We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, Level 3
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Howard Chandler Christy, Signing of the Constitution, Architect of the Capitol, House wing, east stairway
Unit 1 Terms

stare decisis

Latin: "Let the precedent (decision) stand." The doctrine that a court should follow the previous decisions of other courts on cases in which the facts are substantially the same. This principle plays a key role in common law systems such as those of Britain and the United States.    [ audio ]


An economic system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are privately owned and operated for profit in competitive markets.    [ audio ]


A written document from a government or ruler that grants certain rights to an individual, group, organization, or to people in general. In colonial times, a charter granted land to a person or company along with the right to found a colony on that land.    [ audio ]

checks and balances

In American constitutional thought, distributing and balancing the powers of government among different branches so that no one branch or individual can completely dominate the others. See also balance of power    [ audio ]


A politically independent community consisting of a city and its surrounding territory.    [ audio ]

civic virtue

The dedication of citizens to the common welfare of their community or country, even at the cost of their individual interests. Traditionally considered most relevant to republics, since republican citizens are responsible for the well-being of their country.    [ audio ]

classical republicanism

The ideals and practices of ancient Greek or Roman city-states that emphasized civic participation and the responsibility of citizens for the well-being of their polity, or country. Acts by citizens that placed the public good, or common welfare, above private interest were especially prized.    [ audio ]

common good

The good of the community as a whole, as contrasted with private interests that may conflict with public interest. Also known as the public good.    [ audio ]

common law

The body of unwritten law developed in England from judicial decisions based on custom and earlier judicial decisions. Constitutes the basis of the English legal system and became part of American law, except in Louisiana, which inherited its civil law system from France.    [ audio ]


A formal contract or agreement between or among two or more parties or states. The Mayflower Compact of 1620 was such a formal agreement.    [ audio ]

consent of the governed

Agreement by citizens to obey the laws and the government they create. Consent is the foundation of government's legitimacy.    [ audio ]


A person represented by an elected official.    [ audio ]


A plan of government that sets forth the structures and powers of government. In democracies, a constitution is an authoritative law through which the sovereign people authorize a government to be established and grant it certain powers.    [ audio ]

constitutional government

Limited government; the rule of law. A form of government in which a written, unwritten, or partly written constitution serves as a higher or fundamental law that everyone, including those in power, must obey. The rule of law is an essential feature of constitutional government.    [ audio ]


A binding agreement made by two or more persons or parties. In Protestant churches during the Reformation, a covenant was an agreement made in the sight of God. The Mayflower Compact was such a covenant.    [ audio ]


Literally defined as "rule of the people," democracy is a form of government in which all citizens exercise political power, either directly or through their elected representatives. See also representative democracy    [ audio ]

divine right

The idea prevalent in early modern Europe that monarchs derive their authority directly from God. Adherents to this doctrine claimed that to disobey such monarchs, to attempt to replace them, or to limit their powers is contrary to the will of God. Also known as the divine right of kings.    [ audio ]


A system of social, economic, and political organization in Europe from the ninth to about the fifteenth century in which a politically weak monarch shared power with the nobility. The nobility required work and services from the common people, known as serfs, in return for allowing them to live on and make use of the noble's land and benefit from the noble's protection.    [ audio ]

forms of government

(1) Aristotle's idea of three forms of government based on the number of people exercising power. Each has a "right" form and a "corrupt" form. The right form of government by a single person is a "monarchy." The right form of government by a few people is an "aristocracy." And the right form of government by many people is called "polity." (2) Types of democratic governments. For example, parliamentary systems, such as those of Britain and India; separation of powers systems, such as that of the United States; and presidential systems, such as that of France. (3) General forms of government, such as monarchies, republics, and autocracies.    [ audio ]

inalienable rights

Fundamental rights inherent to being human that every person therefore possesses that cannot be taken away by government or another entity. This phrase was used in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Inalienable is sometimes spelled unalienable.    [ audio ]

indentured servant

A person who voluntarily sold his or her labor for a set period of time in return for the cost of passage to the American colonies. Indentured servants provided the most important source of labor in the colonies in the seventeenth century and for a large part of the eighteenth century.    [ audio ]


Ideas, beliefs, and practices that have their historical roots in Judaism and Christianity.    [ audio ]

law of nature

In natural rights philosophy, moral rules found out by correctly applied reason or right reason, telling persons what they may and may not do in various circumstances. In philosophy, laws of nature have often referred to the rules that would prevail in the absence of man–made law. Natural law is conceived to contain standards of justice that apply to all people.    [ audio ]

legislative supremacy

A system of government in which the legislative branch has ultimate power. Parliamentary government is such a system.    [ audio ]

limited government

In natural rights philosophy, a system restricted to protecting natural rights that does not interfere with other aspects of life. More generally, limited government is constitutional government governed by the rule of law. Written or unwritten constitutions are used to empower and limit government.    [ audio ]


A lower-level judicial officer, usually elected in urban areas, who handles traffic violations, minor criminal offenses, and civil suits involving small amounts of money. More generally, magistrate means public official.    [ audio ]

Magna Carta

Also known as the Great Charter, King John of England agreed to this document in 1215 at the demand of his barons. The Magna Carta granted certain civil rights and liberties to English nobles and to all "freemen," such as the right to a jury of one's peers and the guarantee against loss of life, liberty, or property except in accordance with law. Some rights were guaranteed for all the king's subjects, free or not free. In doing so, the Magna Carta limited the power of the king, who agreed that his will could be bounded by law, and became a landmark in the history of constitutional government.    [ audio ]

Mayflower Compact

An agreement to form a political body signed on November 21, 1620, by all adult males aboard the Mayflower before the ship landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The signers agreed to submit to "just and equal Laws" put into effect under the compact "for the general good of the Colony."    [ audio ]


As currently used, a country; the standard unit of political organization in the world. The nation-state received its name from the idea of a people, or "nation," organizing itself politically for self-rule. Many countries today, however, are composed of two or more distinct peoples.    [ audio ]

natural rights

The doctrine that people have basic rights, such as those to life, liberty, and property in a state of nature. Some writers, especially those influencing the American Founders, argued that certain of these rights are inalienable-inherent in being human-and that people create governments to protect those rights.    [ audio ]


The British legislature, which consists of two houses: the House of Lords, which once represented the nobility, and the House of Commons, which formally represents the common people. Most members of the House of Lords are appointed for life by the government of the day and are not members of the hereditary aristocracy, who once dominated it.    [ audio ]

political legitimacy

Acceptance by the governed that the claim to authority by those who govern is justified. In democratic societies, legitimacy is achieved only when those who govern gain power through the free consent of the governed in free and fair elections.    [ audio ]

popular sovereignty

The natural rights concept that ultimate political authority rests with the people.    [ audio ]


Previous court decisions upon which legal issues are decided.    [ audio ]

private morality

An individual's ideas about right and wrong to be practiced in one's personal life. These are derived from religious, philosophical, familial, and other sources, including individual conscience.    [ audio ]

public morality

The values and principles of right and wrong pertaining to public policies and actions.    [ audio ]

pursuit of happiness

An "unalienable" right stated in the Declaration of Independence. It is the right of Americans to pursue personal fulfillment in their own way, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.Within certain limits, this right denies the legitimacy of government to decide what kind of happiness one ought to seek.    [ audio ]

redress of grievances

The correction of complaints. The First Amendment protects the right of the people to petition government to obtain remedies for claimed wrongs.    [ audio ]


According to James Madison, a form of government that derives its powers directly or indirectly from the people, is administered by officials holding power for a limited time, and incorporates representative institutions.    [ audio ]

right to revolution

The right of the sovereign people of any democratic state or regime to depose a government after it has attacked citizens' basic rights for a significant period of time. This right, espoused by English philosopher John Locke, was asserted in the Declaration of Independence to justify separation from Britain and the overturning of the authority of King George III.    [ audio ]

rights of Englishmen

Term prevalent in seventeenth-century England and America referring to certain historically established rights, beginning with the rights of the Magna Carta, that all English subjects were understood to have. These included the right not to be kept in prison without a trial, the right to trial by jury, security in one's home from unlawful entry, and no taxation without consent, among others.    [ audio ]

rule of law

The principle that both those who govern and those who are governed must obey the law and are subject to the same laws. This principle is contrasted to the "rule of men," in which those in power make up the rules as they please. The rule of law requires an independent judiciary that is immune from political or other manipulation.    [ audio ]

social contract theory

Presumption of an imaginary or actual agreement among people to set up a government and obey its laws. The theory was developed by the English natural rights philosopher John Locke, among others, to explain the origin of legitimate government.    [ audio ]


The ultimate, supreme power in a state. Democratic theory states that the people as a whole are sovereign (See popular sovereignty); the citizens of the United States constitute the sovereign people.    [ audio ]

state of nature

The condition of people living in a situation without government; anarchy. Natural rights philosophy inquired about what rights, moral rules, or laws applied in such circumstances and what rights, if any, people retained after agreeing to leave the state of nature to form a politically organized society or state.    [ audio ]


The right to vote. See franchise    [ audio ]

unwritten constitution

The body of political practices developed through custom and tradition. Only three of the world's major democracies have constitutions that are not single, written documents: Britain, Israel, and New Zealand. In each of these nations, the constitution is a combination of written laws and precedents.    [ audio ]


The right of a branch of government to reject a proposed law that has been passed by another branch in an effort to delay or prevent its enactment. Under the U.S. Constitution, it is the power of the president to refuse to sign a bill passed by Congress, thereby preventing it from becoming a law. The president's veto may be overridden by a two–thirds vote of both the Senate and House of Representatives.    [ audio ]

writ of assistance

A document giving a governmental authority the power to search and seize property without restrictions. Abolished in American law, the use of such writs by the British government was a major issue during some phases of the American Revolution.    [ audio ]

writ of habeas corpus

Latin: "You shall/should have the body." A court order directing that a prisoner be brought to court before a judge to determine whether that prisoner's detention is lawful.    [ audio ]

written constitution

A written plan of government that sets forth the structures and powers of government. See constitution    [ audio ]
Unit 1      Terms
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