Learning About The US
The United States is a democracy, and citizens here play a very important
role in governing the country. In this section, you will learn about how
citizens help shape the U.S. government, how the United States began and
developed, and how our government operates.
In the United States, the government gets its power to govern from the
people. We have a government of the people, by the people, and for the
people. Citizens in the United States shape their government and its
policies, so they must learn about important public issues and get involved
in their communities. Citizens vote in free elections to choose important
government officials, such as the President, Vice President, Senators, and
Representatives. All citizens
can call their elected officials to express an opinion, ask for information,
or get help with specific issues.
Our government is based on several
important values: freedom, opportunity, equality, and justice. Americans
share these values, and these values give us a common civic identity.
Government in the United States protects the rights of each person. The
United States is made up of people from different backgrounds, cultures, and
religions. Our government and laws are organized so that citizens from
different backgrounds and with different beliefs all have the same rights.
No one can be punished or harmed for having an opinion or belief that is
different from that of most other people.
|OF, BY, AND FOR THE
PEOPLE: WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
The word “democracy” means “government by the people.” Democracy can
have different forms in different countries. In the United States, we
have what is called “representative democracy.” This means that the
people choose officials to represent their views and concerns in
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How the United States Began
The early colonists and settlers who came to the United States were often
fleeing unfair treatment, especially religious persecution, in their home
countries. They were seeking freedom and new opportunities. Today, many
people come to the United States for these same reasons.
Before it became a separate and independent nation, the United States was
made up of 13 colonies that were ruled by Great Britain. People living in
the colonies had no say in which laws were passed or how they were governed.
They especially objected to “taxation without representation.” This means
that people had to pay taxes, but they had no say in how their government
|THE UNITED STATES AND
THE ORIGINAL THIRTEEN COLONIES
The thirteen colonies were founded in the following order: Virginia,
Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New
Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, New York,
Pennsylvania, and Georgia.
By 1776, many people felt that this was
unfair and that they should govern themselves. Representatives from the
colonies issued a Declaration of Independence. This important document
declared that the colonies were free and independent and no longer tied to
Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He
later became the third president of the United States.
|WHAT YOU CAN DO
As a permanent resident, you have many rights and freedoms. In return, you have some
responsibilities. One important responsibility is to get involved in
your community. You should also learn about the American way of life and
our history and government. You can do this by taking adult education
classes and reading the local newspaper.
The Declaration of Independence was signed on
July 4, 1776. This is the reason that Americans celebrate July 4th every
year as Independence Day: it is our nation’s birthday.
The United States had to fight for its freedom from Great Britain in the
Revolutionary War. General George Washington led the military forces of the
American Revolution. He is known as the “Father of Our Country.” Later he
became the first president of the United States.
After the colonies won the war, they became states. Each state had its own
government. The people in these states wanted to create a new form of
government to unite the states into a single nation. Today, this central
government, our national government, is called “the federal government.” The
United States now consists of 50 states, the District of Columbia (a special
area that is the home of the federal government), the territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin
Islands, and the commonwealths of the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto
|“ALL MEN ARE CREATED
Many Americans know these words from the Declaration of Independence by
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable
Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of
This means that all people are born with the same basic rights.
Government does not create these rights, and no government can take
these rights away.
Creating “A More Perfect Union”
For several years after the American Revolution, the states tried different
ways to join together in a central government, but this government was too
weak. So representatives from each of the states gathered in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania in 1787 to develop a new, stronger central government. This
meeting was the Constitutional Convention. After much debate, leaders from
the states drafted a document describing this new government. This document
is the U.S. Constitution, one of the most important documents in American
history. The Constitution described how the new government would be
organized, how government officials would be chosen, and what rights the new
central government would guarantee to citizens.
|“OLD GLORY”—THE UNITED
The United States flag has changed over our history. Now it has 13
stripes to represent the original 13 American colonies. It has 50
stars, one for each state. The American national anthem was written
about the flag and is called “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The flag is
also called the “Stars and Stripes,” and a favorite American song is
called “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The members of the Constitutional Convention
approved the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Next, all 13 states had to
approve it. Some people felt that the Constitution did not do enough to
protect the rights of individual people. The states agreed to approve the
Constitution if a list of individual rights were added to it. The states
approved the Constitution in 1789. This list of individual rights, called
the Bill of Rights, was added to the Constitution in 1791. Changes to the
Constitution are called “amendments.” The first 10
amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights.
The United States is a nation governed by laws. Government officials make
decisions based on those laws. The Constitution is known as the “supreme law
of the land” because every citizen, including all government officials, and
every law that is created must uphold the principles of the Constitution.
Laws apply equally to everyone. The federal government has limited powers.
Powers not given directly to the federal government by the Constitution are
held by the states.
|“WE THE PEOPLE”
“We the People” are the first three words of the U.S. Constitution. The
Constitution begins by explaining why it was written and what it was
intended to accomplish. This section is called the “preamble.” Here is
the preamble to the Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect
Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the
common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of
Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this
Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Bill of Rights: The First 10
The first changes to the Constitution were made to protect individual
citizens and to limit the power of government. The Bill of Rights lists
important freedoms that are promised to the American people. In most
instances, these rights limit what government can do to individual people.
These rights include:
• Freedom of speech. The government cannot tell people what to say or not
say. People can say what they want about public issues without fear of
• Freedom of religion. The government cannot tell people what place of
worship to attend. People can choose to worship—or not worship—as they
• Freedom of the press. The government cannot decide what is printed in
newspapers or heard on radio and TV.
• Freedom to gather in public places. The government cannot stop people from
holding lawful public gatherings for many different purposes.
• Freedom to own firearms. The government cannot prevent people from owning
• Freedom to protest government actions and demand change. The government
cannot silence or punish people who challenge government actions they don’t
The Bill of Rights also guarantees “due process.” Due process is a set of
specific legal procedures that must be followed when someone is accused of a
crime. Police officers and soldiers cannot stop and search a person without
good reason, and they cannot search people’s homes without permission from a
court. Persons accused of a crime are guaranteed a speedy trial by a jury
made up of people like themselves. They are guaranteed legal representation
and can call witnesses to speak for them. Cruel and unusual punishment is
The U.S. Constitution is called a “living document” because the American
people, acting through their state and national representatives, can
change it when necessary. These changes are called “amendments.” It is a
long and difficult process to change the Constitution, so it has been
changed only 27 times over the course of our history. Besides the Bill
of Rights, some important amendments are the Thirteenth, which forbids
slavery, and the Fourteenth, which guarantees all citizens equal
protection under the law. The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right
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How the Federal Government Works
The original 13 colonies had lived under the total power of the British
king. In their new central government, Americans wanted to prevent a
concentration of power in one government official or one office. The
Constitution created three branches for the federal government, so that
power would be balanced. The three branches have separate responsibilities.
We call this the system of “checks and balances.” No single branch of
government can become too powerful because it is balanced by the other two
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The Legislative Branch: Congress
Citizens of the United States vote in free elections to choose people to
represent them in the U.S. Congress. Congress has the responsibility of
making the laws for our nation. Congress is made up of the House of
Representatives and the Senate.
The U.S. House of Representatives
People in each state vote to choose members of the House of Representatives.
There are 435 members of the House of Representatives, which is often called
“the House.” The number of representatives from each state depends on how
many people live in that state. States are divided into districts. People
living in each district vote for someone to represent their district in the
House. Each representative serves for two years, and then people have
another chance to vote for them or for a different person to represent them.
Representatives can serve in Congress for an unlimited period of time.
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
The three branches of the
federal government are:
The Legislative branch:
the U.S. Congress and
The Executive branch:
the President, Vice President, and departments of the
The Judicial branch:
the Supreme Court of the United States and federal courts across the
There are five additional members in the
House. These are the representatives of the District of Columbia and the
territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin
Islands. They may participate in debates, but they cannot participate in the
formal votes of the entire House.
The House of Representatives makes laws, but
it has some special responsibilities. Only the House of Representatives can:
• Propose laws about taxes.
• Decide if a government official accused of committing a crime against the
country should be put on trial in the Senate. This is called “impeachment.”
SERVE THE PEOPLE
In the United States, everyone can call their elected Representative and
Senators. You can call 202-224-3121 and ask for your Representative’s or
Senators’ offices. You can write to your Representative or Senators to
ask questions or give your opinion about legislation and the federal
government, or if you have a problem and need help with federal
To write to your Representative:
The Honorable (add Representative’s full name)
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
To write to your Senator:
The Honorable (add Senator’s full name)
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
You can visit the websites of Congress to learn about current activities
in the House and Senate and about your own Representative and Senators,
including their website addresses.
• For the House of Representatives, visit
• For the Senate, visit
The U.S. Senate
There are 100 Senators in the U.S. Senate. People in each state vote to
choose two Senators to represent them in Congress. Senators serve for six
years, and then people have another chance to vote for them or for a
different person to represent them. Senators can serve in Congress for an
unlimited period of time. Senators make laws, but they also have special
responsibilities. Only the Senate can:
• Say “yes” or “no” to any agreements the President makes with other
countries or organizations of countries. These are called “treaties.”
• Say “yes” or “no” to any person the President chooses for high-level jobs,
such as Supreme Court judges or officials to run the federal departments,
such as the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human
• Hold a trial for a government official who commits a crime against the
|WHAT YOU CAN DO
Learn about your Representative and Senators and what they are doing to
represent you in Congress. You can do this by looking for stories about
them in your local newspaper and visiting the websites for Congress. All
Senators and Representatives have local offices in their home
communities; you can find these listed in the blue pages of the phone
book. If you visit Washington, DC, you can take a free tour of the U.S.
Capitol, where Congress works.
You can learn about the President and his wife, the First Lady, by
visiting the website for the White House, the President’s home. Visit
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The Executive Branch: The President
The President is the leader of the executive branch and is responsible for
upholding and enforcing the laws of the country. The President has many
other responsibilities, too, such as setting national policies, proposing
laws to Congress, and choosing high-level officials and members of the
Supreme Court. The President also is the leader of the U.S. military, and
may be called
People vote in elections for the President and Vice President every four
years. The President can only serve in office for 2 four-year terms. The
Vice President becomes President if the President becomes disabled or dies.
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The Judicial Branch: The Supreme Court
The Constitution created the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United
States. There are nine judges on the Supreme Court. They are called
“justices.” The President chooses the members of the Supreme Court, and they
serve as long as they are able. The Supreme Court can overrule both state
and federal laws if they conflict with the Constitution. There are other
federal courts, such as the U.S. District Courts and the U.S. Circuit Courts
To learn more about the U.S. Supreme Court, visit
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State and Local Government
In addition to the federal government, each state has its own Constitution
and its own government. Each state government also has three branches:
legislative, executive, and judicial.
The leader of the state executive branch is called the “governor.” The
people of each state vote in elections to choose their governor and their
representatives to the state legislature. The state legislature makes the
laws that apply in each state. These laws cannot conflict with the U.S.
Constitution, and each state judicial branch upholds the laws of that state.
Each state also has local governments. There are city or county governments
or sometimes both. They provide and oversee many services in your local
community, such as public schools and libraries, police and fire
departments, and water, gas, and electric services. People in local
communities usually vote for local government officials, but some local
officials are appointed. Local governments have different forms. Some have
mayors as their leaders; some have city councils or county councils. Local
communities also have school boards, citizens who are elected or appointed
to oversee the public schools.
|WHAT YOU CAN DO
Many local government meetings are open to the public. Many are held at
night so that anyone can attend. For example, you can go to a city
council meeting or a school board meeting to learn more about what is
going on in your community. These meetings and their times and locations
are usually listed in the local newspaper. The meetings may be
listed on the local government's website. Some local government
meetings also are on television on local cable stations.
About The Author
The Office of Citizenship of the USCIS works to promote an understanding of the civic principles on which this nation was founded and increase public awareness of the benefits and responsibilities associated with U.S. Citizenship.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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