A Short History of the United States

If you are interested in working for the government, it is important to have a basic grounding in the governmental processes and history of the United States. This section provides information that might help you as you consider a career in government service.

The United States of America is a federal democratic republic that was officially formed after the successful conclusion of the American Revolution. Until the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789, the Articles of Confederation formed the basis of America's government.

The original thirteen colonies had a loose form of government called a confederation. The colonies were run like independent, sovereign nations, with the federal government providing financial support to all members of the confederation.

After the fledgling country's long, grueling fight for independence was over, America's leaders were eager to form a new type of government in which power was shared. The mother country, England, was a monarchy, which put all power in the hands of the king. The Founding Fathers wanted to ensure that America would not be a monarchy or dictatorship. To that end, they created a government consisting of three branches — judicial, legislative, and executive — and a system of checks and balances.

The three branches of the federal government are designed to work in balance to keep any one branch from gaining too much power or determining the country's policy. The legislative branch has the power to pass laws. The president has the power to sign bills into law or to veto them. The courts have the power to determine whether legislation follows the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution. If the actions of any one branch are determined by either of the other branches to be out of step with the needs and will of the country's citizens, the other two branches can use their powers to override, or “check,” the branch that is out of step.

The president and his cabinet constitute the executive branch. The legislative branch is comprised of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Each of the country's fifty states elects two senators, and the number of each state's congresspersons is based on its population. (At present, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives.) The judicial branch culminates with the U.S. Supreme Court, the country's final arbiter of laws and interpreter of the Constitution. The president appoints justices for lifetime terms to the high court, but Congress must approve these appointments. Below the high court, the judicial branch consists of a system of lower federal courts.

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