Throwback Thursday: A Cold War Vocabulary Lesson

I was scanning around for a topic to write about this Thursday and wondering if I was going to do something historical like “how to make daggers” or “the first fanfic G ever wrote” when the most Evil of Space Princesses posted this on her blog.

Really? Seriously? This level of ignorance is the product of an advanced educational system?

Suddenly, I knew what today’s entry had to be about. So, let’s all hop in our time machines — be they TARDISes, telephone booths, funky-looking steampunk chairs, or DeLoreans — and set the dial for August 27, 1980. We’ll avoid my neck of the woods since this trip puts me in my own time-line (I’ll be 24 hours old) and instead go hang out someplace cool. I’ll supply the chameleon circuits so we can waltz into the HQ of USPACOM without being noticed. Just remember — don’t muck about.

Things seem kinda tense, don’t they? Hear that chatter from EUCOM over in Stuttgart, Germany? And the calls from RDJTF — which will soon become CENTCOM — about the problems in Iran?

Oh, man, if only the poor bastards knew…

Notice how all the focus is on Europe and the Pacific, though? Now, guys, I know it’s been a while. Keep listening. Yep. There it is. I notice some of you look a little confused. West Germany? East Germany? What the hell?

Back during the 1980s, I often wondered where North and South Germany were. My excuse was that I was under the age of ten. I’m uncertain what someone who was born in 1969 would have to offer as a similar excuse for such breath-taking ignorance.

It’s 1980. The Cold War is still on, guys. There’s still a USSR in this time with missiles pointed at the US. There are tanks all over the Eastern Bloc nations. We have our own bases and our own forces in Europe to keep the Warsaw Pact from invading. NATO is a big deal instead of the joke we all know it will become. Article V of the NATO Charter is the life-line that Western Europe has clung to and the reason our boys are still there even though the Nazis were defeated well-nigh on forty years ago. It’s also the reason we have bases in Japan and the Japanese are praying we’ll keep the Chicoms from invading them and the Taiwanese (the Republic of China) is counting on us to help them keep the Chicoms from crossing the Strait and subjecting them to the good Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward that left millions dead.

Chicom? I see some of you looking confused again. Chinese Communist. It means “a person who is loyal to the People’s Republic of China — a communist government that uses repressive means including (but not limited to) censorship, state control of the media, re-education camps, imprisonment, torture, secret police, internal and interior-focused spy organizations, centralized control of the food supply, and centralized control of the economy in order to completely dominate the people it governs.” The PRC at this time does not allow people to practice religion, the press to report anything unfavorable to the government or to the Communist ideology, or the people to communicate freely with citizens of other countries. Chicoms are, by and large, ethnically Chinese but may also be Caucasian, Russian, Serbian, Arabian, Persian, Iberian, Hispanic, Chicano, Latino, African, Korean, Japanese, Amerindian, Indian, Vietnamese, or any other ethnic group or sub-group. Their primary identity is their loyalty to a political body — the PRC.

And, like these guys, they’ll kneel to whoever orders them. Unfortunately, there are no real-world Captain Americas, Thors, and Tony Starks to save them and those who wind up as collateral damage from their own raging stupidity.

They were not good guys. They were not sweet, cuddly kittens. They were brutal, murderous, power-hungry asshats who enriched themselves at the expense of their people. They gorged themselves on power and wealth while the average Chinese citizen went hungry. Their so-called noble ideology (which doesn’t scale at all beyond devoted communities such as monasteries where there are methods of population control and a larger community that isn’t bound by that ideology to support them — just look at places like Mount Atheos) led to the deaths of tens of millions of people.

Calling them “Chicoms” isn’t an insult. It isn’t a racial or ethnic slur. Anyone who thinks that is either 1) too young to have lived through the Cold War at all, 2) too stupid to use Google and therefore too stupid to be referenced as an expert on anything, 3) looking for a reason to be offended, or 4) some combo of the above.

Brought to you by…someone educated by hard-working teachers in the Poorest State in the Union™.

So, there go you. A new vocabulary word for you! Now, let’s go back to 2015. I need to see a man about a flying car…

— G.K.

Politics and Television

Politics and Television

Or “Why G.K. Didn’t Watch The Debate.”

Oh dear Lord, we’re going into another active phase of the perpetual election cycle, aren’t we? Last week we got to see the spectacle that was the GOP debate and, while I didn’t watch it live because I knew that, even with it being on Fox with supposedly “friendly” moderators, the talking-heads weren’t going to be able to resist their chance to ham it up for the cameras and that the entire thing was going to be more about ginning up the ratings for the sponsors than it was going to be about the candidates actually, you know, talking about the issues and debating different approaches following set logical rules and avoiding logical fallacies such as strawman, reductio ad absurdum, tu quoque, ad hominem, appeals to (false) authority, special pleading, No True Scotsman, post hoc, and more while presenting actual evidence and solid reasoning for their beliefs or policy.

Can you tell I’m a bit of a throwback and a cynic? Television has ruined a lot of things and debate, argumentation, and critical thinking are among those things. It’s a great medium for entertainment and it can be used for education, yes, and story-telling. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not one of those who thinks that television is completely evil and has no redeeming qualities. I enjoy it — I have an active Netflix account and I’ve got Criminal Minds playing in the background. But, when it comes to journalism, television is the worst medium that could be used. It doesn’t allow for truly in-depth coverage, cross-referencing, citation of sources, or deep thought. Newspapers are the best medium for daily coverage and bi-weekly or monthly magazines are great for bigger events or more thorough coverage of events or technical issues. Radio can be a passable medium so long as the moderators and the debate format are agreed to in advance and the topics are adhered to. Television, however, will never make a good medium for political debates or journalism.

Why? Because it’s commercial. And, that’s good for entertainment. Hell, it’s great. It means that businesses and consumers are free to reward shows and sponsors and channels that entertain them or tell stories they like or support or whatever without having to directly own the studios or airwaves or whatever. There’s no real need for government intervention, censorship, or anything like that other than “truth in advertising” laws (you can’t advertise that your wooden spoon is actually made out of marble) and possibly some kind of daytime/child-safety advertising laws (you can’t run alcohol ads or other adult ads during certain hours or on channels aimed at children — not that most marketers would sell or buy there anyway because it’d be stupid). However, it’s an undeniable fact that you don’t piss off your sponsors and you don’t piss off your core audience. Just look at GamerGate. Intel pulled their ads from Gawker when Gawker’s articles pissed off a sizable portion of the GamerGate audience and they threatened to boycott Intel. And that kind of pressure is fine for entertainment shows and even educational shows. But it is not fine for journalism. It leads to worries about offending the corporate sponsors or the consumers which leads to spin, blacking-out of stories, and a focus on feel-good stories or the promotion of news items in a way that is guaranteed to keep the money-spigot opened.

Another reason television is a terrible medium for journalism is because it’s a visual format which leads to people judging based on appearances instead of based on the actual argument. Have you ever noticed that all of the news anchors are good-looking? And that none of them are terribly intelligent or creative? If they were trapped in the middle of a desert, they’d be screwed. Hell, if they were knee-deep in a river, they’d die of thirst. They went to fancy universities, yes, but that means nothing. Unless they graduated from CalTech, Standford (with a degree in hard sciences), or MIT, it’s worthless. These people were hired for their ability to look good on camera and read from a teleprompter or from cuecards. They were not hired for their ability to think critically, reason, ask difficult questions, or for their finely-tuned bullshit detectors.

A final reason television is the worst medium for journalism is because of its shallowness. Television is a very shallow, very short-form medium. Since it’s so visual and auditory, it’s easy to get overstimulated which makes it difficult for long-term memory to be engaged (which is why visual tricks and cut-aways can be used to deceive so easily — see below). The set-time format makes it impossible for any topic to be covered in real depth and the inability for there to be hard, permanent reference points for citations or notes makes cross-referencing difficult, if not impossible. Add in the general passivity it requires of the audience and it’s just a terrible medium for something as serious as news journalism and political debates.

There are other reasons television is a terrible medium for serious topics — it’s untrustworthy because it can be deceptively edited without the viewer being aware of it at all and, unless there are other recordings made, there’s no way to prove it (and there are never other recordings because of technical and legal reasons — no sound studio is going to let an interview subject bring in his own film crew and sound crew because not only will that cause phase cancellation issues, energy, and temperature issues but it sets them up for liability and insurance nightmares. The studio and journalists also won’t go for it because then they won’t have the sole copyright, there will be a plethora of distribution issues, and it would force them to be too damned honest).

Television — great for entertainment but a terrible way to receive information and select our leaders. Just FYI.

— G.K.

What Is Power? What Is Real?

What Is Power? What Is Real?

As I alluded to in my previous post, recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the nature of honor, power, and reality. The past two weeks I’ve had a lot of time to ponder over it as I spent time moving, looking for work, writing with either Star Trek: TNG or VOY in the background (or Criminal Minds), or screwing around at Khan Academy in their programming, physics, or algebra courses.

The fact that our entire society seems to have begun a psychotic break has given me even more food for thought as it were. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a flare up over the Confederate flag that has gotten so unhinged that several state governments as well as the federal government no longer fly the Mississippi state flag. On the heels of that came the Obergefell v. Hodges decision from the US Supreme Court which mandated legal recognition and issuance of licenses of same-sex couples in all fifty states which was okay but then, suddenly, it became a race to see who could be the sorest winner. Before people had time to process that, there were (provably false) accusations against Sir Tim Hunt that he was a sexist, then the shooting in Chattanooga that killed five Marines, the US giving Iran carte-blanche to develop nuclear weapons, and yet another salvo in the on-going war between the movie industry and the tech industry.

Truly, we live in interesting times.

But there are two thoughts that keep running through my mind right now. The first can be summed up in this quote:

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

What this means is that governments — any and all governments — derive their powers from the people. Monarchies, republics, democracies, dictatorships, whatever; they all exist only so long as the populace agrees they exist and they only have the powers that the populace agrees that they have. Governments are a kind of mass consensual shared hallucination that a nation participates in because anarchy (or the brutal rule of the strong over the weak) sucks donkey balls. So, if tomorrow a sizable portion of the US populace woke up and decided they no longer believed in the current government (effectively withdrew their consent), the whole thing collapses. Oh, sure, they can try to use force (the military, the police, the alphabet bureaus) to batter people into consenting but that really only works short term (see also the USSR and the Eastern Bloc). It also only works if the military and police go along with it (which is not a sure thing) and if the populace is unable to fight back (also uncertain).

The disbelievers don’t even have to break the law, really. Just stop believing in the government. Note that I don’t say “consider it illegitimate” or “rebel” or “secede.” I say “stop believing.” If someone claiming to represent the government approaches a disbeliever, the disbeliever will be politely confused — much like the average person will be when a conspiracy theorist starts raving about how the Illuminati is behind Everything Bad In The World.

Does this mean that disbelievers don’t pay taxes? Well, that’s the tricky part. That’s the part I’m not sure about. Why? Because:

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

The simple fact is that, whether one believes it or not, the US government exists. And, even though not all of the police and military would use force to make disbelievers fall in line, enough of them would and enough people have a vested interest in keeping the government in existence (and the current crop in power) that merely disbelieving by itself probably wouldn’t be enough. Either a truly massive number of people would have to withdraw consent (at least 45%) and actively stop supporting the government by ceasing to pay all taxes as well as recognize and respect all symbols and claims of authority, an active rebellion would have to be launched (including setting up a parallel government), a governors’ convention of states would have to be called, or an enterprising intern could introduce a “technical amendment” in a bill that would effectively repeal the entirety of the federal legal code, all treaties, all judicial decisions, and all executive edicts issued since 1800. I would suggest sneaking it into one of those really big bills that no one reads anyway.

So, what can be done then, really? Well, sit back and really think about what “consent of the governed” means. It’s pretty revolutionary, actually, and it’s the seed we’ll be building from in the future as we keep exploring the nature of power and reality.

— G.K.

Matters of Honor, Power, and Illusions

Matters of Honor, Power, and Illusions

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about honor and rules when it comes to combat, debate, arguing, and society. I’ve half-written about a dozen entries on this so I decided to come back and do an intro since it’s going to be a pretty lengthy subject. Others have written about it before and a lot of what they’ve said is worth reading. However, recent events — the fight over the Hugos, the issue with white-washing the entire Civil War out of American history, the Balkanization of society, and so on, has made me do a lot of thinking which starts out around honor.

Basically, one side believes in honor and the other side believes in “the end justifies the means.” We’re not even really fighting over the same thing here and it’s taken me quite a while to realize it. It didn’t strike me until I was re-reading We and got to thinking about dystopian literature (which, of course, always leads back to Orwell’s 1984). This isn’t about freedom vs slavery, capitalism vs socialism, statism vs dynamism, red vs blue, Democrats vs Republicans — that’s all just a front. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

It’s about power. Who has it? Who’s going to keep it? What is power, really? And does it even truly exist or is it just another illusion? Is it just another shadow on Plato’s cavern wall? I honestly don’t know but it’s got all my little INT lights just a-flickering so I’m hoping some of you will stick around with me while I knock these ideas around. They’re not going to be perfect and I welcome honest discussion on the matter because I get the sense that this is something the Founding Fathers “got” intuitively. That power (outside of actual physical power — as in “laws of physics” kind of power) is just an illusion. It’s a kind of mass mutually-shared hallucination we participate in by agreement and if enough of us decide to stop playing the game — like in the Matrix — we might be able to bring the entire system into a state of crash or some kind of kernel panic.

It’d be interesting, at least. That is if I’m even anywhere near correct on this (which isn’t a given).

So, anyone up for it?

— G.K.

And then what?

And then what?

Right. In the wake of recent events, I’ve seen a lot of back-and-forth from both sides over What Must Be Done to Stop Bad Things From Ever Happening Again. So far everything from removing Lee’s banner from everywhere (including monuments about the Civil War) to removing the monuments themselves (because we can’t have anything that might seem to honor, commemorate, or hell, games or maps that might teach about the Civil War — a historical event) to actually getting rid of Gone With The Wind. Big chain stores like Wal-Mart and Amazon are pulling merchandise off their shelves that has the Stars and Bars on it (and that’s their right to decide what they carry) and smaller stores like Etsy are doing the same. They’re all still carrying crap with the Sickle and Hammer and Che and Mao on it but then, genocide, collectivization, and killing over 100,000,000 people isn’t such a terrible thing as slavery for $reasons.

Oh, and of course if we all turn in our guns, everything will be rainbows and puppies and unicorns forever. With sparkles.

So, I just have to ask, if we actually did all this — let’s say that tomorrow we wake up and every single Confederate flag is gone, every Mississippi State flag has been changed to the one below, every Confederate monument has been obliterated, every American history book has been altered to remove any reference to any cause for the Civil War that wasn’t slavery (and don’t get me wrong — slavery was the primary motive and it was an extremely lucrative business). Every single gun in the United States outside of the ones owned by the police and military forces and stored in their common armories has been magically changed into Play-Doh and somehow, a magical force field has been created that makes it impossible for any gun to ever be carried by anyone who isn’t a police officer or member of the military. Not only that, but every single copy of every single book written by Mark Twain, Margaret Mitchell, or any other “racist” writer or writer who glamorized the Confederacy in any way has been vaporized. None of it exists.

The new state flag combines the power of zebras, unicorns, ponies, and pure fucking awesome

So, then what? What happens the next time Some Asshole goes on a murder spree? Some guy with a knife managed to stab twenty-nine people in China. Do we ban knives next? (Some would say yes and in the UK, there are laws on just how long a bladed weapon you can carry and yes, screw-drivers and multi-tools do count). If he’s a racist asshole, do we mandate racial sensitivity re-training for everyone? How do we monitor to make certain that everyone has the “right” attitudes? If he used a bat or club instead, do we start banning baseball bats? Regulate sporting equipment? Make it illegal to pick up heavy sticks or break branches off trees? Would you have to get a license to become a carver or whittler just in case you might make a baseball bat or club? What if he used a shovel? Or what if he rigs up a homemade flamethrower using aerosol deodorant and cigarette lighters? Do we ban those?

What if he’s not racist but instead hates Jews? Or women? Or Mormons? Or Catholics? Or Baptists? Or southpaws? Or Trekkies? Which groups are protected and why? Which groups aren’t and why not? Who gets to decide? How do we monitor the thoughts the Asshole was having? Why do they matter more than the crime itself?

It’s already illegal to commit murder. Part of the definition of murder is “killing unlawfully.” The punishment for murder is one of the harshest we have on the books and yet Assholes still go out and commit it — just like other assholes go out and rape and steal. I’m not sure how many more laws we can put on the books, how many more kinds of things we can make illegal, how many more kinds of thoughts we can say are bad before we’ve finally thrown out everything we once stood for.

There were mass murders before there were guns. There were mass murders before there was a United States, let alone a Confederacy or racism or sexism or anything like that. If we get rid of of all those things, we’re still going to have mass murders. The question is this: and then what? What do we get rid of next? What do we blame after that?

And why are we blaming anything other than the person who made the decision to commit the act of murder?

All credit due to Randall Munroe, yo

— G.K.

Tom Knighton, a fellow Southerner, has some very interesting thoughts on this as well
When the descendant of an unreconstructed Unionist descended (on the maternal side) from a sternly Abolitionist Pennsylvania Quaker decides that maybe he wants to get the Rebel flag and start flying it, maybe you’ve overplayed your hand…

On dinosaurs, colossi, golems, governments, and adaptation

On dinosaurs, colossi, golems, governments, and adaptation

…and why they all tend to die out in the end.

It’s an interesting fact in the history of biological life that the oldest form of life on Earth is the bacteria (and arguably the virus). Not just because they’re simple entities — amoeba are also fairly simple as are many members of the protist branch. It’s also interesting to note that bacteria, protists, and viruses from the Proterozoic Eon (roughly 2500 million years ago) of the are still around. They’re still happily doing their thing, sometimes killing vast swathes of plants and animals, without a care in the world. They’ll be here long after humanity has either turned to dust or departed for worlds unknown.

It’s amazing, when you think about it. These tiny, simple, mindless, invisible things have outlasted the dinosaurs. The KT impact was barely a blip on their radar. The Ice Age? Again, barely registered to them. They kept on keeping on. The dinosaurs had them beat on size, strength, teeth, defensive features (immune systems and thick hides and spikes!), could move around more, reproduce sexually, were more genetically diverse… and then along came a single hunk of rock and it was bye-bye dinosaurs while the little microscopic dudes kept on truckin’. The dinosaurs were the masters of their environment, true, but bacteria and viruses are the masters of adaptation. And, when it comes to long-term, long-scale, universal and planetary survival, adaptation is the key trait if you’re going to be more than just a bit player in the grand game of life.

Humanity has been fighting an on-going war with some members of these groups forever. We have an immune system that fights them and we also use plants to try to counteract them and have done since we figured out we could do that way back during the prehistoric era. It’s been a long-running fight and in all that time, we’ve managed to eradicate one of them. Small pox. The rest are still merrily going about their way. Some of them we need. Some of them kill us. Some of them we are trying to eradicate and can’t even with all our technology, all our grand colossi and skyscrapers, all our golems and governments. And, compared to the dinosaurs, we’re easy prey. I mean, we don’t have big sharp teeth, scaly hides, powerful muscles, we’re not the size of the brontosaurus or the T-Rex. We don’t have the armor plating of the Triceratops or the stegosaurus. We couldn’t outrun a velociraptor if we wanted to.

However, like the viruses and bacteria, we’re great at adaptation and we’re capable of breaking off into small groups. We can mix traits on multiple levels — not just genetic but memetic — and see what works. It’s when we try to be like the dinosaurs that things get bad for us. Yes, we can gather into large groups and become like a tsunami sometimes and sometimes that’s good — think things like food drives, building houses for the homeless, SETI@home, KickStarter — but notice that all of those things are voluntary. They’re also all temporary efforts. No one joins in every KickStarter campaign or builds every house. And, tribes banding together in a common effort isn’t always a bad thing — look at the success the United States and the entire Anglosphere has enjoyed over the past few centuries. But, if we’re not left with room to adapt inside those structures, it’ll all go wonky.

The problem in recent history has been that some parts of human society want us to be more colossal and monolithic because they believe that’s the only way to progress. I’m specifically thinking of the left-wing “progressives” who want to grant the government the power to regulate just about every aspect of life — economic, social, education, cultural, philosophical — to mandate certain outcomes they deem “fair.” However, doing that has always bred the ability to adapt to sudden change right out of the people and the society. Just look at what happened to the Soviet Union and to Eastern Europe. Look at what’s happening in all of the South American and Latin American countries that embraced socialism and communism and their five-year plans. Just look at Cuba and North Korea. Look at the Middle East and most of the African nations. Look at most of Europe that’s embraced socialism. When changes happen, they can’t cope. Birth rates fall — they cannot adapt to the new reality. In Europe, they imported new generations to replenish their falling population rates but could not adapt to the changes that brought and still can’t handle it — look at the riots, the carbeques that are just a fact of life there, the zones sensibles around Paris, the re-emergence of a new underclass and caste system that may be socially and culturally permanent since there’s no way for the French, the Germans, the Britons, or the Swedes to change how “French,” “German,” “British,” or “Swedish,” is defined or how someone can become a member of those tribes other than by birth. The Industrial Revolution ended and was replaced by the paradigm-shifting Digital revolution and these nations cannot adapt.

Industries are having problems as well. The publishing world got hit by the KT impact of Amazon and the Internet just like the movie and music industries and since they’re all populated by rather monolithic corporations who have a lot vested in the status quo ante, they not only don’t want to adapt, but they may not be able to. The Big Five may die entirely just like the dinosaurs did because, while Amazon is a large beast, it’s more like a large colony of bacteria and less like a brontosaurus. If one part of Amazon fails, it won’t bring down the whole thing. Amazon is acing the adaptation thing while the Big Five not only are failing at it but, given some of Tor’s senior management’s recent behavior, they’re doing everything they can to destroy their own food supplies and water sources.

Hell, the United States is having trouble dealing with the chaos that the Digital Revolution has wrought and we’re probably the most flexible and adaptable nation and society on the planet. The genius of the Founders guaranteed that. Which is why I have a really hard time wrapping my head around the idea that we should be like the rest of the world and become more rigid and inflexible. Do we have our problems? Yes. Do we have our imperfections — of course! Are there inequalities? Without a doubt. Is it better to have those problems than to be unable to deal with changes in reality? Is it better to be a bacteria or a dinosaur?

I say it’s better to be a bacteria. I say it’s better to be something that can adapt quickly and rapidly even if that means that there’s going to be a lot of inequality and imperfection and problems because it means at least you’re alive to deal with them instead of being extinct the first time a big rock comes your way. After all, if you’re alive, you can work to try to minimize those inequalities — for instance, make it illegal to discriminate against people based on things like race, religion, orientation, gender, political philosophy; make it so that society and economics is more of a meritocracy. If you’re dead… well, there’s really not much you can do (other than vote Democrat, of course).

— G.K.

The Bill of Rights and Other Amendments — With Explanations!

The Bill of Rights and Other Amendments -- With Explanations!

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are collectively known as “The Bill of Rights.” They were not originally included in the Constitution because the Framers felt that the enumerated and forbidden powers were enough to ensure the liberties of the people of the United States. However, there were factions and states that were uneasy about ratifying the Constitution as it was. So, in order to secure ratification, the Framers agreed to add the Bill of Rights.


Almost all of the amendments are what we call “negative rights.” That doesn’t mean that they’re bad things — it means that the assumption is that the people have these rights “endowed by their Creator” already and that the government is explicitly forbidden from infringing upon them. The concept of negative rights is very much a central part of the American psyche and it’s important to understand that if you want to understand Americans and their government and political philosophy. However, a full explanation of negative rights versus positive rights is worth an entry in and of itself so that will come later.



Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances[1].



Amendment II
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed[2].



Amendment III
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law[3].



Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized[4].



Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation[5].



Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence[6].



Amendment VII
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law[7].



Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted[8].



Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people[9].



Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people[10].



Amendment XI
Passed by Congress March 4, 1794. Ratified February 7, 1795.


Note: Article III, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by amendment 11.


The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State[11].



Amendment XII
Passed by Congress December 9, 1803. Ratified June 15, 1804.


Note: A portion of Article II, section 1 of the Constitution was superseded by the 12th amendment.


The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; — the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; — The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. [And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. –]* The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States[12].


*Superseded by section 3 of the 20th amendment.



Amendment XIII
Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.


Note: A portion of Article IV, section 2, of the Constitution was superseded by the 13th amendment.


Section 1.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction[13].


Section 2.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.



Amendment XIV
Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868.


Note: Article I, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 2 of the 14th amendment.
Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws[14].


Section 2.
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,* and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State[15].


Section 3.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability[16].


Section 4.
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void[17].


Section 5.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.


*Changed by section 1 of the 26th amendment.



Amendment XV
Passed by Congress February 26, 1869. Ratified February 3, 1870.


Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude[18]


Section 2.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.



Amendment XVI
Passed by Congress July 2, 1909. Ratified February 3, 1913.


Note: Article I, section 9, of the Constitution was modified by amendment 16.
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration[19].



Amendment XVII
Passed by Congress May 13, 1912. Ratified April 8, 1913.


Note: Article I, section 3, of the Constitution was modified by the 17th amendment.


The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures[20].


When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.


This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.



Amendment XVIII
Passed by Congress December 18, 1917. Ratified January 16, 1919. Repealed by amendment 21.


Section 1.
After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited[21].


Section 2.
The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


Section 3.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress[22].



Amendment XIX
Passed by Congress June 4, 1919. Ratified August 18, 1920.


The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex[23].


Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.



Amendment XX
Passed by Congress March 2, 1932. Ratified January 23, 1933.


Note: Article I, section 4, of the Constitution was modified by section 2 of this amendment. In addition, a portion of the 12th amendment was superseded by section 3.


Section 1.
The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.


Section 2.
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.


Section 3.
If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified[24].


Section 4.
The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.


Section 5.
Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.


Section 6.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.



Amendment XXI
Passed by Congress February 20, 1933. Ratified December 5, 1933.


Section 1.
The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.


Section 2.
The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.


Section 3.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.



Amendment XXII
Passed by Congress March 21, 1947. Ratified February 27, 1951.


Section 1.
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term[25].


Section 2.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.



Amendment XXIII
Passed by Congress June 16, 1960. Ratified March 29, 1961.


Section 1.
The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:


A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment[26].


Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.



Amendment XXIV
Passed by Congress August 27, 1962. Ratified January 23, 1964.


Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax[27].


Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.



Amendment XXV
Passed by Congress July 6, 1965. Ratified February 10, 1967.


Note: Article II, section 1, of the Constitution was affected by the 25th amendment.


Section 1.
In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.


Section 2.
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.


Section 3.
Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.


Section 4.
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.


Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office[28].



Amendment XXVI
Passed by Congress March 23, 1971. Ratified July 1, 1971.


Note: Amendment 14, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 1 of the 26th amendment.


Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age[29].


Section 2.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.



Amendment XXVII
Originally proposed Sept. 25, 1789. Ratified May 7, 1992.


No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened[30].


[1]The First Amendment is probably the greatest sentence ever written in all of human history. It forbids Congress (and the States) from establishing an official religion, from prohibiting any other religions (though certain religious practices such as slavery and human sacrifice and the like can be forbidden), from using prior restraint to stop publications that are critical of the government or its officials, from regulating or forbidding people from gathering together to protest, and from forbidding people from suing the government in cases where it is in the wrong.


[2]The Second Amendment is the favored whipping boy of the Bill of Rights. A few notes: a “militia” is a group of regular able-bodied men who are not part of an established army and who thus, have to bring their own weapons to fight with. If you bring your own weapons, you’re part of a militia. If you are given your weapons by someone else (like the government), you’re part of an army. That’s why being able to own weapons (not just guns, but weapons of any kind that aren’t an intrinsic danger to others just by nature of their existence and proximity)* is an individual right.


The Second Amendment also ensures that the people of the United States will always have the ultimate power to overthrow their government by force of arms if the government becomes tyrannical. Recall that in the Declaration of Independence it is written that:

…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Well, it would be rather difficult to pull off the whole “altering/abolishing of a government” if the government had all the weapons and the people had nothing but words and rocks, now wouldn’t it? And no, the American people aren’t just going to “trust” that their government won’t screw them over. It’s barely been two and a half centuries since the Founding of the country and already the government has a long history of riding roughshod over liberties — especially in recent years with the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Terrorism,” the complete raping of the Commerce Clause, and the government’s tendency to vote itself exempt from the laws it enforces on everyone else. I’m not saying that the time for violent revolution is now or that it will ever come. I am, however, saying that the government respects the people (and their liberties) a lot more when the people can shoot back.


*A gun, a knife, a sword, a tank, a car, a cannon, cannonballs, bullets, slingshots, slings, lances, spears, bows and arrows, rocks, petroleum, wine bottles, beer bottles (this could get rather long) and things like that aren’t intrinsically dangerous. I could put a loaded gun on my desk pointed right at me and it’s not going to shoot me by itself anymore than any of the knives in my kitchen drawer will jump up and stab me or my car will wreck itself and kill me. All of those things require a human agent to set them off. Weapons that are intrinsically dangerous and can, arguably, be restricted from civilian possession are things like: nuclear weapons, fissionable materials, high explosives, poisonous or highly corrosive chemicals, gas and chemical weapons like mustard, Sarin, etc, biological weapons like plagues. Those are all things that, even with the best security and maintenance, could go off or get out of control and endanger people nearby and do not require a human element to set off. See the difference?


[3]This was passed largely in response to the Quartering Acts the British had inflicted on the colonies. It’s rarely been violated (it’s probably the only amendment that hasn’t been) but there is a definite argument that the current NSA crap where they load little back-doors and all into software and into the firmware of commercial devices could be construed as violating this. But then, I’m not a lawyer.


[4]This amendment stopped the “general warrant” crap by forcing the government to state exactly what it was after and where it thought to find it. A judge had to sign off on the warrant and, at first, the officials enforcing the warrant were supposed to be careful not to damage anything unless absolutely necessary. In recent decades, the police have gotten away with ignoring the Fourth Amendment because of the drug war and the militarization of the police force. Far too many judges just rubber stamp warrants now and prosecutors are rarely held to account for using illegally obtained evidence or the fruit of that poisoned tree.


[5]The Fifth Amendment does a lot of things. First of all, the most common usage is when someone “takes the Fifth” or “pleads the Fifth” in court. This means that they are refusing to testify because they may be compelled to testify against themselves. It doesn’t mean they’re guilty. But, you can’t take the Fifth on some questions and not on others. You either take it for everything or nothing (I think).


The Fifth Amendment also prevents the government from trying someone over and over again for the same exact crime. If the government can’t win a conviction on their first attempt at trying someone for a specific instance of a crime, then they can’t try again. It’s arguable that the whole recent trend of the Federal government trying someone for a similar crime if the State government acquits them is double jeopardy.


Finally, the Fifth Amendment forces the government to actually indict someone (meaning they have to have evidence of a crime and that person’s connection to it) instead of holding them indefinitely. It also forces the government to pay for any property it seizes instead of leaving the owner high and dry.


[6]This amendment guarantees the right to a criminal trial by jury and that the jury be composed of impartial members to ensure that the trial is fair. It also forces the government to hold the trial sooner rather than later. The accused also gets to cross examine witnesses who speak against him and to confront his accuser. Arguably, this amendment is being actively violated concerning rape cases at the moment — especially on college campuses where the accused can be punished without ever knowing who filed a claim against him or what the claim actually is (and universities can be considered part of the government since they are established and paid for by the government in many places). It is being passively violated by the lack of judges and juries in many places and the fact that some people are forced to wait for months or years to stand trial because of the backlog.


[7]Civil cases concerning more than $20 can be tried by a jury and if they are jury trials, there’s no chance to appeal the jury’s verdict (as I understand it). I’m not sure how this one works, actually, considering that I’ve heard of several patent cases tried by a jury that then had one of the litigants appeal the decision (like Apple v Samsung).


[8]The government can’t require that someone pay a billion trillion dollars in bail for possession of marijuana (though it can require a million dollars for something like murder). And, the government can only imprison or execute someone. It can’t torture them or force them to “reform.” Execution isn’t cruel in and of itself so long as the manner in which it is carried out doesn’t involve excessive pain and results in a relatively quick death.


[9]This means that just because it’s not in the Bill of Rights doesn’t mean it’s forbidden. The assumption is always that the people have the right to do anything they want that isn’t explicitly forbidden.


[10]If the US government isn’t explicitly allowed to do it, then they are forbidden from doing it and the power to do whatever it is resides either within the State governments or within the people themselves. This one gets ignored a lot. 🙁


[11]Eleventh Amendment at The Free Dictionary has the best explanation:

The text of the Eleventh Amendment limits the power of federal courts to hear lawsuits against state governments brought by the citizens of another state or the citizens of a foreign country. The Supreme Court has also interpreted the Eleventh Amendment to bar federal courts from hearing lawsuits instituted by citizens of the state being sued and lawsuits initiated by the governments of foreign countries. For example, the state of New York could invoke the Eleventh Amendment to protect itself from being sued in federal court by its own residents, residents of another state, residents of a foreign country, or the government of a foreign country.


[12]This amendment resolved the problems with the Electoral College being able to elect the President and the Vice President separately (with the Vice President being the runner-up in the election). It allowed for the Electors to have only one vote (instead of two) and also made it possible for a President to select a Vice President who would work with him instead of against him as had happened when two political opponents were elected President and Vice President (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1796).


[13]This amendment was passed after the Civil War and during Reconstruction and abolished the institution of slavery entirely in the United States.


[14]This amendment was passed after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. It granted citizenship to the freed slaves and forbade the State governments from revoking citizenship rights and liberties or infringing upon them. It also forbade the States from denying equal protection of law to any group of citizens. The citizenship clause also opened up the on-going argument over “birth tourism” as it redefined citizenship to apply to anyone born within the physical United States whether their parents were citizens or not.


[15]This amendment also forms the basis for the “right to privacy” that was invoked in Griswold v Connecticut and Roe v Wade. Further, it undid the Three-Fifths Compromise by including all the freed slaves as whole people for considering representation. The amendment also allowed the right to vote to be withheld on the basis of criminal convictions or rebellion.


[16]This part of the amendment was to keep former Confederate officers or loyalists from holding office.


[17]This part was intended to spell out that the former Confederates couldn’t sue for the loss of their slaves under the Fifth Amendment and to let England and France know that the money they’d lent to the Confederacy wasn’t going to be paid back by the United States (since the debt wasn’t incurred by the United States). However, recent events have led to speculation that this section might give the president unilateral authority to raise or lower the debt ceiling and to demand revenues to pay off debts.


[18]This amendment was intended to keep States from infringing on the voting rights of freed slaves in any manner. However, courts in the late 1800s interpreted this amendment’s power narrowly and ruled that race-neutral infringements were legal (ex: poll taxes, literacy tests, etc) so long as they applied equally to everyone.


[19]This is the income tax amendment. Prior to it, revenues were generally raised by tariffs and excise taxes. Direct taxes were levied by the State governments and Congress had to request a specific dollar amount from each state who then collected it in whatever manner they had decided in their own laws.


[20]This allows for the direct election of Senators by the people of each State instead of via appointment by the State legislature or governor. It was passed to try to get rid of the corruption whereby state legislatures were induced to elect Senators in return for corporate (or other) favors from the gilded-age companies. However, not only did this amendment fail to do that, it diluted the Senate’s purpose in the federal government and has led to an overreach of power and the loss of many liberties both to the States and to the people. Additionally, as can be seen by then governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich’s soliciting bribes from candidates for his appointment to the Senate, the Seventeenth amendment has made it so that you only have to corrupt one person to purchase a Senate seat instead of several dozen.


[21]Ah. Good ol’ Prohibition. This was the only amendment to be repealed. It also has made Congress (and the States) very leery of “popular cultural” amendments to the Constitution because cultural and social norms do change over time and it’s damned hard to repeal an amendment later down the road even if it’s become extremely unpopular.


[22]This is a sunset clause. Earlier amendments didn’t have them so many of them are technically still pending even if there is no hope of them ever being ratified.


[23]Technically, this “gave” women the right to vote. What it really did was tell the states who had laws forbidding women to vote (or forbidding them from voting in certain kinds of elections) that they couldn’t do that anymore. There were actually a lot of states that allowed women to vote to varying degrees prior to this amendment. You can check more on that at Wikipedia.


[24]This amendment removed much of the “lame duck” term for an out-going Congress and President. With the advances in transportation technology during the latter 1800s, it was no longer necessary to give elected officials four months post-election to make their way to Washington DC. The delay had also caused problems with responding to the Secession Crisis in 1861 and to the Great Depression.


[25]This limits the President to only two terms in that office. It was passed in response to Franklin D. Roosevelt being elected four times. He was not the first to seek a third term of office but he was the first to win one. Being President for so long allowed him to do a lot of things that have not worked out for the best for the US — inflating the chairs on the Supreme Court, court-packing, a lot of his economic packages that have devolved into little more than vote-buying or State-buying, and the corruption of the judiciary. Yes, FDR helped to defeat the Nazis in a big way by keeping Great Britain from going under but he still did a lot of damage during his thirteen years (he died shortly after starting his fourth term) as President.


[26]This amendment allows citizens living in Washington DC to vote for the President. People in Washington DC don’t have representation in Congress and so didn’t have electors. They also aren’t a state with their own legislature and governor. Instead, DC is generally “governed” by Congress and its local city officials.


[27]This amendment closed the loopholes for “race-neutral” means of disenfranchising blacks. No more poll taxes.


[28]This amendment clears up the confusion over whether or not the Vice President became President if the President died or was removed from office. Convention held that it did but there was no means of appointing or filling the office of Vice President when that happened. This amendment also clarified the order of President Succession in the event that a nuclear attack killed a lot of the US government officials who would normally have been in line.


[29]This amendment lowered the voting age to 18. It was passed in response to the protests of many men who were drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. The draft age was 18 but voting was, by and large, at 21 in most states (a few did allow voting before 21). “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote,” was the philosophy of this amendment. Also, it had the effect of allowing 18-year-olds to enter into contracts, get married, purchase alcohol, and enjoy other fruits of adulthood.


[30]The only surprise is that it took Congress over 200 years to get around to legally protecting their paychecks which is what this amendment does.

The Constitution of the United States — With Explanations!

The Constitution of the United States -- With Explanations!

Another extremely important document to understand if you’re going to understand American government and politics is the Constitution. Yes, even now, almost 225 years after its ratification, it is still the cornerstone and chief document of the United States government. As much as many might wish the government to ignore certain portions or provisions, for a government official to do so is itself a violation of the Constitution and possibly grounds for being forced out of office, impeached, or even tried for treason (depending on the violation and its severity, of course). This is rare, though, because, until recent years, knowledge of the Constitution was a requirement for graduating high school and was a source of pride for anyone who wanted to run for office.


If you were to write the Constitution by hand (and don’t have super-giant handwriting), the whole thing will fit on four pages of parchment or six pages of standard-sized college-rule notebook paper. So, don’t whine at me that it’s too long or too dense to understand. It’s really not. The average English-reading adult should be able to read through the Constitution of the United States in about fifteen minutes and should be able to understand the language it’s written in. The simple fact that far too many people don’t bother is extremely sad and extremely frustrating.


Quick note: I have not included the Bill of Rights in this post. They need their own post which will be next in this “important documents” series.



We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare[1], and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.



Article I[2]
SECTION. 1. All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives[3].


SECTION. 2. The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.


No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State[4] in which he shall be chosen.


Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons[5]. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to choose three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.


When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies[6].


The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers[7]; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment[8].


SECTION. 3. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote[9].


Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year[10]; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies[11].


No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.


The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.


The Senate shall chose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.


The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments[12]. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present[13].


Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.


SECTION. 4. The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.


The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.


SECTION. 5. Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.


Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.


Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.


Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting[14].


SECTION. 6. The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place[15].


No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.


SECTION. 7. All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills[16].


Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law. But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by Yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively. If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.


Every Order, Resolution, or Vote to which the Concurrence of the Senate and House of Representatives may be necessary (except on a question of Adjournment) shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the Same shall take Effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be re-passed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the Rules and Limitations prescribed in the Case of a Bill.


SECTION. 8. The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States[17];


To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;


To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States[18], and with the Indian Tribes;


To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;


To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;


To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;


To establish Post Offices and post Roads;


To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;


To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;


To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;


To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;


To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;


To provide and maintain a Navy; To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;


To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;


To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;


To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings;-And


To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.


SECTION. 9. The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.


The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it[19].


No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed[20].


No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.


No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State[21].


No Preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another: nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one State, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another.


No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time[22].


No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State[23].


SECTION. 10. No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.


No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Control of the Congress.


No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay[24].



Article II[25]
SECTION. 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:


Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.


The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner choose the President. But in choosing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice President[26].


The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.


No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States[27].


In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.


The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.


Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”


SECTION. 2. The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.


He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.


The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session[28].


SECTION. 3. He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed[29], and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.


SECTION. 4. The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors[30].



Article III[31]
SECTION. 1. The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.


SECTION. 2. The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.


In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.


The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed[32].


SECTION. 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.


The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.



Article IV[33]
SECTION. 1. Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof[34].


SECTION. 2. The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.


A Person charged in any State with Treason, Felony, or other Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on Demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the State having Jurisdiction of the Crime.


No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.


SECTION. 3. New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.


The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.


SECTION. 4. The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence[35].



Article V[36]
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.



Article VI[37]
All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.


This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding[38].


The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States[39].



Article VII
The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.



[1]“General Welfare” gets misunderstood a lot these days as meaning that the federal government should provide monetary welfare for the needy. The way it’s used in the Preamble refers only to things that could benefit all citizens of the United States — roads, the Armed Forces, public hospitals, and the like.


[2]Article I establishes the legislative branch of the US government — the House of Representatives and the Senate. Since this branch and its two houses are established independently by the Constitution, they can’t be dismissed or ignored by the other branches of the government. Unlike in a more parliamentary system such as is used in the UK or France, the President cannot send Congress home and cannot force new elections. Congressional elections, authority, and existence is independent of the executive who has no real legislative authority.


[3]The US Congress is bicameral — consisting of two houses. This was actually a huge debate during the Constitutional Convention. Smaller states (those with less people) wanted a single house where every state got one vote (the New Jersey plan). Larger, more populous states, wanted a single house where representation depended on how many people lived in the state (the Virginia plan). The Convention settled upon a compromise (the Connecticut Compromise) — two houses. Seats in the House of Representatives is based on the number of people in a given state but the Senate is always two Senators from a given state. Both houses have to agree on legislation before it goes to the President for signing or for veto which puts small and large states on an equal footing in the government.


[4]Representatives of a state and Senators from a state must be residents of that state. This was to combat the “absentee landlord/representative” problem that was prevalent in Britain at the time where a member of Parliament might hold a seat over a part of the country he’d never visited. If you want to be a Congressperson for a state, you need to go and live in that state and establish residency (each state has different requirements) within that state first.


[5]Ah, the good ol’ Three Fifths Compromise. This meant one slave counted as three-fifths of a person for representation. It was pretty much repealed and subverted with the ending of slavery after the Civil War. However, it was necessary to get the Constitution ratified since the slave states would have refused to ratify the Constitution without it but the free states objected to the proposal to count slaves entirely towards population (which would have inflated the representation from the slave states by a fair margin).


[6]If a Representative dies, falls too ill to carry out their duties, or is removed from office, the governor of that state must call for a special election within their state immediately. Unlike with a Senator, the governor cannot appoint a temporary replacement to fill out the term of office — the Representative has to be elected by the people of that state because that’s the whole purpose of the House of Representatives — to represent the people of the different states. The states themselves are represented in the Senate.


[7]Fun fact: you don’t have to be elected to the House of Representatives to be the Speaker of the House. The majority party could elect any US citizen who is qualified to hold office as their Speaker. Generally, though, the Speaker does come from the House of Representatives.


[8]If someone is in need of being impeached in the federal government, the House of Representatives will have to decide that. Now, impeaching someone does not mean they’ll be removed from office. Impeachment is more like an indictment than a conviction. Thus far, Congress has used the power of impeachment only 19 times. Only two presidents have ever been impeached — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Neither was removed from office. Nixon wasn’t impeached — he resigned before the House could meet to vote on it.


[9]The Senate is where the states themselves are supposed to be represented. The Senate’s job is not to represent the interest of the people of a state but rather to represent the interest of the state itself — the people are already represented in the House. This is why the Senate is the place where treaties are ratified and executive appointments are decided — because the Senators are looking after the long-term interest of their state.


Senators were originally appointed or elected only by the legislature of the states they were residents of. Direct election of the Senate is a very recent thing and it has definitely upset the balance of power within the federal government and weakened and diluted the power of the Senate itself a great deal.


[10]This class thing has nothing to do with rank or importance. It’s strictly about deciding when the Senators from a given state have to be re-elected. Since Senators serve six year terms and the Senate is necessary for a lot of important functions (treaties and the like), it’s not a good idea to have the whole house out for election every sixth year. So, every two years 1/3 of the seats in the Senate are elected within their state.


[11]Senators can be appointed by the governor or the legislature of their state (depending on the laws within that state) if the seat is vacant because a Senator died, was removed from office, or is no longer able to function as a Senator.


[12]If the House passes the Articles of Impeachment against a federal official, the Senate is the one who votes on whether or not to remove that person from office.


[13]To be removed from office, 2/3s of the Senate has to vote for it.


[14]This forbids secret meetings or “special government councils” from getting together to make and pass laws in a bid to get around dealing with the rest of the legislative branch.


[15]Just because you’re in Congress doesn’t exempt you from being prosecuted for a crime. However, you can’t be arrested if you’re on your way to Congress or if Congress is in session and you are there as an elected official. Now, once Congress is out of session, you’re fair game.


[16]If the government needs to raise revenue, only the House of Representatives can start the process to do so. All bills regarding taxation have to originate in the House. This goes back to the whole “no taxation without representation” thing that was what sparked the American revolution. The Senate can’t create a revenue bill because the Senate represents the states — not the people! And yes, this is a Big Fucking Deal and it is part of why the ACA is so controversial.


[17]Article I, Section 8 is also called the “enumerated powers” part of the Constitution. This is where all of the things that Congress is allowed to do are spelled out. Anything not in this list is reserved either to another branch of the government or, if it’s not in the Constitution at all, to the state governments or to the people of the states.


[18]Welcome to the horribly abused “Commerce Clause.” Congress was originally given the power to regulate interstate trade — things like making certain that one state didn’t impose special taxes on goods from another state or settling commercial disagreements between states or to regulate (uniformly) all trade or industry within the United States. These days, it’s been abused to regulate things that could hardly be called trade (such as fining a farmer for growing wheat on his own land when he never intended to sell it but instead to use it to feed his livestock) or things that could hardly be called “interstate” (such as marijuana growers in Colorado still being subject to federal raids and seizures even when their product never crosses into or out of another state).


[19]Habeas corpus is what forces the government to get a court order to continue to detain a person awaiting trial. It’s what keeps the government from just locking someone up and never checking to see if the government has a case against that person or even has the right person locked up. This was put in to keep things like “being held for the Monarch’s pleasure” from happening. Habeas corpus can only be suspended in very narrow circumstances and has happened only twice at the federal level.


[20]A bill of attainder was where a legislature (such as Parliament) could vote to declare a person guilty of a crime without that person having a trial. These kind of things are expressly forbidden in the United States. Ex post facto laws are also forbidden — if something wasn’t illegal when the person did it and then it later became illegal (such as selling alcohol), the person couldn’t be arrested and tried for performing acts that were once legal (or, at the very least, not illegal). This also prevents punishments from being increased if the severity of the punishment is later changed by law.


[21]States cannot impose taxes on goods coming from other states and Congress can’t impose those taxes for them. Goods moving from one state to another are free and clear.


[22]Congress does have to keep a good accounting of their expenditures and keep a budget. This is a big deal and it’s part of why people are upset with the current Congress where the Senate has refused to pass a budget bill in six years. Continuing resolutions are not considered adequate enough to fulfill this obligation.


[23]Once you’re an American (whether it’s at birth or later), you can’t become a noble somewhere else unless Congress passes a special act to allow it. Also, if you’re a noble from another country, your title means squat here.


[24]This section keeps the states from doing things that are reserved only for Congress.


[25]Article II deals with the executive branch of the government. Again, the executive draws power and existence from the Constitution itself and cannot be easily removed or ignored by the other branches.


[26]Right, so, two big points to work with here. First, the Electoral College. Remember back in footnote #3 I mentioned something called the Connecticut Compromise and how it was necessary to get the Constitution ratified? Well, the Electoral College is part of that. The small states did not want the executive to only concern himself with the larger states (which is exactly what would happen with direct popular election) and the larger states did not want the executive to ignore them in order to court a bunch of smaller states (which is what would happen if each state had only one vote). So, the executive is elected by the Electoral College where each state gets the same number of votes in it as they would have in the combined House and Senate. This balances the power between the large and small states and forces the executive branch to care about the concerns of all the states, not just a handful.


The other fun thing is that this is one of the first things that got changed about the way the executive is elected. Originally, there was no vice president chosen to run with a president. Instead, the vice president was whoever came in second in the presidential election. This worked well with the first president — George Washington. However, when John Adams was elected, Thomas Jefferson (a member of an opposing party) came in second. Realizing the problems inherent in this particular system, future presidents selected their own vice presidents and the Electors voted for both together.


[27]This section has cropped up a bit since John McCain was nominated. Only someone who is a native and/or natural born citizen of the United States can become president or vice president. If you immigrated here after birth — even if you were only a day old — you can’t become president or vice president. However, if you were born aboard to at least one American parent (such as if your father was serving in the Armed Forces overseas or your mother was a diplomat assigned to a foreign nation) and you had American citizenship from birth, then you need to have lived inside the United States for fourteen years and then you can run for the presidency. But, if you have never lived in the United States, you cannot run for these offices even if both of your parents are American and you have American citizenship.


[28]This one’s caused problems lately. The Senate must be consulted on almost all executive appointments. However, if the Senate is not in session, the president can make a recess appointment (this is supposed to only be used in an emergency). This isn’t supposed to be used as an end run around getting the Senate’s confirmation and it can only be used when the Senate is completely out of session — not when they’ve called for a temporary adjournment of proceedings so they can go home and go to sleep for the night and resume things the next morning.


[29]This one is another one that people are beating their heads against lately. The president can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce or upon whom to enforce them. The president can’t decide not to enforce parts of laws he doesn’t like or that are inconvenient to him or to his interests. He has to enforce the laws as they were written and passed by Congress. Failure to do so is a violation of his oath of office and is unconstitutional. He also can’t refuse to enforce the law against his friends or people he likes.


[30]If you want to know how to get kicked out of office, here you go.


[31]Article III establishes the judiciary. Again, since this branch exists independently of the others, it can’t be ignored.


Additionally, since Article III establishes the US Supreme Court as the highest court in the United States, this is why the US government cannot recognize the International Criminal Court. We’d have to amend the Constitution to allow for it and the chances of that happening are slim to none because amending the Constitution is hard.


[32]The federal government really isn’t supposed to have any power over crimes within a state or over multiple states. This clause also spells out how jurisdiction is decided in criminal cases.


[33]Article IV is concerned with the states and not the federal government.


[34]This is the “full faith and credit” clause that gets bandied about a lot. This means that each state has to recognize the rights and privileges of other states — even if those same rights and privileges don’t exist within that state. This is what lets someone from New York drive a car in Oregon without having to get an Oregon driver’s license. This is why a couple married in Texas can move to Florida and not have to get married again. The two current areas of controversy here are gay marriage and gun permits. Gay marriage will probably wind up falling alongside the same lines as cousin marriage (in some states, you can’t marry your first cousin. However, if you married your first cousin in a state that allowed it and then moved to a state that forbade it, the marriage is still valid) and gun permits really should fall in line with driver’s licenses. Seeing Article IV challenges on these will definitely be interesting.


[35]Republican here refers strictly to the form of government (representative as opposed to a democracy where everyone meets to vote on everything), not the current Republican party.


[36]If you don’t like part of the Constitution and want to change it, Article V lays out the two processes for amending it. Only the Congressional route has ever been done. There are talks about getting an Article V governors’ convention together, though, to deal with some of the abuses coming out of Congress itself.


[37]Article VI is a continuation of government section. It basically reassured places we were in debt to that a new government wasn’t going to decide not to pay the old government’s debts.


[38]This part establishes the hierarchy of laws at the federal level. However, even though treaties are the “law of the land,” they cannot violate the Constitution and be ratified. The Constitution will always win. This section isn’t a way to do an end run around the amendment process and is another reason there are some treaties we can’t ratify. And yes, it is a big fucking deal. Don’t like it? See Article V.


[39]There can be no religious or anti-religious test required to hold office in the US. For a long time, in Britain, only Anglicans could hold office. The US had no desire to follow down that path and exclude people of different (or no) faiths from holding office. However, the current crap over Supreme Court justices and abortion has come dangerously close to being a religious test and could get the entire Senate in trouble for violating this if they don’t start watching it.

The Declaration of Independence — With Explanations!

The Declaration of Independence -- With Explanations!

If you’re going to try to make sense of American government and politics, even in the twenty-first century, you’d do well to know and understand what the Declaration of Independence (as well as a few other documents) has to say because the beliefs behind it still influence American thinking and politics to this day and, Cthulhu willing, will continue to influence Americans until the Earth is no more.

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America[1],


When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.[2]


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 Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes[3]; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.[4]

  1. He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  2. He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  3. He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  4. He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
  5. He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  6. He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
  7. He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
  8. He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
  9. He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  10. He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
  11. He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  12. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
  13. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
  14. For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  15. For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  16. For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  17. For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  18. For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
  19. For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
  20. For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
  21. For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
  22. For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  23. He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  24. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  25. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
  26. He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
  27. He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.[5]

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.[6]


Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren.[7] We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.


We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

[1]This text is copied from the National Archives and Records Administration which maintains the document with the older English spellings that were originally penned down onto the parchment by Thomas Jefferson. So, don’t bug me about “typos” or “bad grammar” unless you’ve got a time machine and went back and changed the way they wrote and spoke in the late 1700s.


[2]This is the preamble and the introduction that lay out the reason for declaring independence.


[3]This is known as the “light and transient causes” clause which gets brought up just about any time some hothead starts talking about rebelling and/or seceding from the current government. Basically, the gist of it is that yes, we have the power and the right to revolt, overthrow the government by force of arms, and institute a new government in its place. But, we shouldn’t do this lightly or for reasons that won’t matter in a few years.


This clause and argument are also part of why the Second Amendment is so important to Americans — if only the government has weapons, then it becomes very hard to rebel when the government becomes unjust. The American Revolutionary War kicked off when British troops went to Lexington and Concord to take the rifles, munitions, and other weapons out of the hands of the men who lived there in order to deprive them of the tools needed to defeat the British troops and continue the rebellion.


[4]This whole section lays out the argument that the Americans had every right to rebel and that such rights are inborn to all people. It also explains that government’s proper role isn’t one of rulership but rather one of being ruled by the will and consent of the governed. As you can tell, if you’ve read much from that era, the Revolutionaries were very influenced by the Northern Enlightenment (think Locke instead of Rousseau).


[5]These are the twenty-seven grievances that the colonies had with the King and with Parliament. This section can generally be divided into four parts: the King’s abuse of his executive power, the King and Parliament conspiring together to deprive the colonists of their rights as Englishmen, the complaints about the cruel and violent method the King had for dealing with the colonies, and the fact that the King ignored the colonists many times in the past when they begged for redress.


[6]Yeah, the Revolutionaries were definitely not fans of King George III. And, to be fair, he and Parliament had ignored almost every one of their complaints and had insulted the representatives sent to try to argue the American case before them. Benjamin Franklin was humiliated publicly by the Solicitor-General in front of the Privy Council, for instance.


[7]The colonists hadn’t only reached out to the King, they’d reached out to the Parliament and to the people in Britain. No one seemed inclined to listen to the problems the American colonists had or the legitimate complaints they were making. So, the British people themselves came under censure here for failing to help their fellow Brits out and standing by while the King and Parliament acted like tyrants to one group of British subjects.

US History, Government, and Political Philosophy 101

US History, Government, and Political Philosophy 101

I have about a half-dozen posts in various stages of completion and they all have one thing in common: each of them has a lengthy diatribe about US history and politics. This is because many of my readers are either overseas (and thus would not have studied US history and governmental structure as thoroughly as used to be taught here) or don’t seem to have paid attention in school (not uncommon). Since about half of the things that set me off these days come down to “Cthulhu’s Tendrils, have they not read the Constitution? It’s four freaking pages!” or “…seriously, do they not bother to use Google to check out the crap they’re being fed?” I’ve decided to make a reference series that gives a good overview of American history from ancient times to the modern era with an emphasis on how our government actually works as opposed to how people wish it would work or believe it works.


So, let’s get started, shall we?


Roughly 10,000 years ago, the first immigrants arrived via a peninsula that connected Asia and Alaska in what is now the Bering Strait. These immigrants moved southward until their descendants pretty much covered most of North and South America. These people gave rise to the various American empires: the Incas, the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Sioux, the Ute, the Anasazi, the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Cree, the Seminole, the Algonquians, and the Iroquois among them. The different tribes traded and warred over territory throughout their history and just generally lived their lives with the Atlantic and Pacific keeping them from knowing anything about the interconnected continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Only the aborigines in Australia were more isolated than the American empires. During the early 1000s, Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red, was the first European to set foot in North America. Nearly five centuries later, Christopher Columbus would land in North America during his voyage to find a shorter (and less heavily taxed) route to India, thus opening North and South America (as well as the islands in the Atlantic and Caribbean) up to European exploration and settlement.


Skipping ahead a bit, in time, Great Britain came to be the most predominant colonial force in North America. France and Spain, yes, had their colonies but Great Britain had much greater influence in North America. The colonists living in the original thirteen colonies considered themselves to be British subjects. Indeed, many of the colonies had governors who had been appointed by the Crown. However, these colonies also — by and large — had locally elected government officials and councils. Great Britain was at some distance and the colonists had a level of autonomy from the English Parliament and the Crown and self-rule that wasn’t found outside of the British isles. Though there had been rumblings of breaking away, for the most part, people in the British North American colonies were content with their situation. Some of our Founding Fathers, namely George Washington, proudly fought for the British during the Seven Years’ War (what we call the French and Indian War when referring to the parts that took place in North America). However, once the French and Indian War was over, relations between British North America and Great Britain took a decided turn south.


The Revolutionary Era in North America began in 1763 when, following the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the British government decided that the North American colonists needed to contribute more towards helping to maintain the Empire, the British government levied direct taxes on the colonies. To say that this upset many of the North American colonists is like saying that the Great Wall of China is long. It wasn’t the taxes, the items taxed, or the amount of the tax itself that bothered the colonists so much. It was the fact that the colonists had no elected representation in the English Parliament and thus, no vote on taxation and other matters that might impact their interests. It was a facet of English law and custom that those who were taxed deserved some voice in the government. So, the colonists felt that their rights as Englishmen were being trampled upon. The taxes that so vexed the colonists were the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act (1765), the Currency Act, and the Quartering Acts.


Benjamin Franklin spoke before Parliament (he had been sent to London to try to settle matters between the local populace and the Penn heirs over who had control of Pennsylvania) and convinced them to drop the taxes in 1766. However, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act which stated that they did have the power to make laws for the colonies in all cases.


The next year, 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts which taxed things like paper, tea, and glass. Again, the colonists were enraged because these taxes were levied without them having a voice in Parliament. Protests grew more common and, on March 5, 1770, the protests resulted in five colonists being killed by British forces in Boston (the Boston Massacre). Parliament withdrew the taxes in the Townshend Acts on everything except tea later in 1770 in response to the protests and to the boycotting of British goods. Benjamin Franklin continued to advocate an accommodationist stance between Britain and the colonies until the publications of letters between the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, and Andrew Oliver, the lieutenant-governor, that called for the abridging of colonial rights and the direct pay (by Parliament) of the officials in order to free them from the local councils (who had been the ones paying the officials, thus granting the locals some measure of control over them). After being humiliated by the British Solicitor-General in front of the Privy Council, Benjamin Franklin returned to Pennsylvania in 1775 and became an effective voice for revolution.


The Intolerable Acts (the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, the Boston Port Act, and the Quartering Act of 1774) were passed in 1774 and revolutionary fervor hit a fever pitch. With a fell swoop, the English Parliament had restructured the Massachusetts government to take power away from the local councils and restricted town meetings. Crimes committed by British soldiers would be tried only back in London, not locally. The Boston Harbor was closed until Britain had been compensated for the losses during the Boston Tea Party. And finally, British troops could be quartered in any colonists’ homes without permission of the owner. There was also the Quebec Act of 1774 which placed Quebec’s border at the Ohio River, cutting off colonial claims to that territory but, by the time it was passed, the colonists had already begun forming their own shadow governments and training their own militias in secret. The first shots of the revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and by July 1776, patriots (those who advocated for revolution) had control of all thirteen of the American colonies and had driven out the British governors. New state constitutions were written and the colonies united under the provisional Continental Congress as the American Revolution kicked into high gear.


The American Revolution could be a series in and of itself and this is a good stopping place for now. Check back tomorrow for an explanation of the Declaration of Independence — another document a lot of people haven’t bothered to read for all that it’s fairly short. The Declaration of Independence is very important in understanding both why the colonists rebelled and broke away from Britain and in understanding the philosophies and political thinking that influenced the later American government and still has deep meaning for Americans to this day over two centuries after it and the Constitution were written.


— G.K.

Note on References: Anything that wasn’t drawn from memory came from Wikipedia’s entry on the American Revolution. Yes, people, G.K. paid attention in school and can actually remember almost all of this.