American Government Facts for Kids
Article by Robert Steinhall
Facts About Washington DC and American Government From the American Government Adventure at Wonder Rotunda
Structure of Our Government and The Constitution
The Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 was responsible for drafting the Constitution of the United States. By 1790, all 13 states had voted to accept it. The Constitution took the place of the Articles of Confederation which gave to much autonomy, or independence, to the states and did not give the federal government sufficient powers. In drafting the Constitution the delegates of the original 13 states had to decide how the legislature would be structured. Some wanted representation (the number of representatives in the legislature) to be based on population (Virginia Plan).
Others wanted all states to have an equal number of representatives (New Jersey Plan). A compromise was eventually agreed upon of a legislature composed of two parts: the House of Representatives and the Senate. States would have equal representation in the Senate. The population of states would determine representation in the House. The Constitution also established a system of power sharing between the Federal Government and state governments.
One question that is frequently asked about the monument is why the stone color changes about a third of the way up. This is the answer provided by the National Park Service which oversees the monument: “When the monument was under construction in 1854, the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money and the project ground to a halt. Twenty-five years later, the U.S. Government took over and completed the upper two-thirds of the structure by 1884 using marble from a different quarry. The two sections closely resembled each other at first, but time, wind, rain, and erosion have caused the marble sections to weather differently, thereby producing the difference in color.”
Little known, is the fact that the original plan for the Memorial specified that the Statue of Lincoln was to be only ten feet tall. However, the statue’s height was changed 19 ft so that the figure of Lincoln would not be dwarfed by the size of the Memorial’s inner chamber. The Memorial is the site of many large public gatherings and protests. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Memorial in 1963.
In addition to the 19 foot bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, there is also a sculpture that many visitors fail to notice in the triangular space that sits above the entrance to the memorial. The sculpture depicts the five-man committee assigned by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.
The U.S. Capitol Building
There is an interesting story about how the design for the Capitol Building was selected. According to the National Parks Service, Register of Historic Places, this is what happened: “A competition was suggested (in 1792) by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and President George Washington that would award 0 and a city lot to whomever produced the winning plan by mid-July. None of the 17 plans submitted were satisfactory. In October, a letter arrived from Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish-trained physician living in the British West Indies, requesting an opportunity to submit his plan after the competition was closed. The Commissioners granted his request and President Washington liked the plan that was soon accepted by the Commissioners.”
The U.S. House of Representatives and the Speaker
The Speaker wears many hats–as the Representative for his or her district, as a leader of his or her party, and as the leader of the House as a whole. And, if anything were to happen to the President and Vice President and they could no longer serve, the Speaker of the House would become the President. The many responsibilities of the Speaker include: Presiding over debate; Setting the legislative agenda; and Leading the process for selecting the chairs of the various House committees and subcommittees. To be eligible to be a member of the House of Representatives you must be at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years and a resident of the state from which you are chosen.
National Statuary Hall
As you learned National Statuary Hall was the meeting place of the House of Representatives for 50 years until the current chamber was built. The room has an unusual echo. In a certain place in the Hall, you can hear whispers being spoken at a far end of the room, as if the person were speaking directly in front of you. There is a rumor, repeated by the official Capitol Tour Guides, that John Quincy Adams could hear the deliberations of the opposing party if he pretended to nap at his desk, placing his head low enough to capture the whispers which were transmitted across the marble finishes.
The Capitol Rotunda
A few little known facts about the Rotunda: It has 108 windows The dome was constructed with 8,909,200 pounds of iron; The bronze Statue of Freedom, the crowning feature of the Capitol dome stands 19 feet 6 inches tall and weighs approximately 15,000 pounds; and Eleven Presidents were honored after their death when their caskets were placed for several days in the Rotunda. This is known as “lying in state.”
The Senate and the Role of the Majority Leader
The Majority Leader is elected by the members of the party having a majority of the seats in the Senate. His or her counterpart in the House is the Speaker. The Leader is elected for a two-year term at the beginning of each Congress. The minority party also elects a leader, and he or she is known as the Minority Leader. They are the leaders of their respective parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The job of the Majority Leader is to coordinate the activities of the Senate, including scheduling of debate on legislation. The Majority and Minority
Leaders appoint members of their parties to Senate committees. To be a Senator, the Constitution requires that you be at least 30 years old, a citizen of the U.S. for at least 9 years and a resident of the state from which you are elected.
How Laws are Made
As you have learned, there are many steps in involved in making laws. It seems very complicated, but the fact that a proposed law must be approved by many different committees, the House and the Senate, and the President (except in the case of a veto override) helps safeguard the freedoms and liberties in our democratic way of life. Our freedoms are safeguarded, because the legislative process gives ample opportunity for all points of view on a proposed law to be heard and considered. The open and full discussion provided under the Constitution often results in big improvements in a proposed new law, and many cases, the defeat of a proposal that was not a good idea to begin with.
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 as a reference library for members of Congress and their staff. The original library was housed in the Capitol building until August 1814, when invading British troops set fire to the Capitol Building, burning the small library. Within a month, retired President Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, putting in everything which related to America, the arts and the sciences. His library was considered to be one of the most comprehensive and valuable in the United States. In January 1815, Congress accepted Jefferson’s offer for his 6,487 books, and the foundation was laid for a great national library. Jefferson’s belief that books of all subjects are important to the library of the American legislature, is the philosophy and rationale behind the current broad collection of the Library of Congress.
The U.S. Supreme Court
The Supreme Court protects the Constitution by making sure that the Constitution’s principles are not violated by the Congress, the President, the states or the lower courts. It can decide that the President’s actions are not allowed by the Constitution. It can tell Congress that a law it passed violated the U.S. Constitution and thus is no longer a law. It can decide that the government of a state has taken action inconsistent with the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the final judge in all of these cases. While the Court balances the power of the Congress and the President,its power is also balanced by the other branches. It is the President, with the approval of the Senate, who selects the judges on the Court.
The Smithsonian Museums
The Smithsonian Institution was created by Congress in 1846 and is the world’s largest group of museums. It is composed of 19 different museums and galleries, the national zoo, and many research centers. The Smithsonian’s collection includes more than 136 million objects gathered from nature, cultural history, the arts and space exploration. The story behind the creation of the Smithsonian is an interesting one. In 1826, 0,000 to create the Smithsonian was willed by James Smithson, an Englishman who had never visited the United States. (A will is a legal document that allows you to give away your money after your death.) Smithson’s will provided the money to create a “Smithsonian institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Why Smithson would give the money to create an institution in the U.S., a country he had never visited, when he was English, is a bit of a mystery. Some historians believe that he was inspired by America’s ideals of democracy and universal education.
The National Archives
Most of us save old pictures, records and documents from our grandparents or great grandparents that tell us about our family history. The National Archives does the same thing but for the entire nation. It collects and safeguards the public records of our country. In addition to safeguarding the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the Archives holds the records of regular citizens, such as the military records of our soldiers, the records of the immigrants who came to our shores and even the canceled check from America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Some of the oldest materials are on parchment and include the records of the Continental Congress. These records belong to the citizens of America and are available to people, including you. If you are writing a book or doing research about America’s history you can go the Archives and view these documents first hand.
The White House
Here a few little known facts about the main structure of the White House, also known as the Residence: There are 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms. There are 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators. For recreation, the White House has a variety of facilities including a tennis court, jogging track, swimming pool, movie theater, bowling lane and a basketball court. Construction of the White House began in 1792. Although President Washington oversaw the construction of the house, he never lived in it. It was not until 1800, when the White House was nearly completed, that its first residents, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in. President Jefferson opened the house for public tours, and it has remained open, except during wartime, ever since. At various times in history, the White House has been known as the “President’s Palace,” the “President’s House,” and the “Executive Mansion.” President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its current name in 1901.
The West Wing and Oval Office
The West Wing was originally constructed during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The story of its construction is an interesting one. Roosevelt’s family (he had six children) and the White House staff shared use of the second floor of the White House. To free up space for his family, he asked Congress for money to construct a one-story office building just west of the White House for his staff. President Roosevelt held his first cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the West Wing on November 6, 1902. The new office space gave the President and his staff much-needed room to work and serve the American people. Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard Taft, relocated the President’s office in 1909 and changed its shape to oval. By establishing the Oval Office in the center of the West Wing, the President was able to work more closely with his staff. President Franklin Roosevelt expanded the West Wing and relocated the Oval Office to the southeast corner in 1934. New Presidents usually change the decor of the Oval Office when take office. They choose new furniture, new drapery, and even their own oval-shaped carpet.
The President and the Cabinet
The President is the head of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government. The President’s powers can be divided into three categories: Head of State, Commander in Chief, and managing the departments and agencies of the Executive Branch: Head of State—This role involves meeting with the leaders of other nations to solve global problems; Commander in Chief— The President is the official head of the U.S. military;Management Responsibilities—-The President manages the Executive Branch, which includes all of the departments and agencies of the government. To manage the Executive Branch the President relies on his Cabinet. The Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive departments: the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Attorney General.
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