite are those who hold the real power in a democracy and make the decisions for the broader population.

A First Attempt: The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation (FOUNDATIONAL DOCUMENT) set up the first government of the United States after the Revolutionary War, but ultimately contained a number of weaknesses—in particular, that the national government had no power to impose taxes or raise troops. Those weaknesses were highlighted by Shay’s Rebellion, where a group of farmers rebelled against the government, and little could be done to stop them. It was at this point that the Founders realized that changes needed to be made, resulting in the Constitutional Convention.

The Road to the Constitution

In debating the Constitution of the United States (FOUNDATIONAL DOCUMENT) at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, there were four major compromises that needed to be reached.
The Great (Connecticut) Compromise resolved a disagreement between large and small states about representation in Congress, and created a bicameral (two-house) legislature with one house—the House of Representatives (from the Virginia Plan)—where each state receives a number of representatives based on population, and another house—the Senate (from the New Jersey Plan)—where each state receives an equal number of representatives.
The Electoral College was developed to compromise between those who feared Congress selecting the President and those who feared the people directly electing the President, creating a system where electors would be chosen by the states and they would be the ones to elect the President.
The Three-Fifths Compromise addressed the concern about how to count enslaved persons when it came to Congressional representation and the collection of federal taxes. The Constitution compromised by deciding to count each enslaved person as three-fifths of one person.
The Compromise on the Importation of Enslaved Persons addressed the conflict between states over the power of the national government to ban the slave trade. The Convention came to the agreement that Congress would have the power to do so, but not until 1808.
Even these compromises were not enough to convince everyone that the Constitution set up the best possible government. To debate the merits of the Constitution further, the Founders wrote a series of essays explaining their reasoning. Think of it like a bunch of really, really long Twitter threads!
Federalist No. 10 (FOUNDATIONAL DOCUMENT), written by James Madison, argues that a large republic would be the best way to control the danger of factions. According to Madison, factions are groups of people sharing a common belief that threatens the rights of other citizens or community interests. A large republic would be best suited to control the effects of factions, according to Madison, because although a faction might be able to gain control in a small pocket of the nation, the larger the nation, the harder it would be to spread that influence. Think about it this way—if you were trying to convince your friends to go out to eat at the restaurant of your choice, it might not be too difficult to persuade 2 or 3 people. The larger your friend group though, the harder it would be for you—imagine having to persuade 100 friends to go with your restaurant choice!
Brutus 1 (FOUNDATIONAL DOCUMENT), on the other hand, argued the Anti-Federalist perspective. Brutus argued for a small, decentralized government, noting that a large republic would not be able to meet the needs of its citizens, since each part of the nation would have vastly different interests and needs. Brutus also argued that the Constitution created a national government that was far too powerful, pointing to the Necessary and Proper Clause and Supremacy Clause as two examples that demonstrated the power of a large national government would grow uncontrollably at the expense of states.

Key Principle: Separation of Powers & Checks and Balances

The Constitution lays out the structure of American government—and two major principles guide a great deal of the document: separation of powers and checks and balances.
Separation of powers points to the division of power between different branches of government. The Constitution creates three such branches: executive (the president), legislative (Congress) and judicial (courts).
Not only are these branches assigned separate powers, they are also given the ability to check the power of other branches—thus creating checks and balances. While Congress can pass laws, for example, the President has the power to veto a law passed by Congress, and Congress then has the power to override that veto.
The importance of separation of powers and checks and balances is discussed in Federalist No. 51 (FOUNDATIONAL DOCUMENT), in which Madison argues the two principles will prevent any one branch from getting too powerful.

Key Principle: Federalism

Federalism is the division of powers between national and state governments, and is central to the American structure of government. The Constitution lays out a number of different powers: delegated or enumerated powers which are granted to the national government, concurrent powers which are shared by the federal and state governments, and reserved powers which are left to states.
The power of national and state governments has been regularly debated over the course of American history. Constitutional Clauses like the Necessary and Proper Clause (also known as the Elastic Clause) give Congress the ability to expand national power, while the Tenth Amendment points to the idea that any powers not given to the national government are reserved to the states.
Two Supreme Court Cases (that you’ll need to know for FRQ 3 on the AP exam) deal with the interpretations of federalism—McCulloch v. Maryland and United States v. Lopez.
In McCulloch v. Maryland  (REQUIRED SCOTUS CASE), Maryland attempted to tax that National Bank, leading the Supreme Court to rule that the Supremacy Clause ensured that federal law has authority over state laws when the two are in conflict. The case also created the concept of implied powers that gave Congress power to do things needed to implement enumerated powers.
In US v. Lopez (REQUIRED SCOTUS CASE), Lopez brought a gun to school violating the Gun Free School Zone Act (GFSZA). The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lopez, striking down the GFSZA through its interpretation of the commerce clause. Since Congress had the power to regulate only interstate commerce, and bringing a gun to school did not constitute interstate commerce, the law exceeded the powers of Congress.
Federalism results in the creation of different policies across the United States, as there are a number of policy areas where states have the power to create policies that best meet their needs.
The national government uses federal funding to influence state policies, and it has a number of options for this funding. Categorical grants are monies given to states with specific rules in place, requiring money to be spent in a federally mandated way (think of this as money for only one specific category of spending). Block grants give states more control over how to spend the federal aid (think of this as a big block of money that states can split up and use as they wish). Mandates are federal requirements on states, and can be either funded mandates, where the federal government gives states money to carry out the mandate, or unfunded mandates, where states must carry out the mandate without any federal funding.

Stay Connected

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.