First in Egypt and now in Libya, reform-minded citizens have orchestrated the demise of harsh dictatorships. After decades of oppressive autocracy, the regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar el-Qaddafi are over. But now what? What form of authority will replace the ousted leadership? Will it be a representative form of government akin to democracy? What core principles of government will shape the countrys future, and where do individual liberties fit in?
The U.S. faced these fundamental questions over 250 years ago, having shrugged off the rule of the British Empire and gaining hard-fought independence. But what do Tahrir Square and Tripoli in 2011 have in common with Boston Harbor in 1773? With any successful anti-government movement, after the dust of revolution settles, the pro-government work has to start somewhere. Egypt and Libya need to settle on -- and then clearly define -- the function of their respective new governments and the rights of their citizens. Each country will need to decide how laws will be made and interpreted, and how the rule of law will be carried out. Thats just for starters.
The U.S. tackled these fundamental questions in founding documents like the constitution and the Bill of Rights, back in the late eighteenth century. But while the guidelines for our democracy were set down on parchment, theyve never been set in stone. Centuries of Supreme Court decisions have served to further shape the notion of democracy in the U.S. -- including the delicate interplay between individual liberties and the ability to govern.
The true definition of democracy in the U.S. may always be a work in progress; the 12 historic documents and court cases listed below show how one new government was built from the ground up.
Click on the links to access the complete documents, and get a sense of how democracy in the U.S. is defined as we know it (so far anyway).
1. The Fundamental Orders (1639)
The Connecticut Colony adopted this document, which many consider to be the first modern written constitution -- to guide the governing of towns in the newly formed colony.
2. Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641)
Americas first legal code granted far more rights to the citizens of Massachusetts than were enjoyed by citizens of Great Britain. That detail was not lost on King Charles II, who revoked the Body of Liberties and reinstated English law in Massachusetts in 1684.
3. Declaration of Independence (1776)
The stirring and celebrated words that proclaimed -- to the colonies and to the British crown that was losing its grip on them -- why American independence was necessary.
4. The Articles of Confederation (1781)
call it the first constitution of the United States, since the Articles served as the de facto governmental structure during the Revolutionary War years.
5. The Federalist Papers (1787)
This series of 85 essays urged ratification of the Constitution and branded the concept of federalism, which gives each branch of government the power to restrain or check the power of the other branches.
6. The U.S. Constitution (1787)
The document that serves as the legal architecture for the government of the United States -- establishing three coequal branches (executive, legislative, judicial), the powers of the states, and the rights of individual Americans.
7. The Bill of Rights (1791)
These first 10 amendments to the Constitution explicitly catalog fundamental individual rights held by all Americans -- including freedom of speech, religion, and assembly; freedom from unreasonable government intrusion; and the right to due process of law.
8. Thomas Jefferson's "Wall of Separation" Letter (1802)
Written during Jeffersons Presidency, is notable as an eloquent statement of the principle of separation of church and state, written at a time (1802) when the notion of separating the church from the state was considered by many as radical.
9. Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Prior to 1803, it was unclear what branch of government had the power to determine the constitutionality of laws or what should happen when the Constitution and a law were in conflict. In Marbury v. Madison, the U.S. Supreme Court declared for the first time declared that this power rested with the Court.
10. Reconstruction Amendments (1865-1870)
The "Reconstruction Amendments" were meant to expand the rights of black Americans in the wake of the civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to former slaves, and the 15th Amendment gave voting rights to black men.
11. 17th Amendment (1913)
The 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of U.S. Senators by popular vote, where before Senators were chosen by state legislatures.
12. 19th Amendment (1920)
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote, the culmination of a long and difficult struggle, spanning generations of lobbying efforts and protests by supporters of womens suffrage.
by: David Goguen, J.D.