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Welcome to The Trail! Each month of the HomeScouting Adventure Club for Scouts BSA will be focused on a merit badge. Below you can complete all of the requirements for the Citizenship in the Nation & American Heritage merit badges. Scouts are encouraged to find a local merit badge counselor to fully complete the merit badge. The HomeScouting Adventure Club will provide a limited number of merit badge counselors to have small group merit badge sessions during the first two weeks of the month following the subject month. 

When you're ready, get started on your HomeScouting Adventure - learning about American history and earning merit badges along the way!

Looking for last month's merit badge? Click the Link Below!

Make sure to download the connected worksheet for this month's adventure!

Click here drop down American Heritage Merit Badge



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America certainly has changed since immigrants first settled here. Yet the government the colonists established in the late 1700s has remained intact because people believed in the basic concepts of American democracy:

  • The fundamental value and dignity of every individual

  • The right to equality before the law, without regard to the individual’s social status

  • The belief in majority rule and minority rights

  • The need for compromise

  • The understanding that there are limitations to the federal government’s powers; the
    states and the people have more authority


As long as citizens continue to value these concepts, our government will exist. But if citizens

become complacent and take their rights and freedoms for granted, then our rights will be endangered.


Under other forms of government, people are told how to live and what to believe. In our representative republic, U.S. citizens enjoy freedom and govern themselves through elected representatives. But to experience the full expression of individual freedom, each citizen must govern himself so that his own behavior doesn’t interfere with the freedoms of others. Active citizens are aware of and grateful for their liberties and rights. They participate in their governments by voting in elections, attending public hearings, serving on juries, and paying taxes. They protect freedom, help defend our country, and stand up for individual rights on behalf of all U.S. citizens. Like the people who fought for our independence, good citizens today are patriots. As you fulfill the requirements for this merit badge, think about what you can do for your country.


…I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” —From American statesman and orator Patrick Henry’s call to arms speech, March 23, 1775




A democracy is a form of government in which the people have the power to govern themselves. The citizens exercise their power directly or indirectly through representatives chosen in free elections. The majority rules. The Founding Fathers established a republic—with an elected president (instead of a monarch) as head of state and freely elected representatives who are responsible to the citizens and govern according to law. The Democratic and Republican political parties borrow their names from these forms of government, and both parties support democracy and the republican form of representative government.


Most free colonists brought with them to America the expectation that they would have at least as many rights as they had in the old country. For centuries in England, British subjects—first the privileged classes and then all people—had been protected from the arbitrary (random) acts of the monarch. A monarchy is a form of government in which a hereditary ruler governs for life. In the past, the monarch claimed absolute authority. Today, a monarch reigns but often does not rule.


In 1215, English barons, tired of the Crown’s heavy-handed tactics, forced King John to sign the Magna Carta to establish that the power of the monarchy was not absolute. It set forth certain basic rights such as trial by jury and due process of law (acted out fairly and according to established rules), and protected people from the monarch taking any life, liberty, or property at will. In the 1600s, the English Parliament—a representative legislative body—insisted that the reigning monarchs sign the Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights. These documents prevented further abuses by limiting the powers of the king and queen. For example, they could no longer:

  • Imprison or punish any person except by the legal judgment of his peers, or by law.

  • Impose martial law, or have a standing army during peacetime without the consent of Parliament.

  • Demand that homeowners allow the king’s troops in their home without the owners’ permission.

  • Make individuals pay a tax without the common consent of Parliament.

  • Suspend or execute laws without the consent of Parliament.

  • Prosecute anyone for petitioning or making a formal written request to the king.


Although the new American colonists owed allegiance to the British monarch, they believed that a government across the Atlantic Ocean should not meddle in their local affairs. Property owners voted directly in town hall meetings; they elected representatives to their assemblies or gatherings to pass laws and levy taxes. No wonder they bristled when
King George III tried to tighten his control over the 13 colonies. He imposed new
taxes, restricted trade, and insisted that British troops stationed in the colonies
should be allowed to stay in private homes.


The colonists resisted the British by refusing to purchase English products, by

refusing to pay certain taxes, and by throwing tea overboard in Boston Harbor. In

response, King George III further restricted the colonists’ rights, enacting what were

called the “Intolerable Acts.” The colonists had to make a choice: Submit to the king’s

authority as British subjects—or revolt. Colonists organized into the First Continental

Congress, a convention of delegates to resist the “Intolerable Acts.”



Representatives from the 13 colonies formed the Second Continental Congress and asked statesmen Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman to write a statement of independence. Led by Jefferson, the committee drew on popular political and social theories, particularly the ideas of English philosopher John Locke and French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. In The Social Contract, Rousseau stated that people are basically good, and that government should be run according to the will of the majority. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government explained that people are born with natural rights (life, liberty, property) and they form “states” or governments to protect those rights.


Did you know?

Fearing that the British government had a plan to abolish guaranteed liberties, Samuel Adams organized the Boston Committee of Correspondence to link all the towns in Massachusetts. Post riders (mail carriers on horseback) delivered intelligence reports about British acts affecting the colonies. Soon this intercolonial information network helped unify many colonists in opposition to British policies.

In Jefferson’s draft, the declaration asserted the right of the people to “dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another” and choose their own government. After much argument and compromise, the Second Continental Congress adopted the final version of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence is the United States of America’s birth certificate. But the truths described refer to “all men,” not just Americans. This document had a profound impact on the French Revolution and revolts in South America, where countries fought to win their independence from Spain. Today, the declaration continues to inspire the fight for freedom around the world. 


Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he drafted the Declaration of Independence.


The Declaration of Independence has five main parts:

  1. The preamble, which explains why the declaration was written

  2. A series of “self-evident” truths about the rights of all men and the principles of government to which the people were committed

  3. A list of 27 specific complaints against King George III

  4. A summary of the efforts the colonists made to avoid a break with England

  5. A declaration that the 13 colonies are “free and independent” states, completely separate from Great Britain


People depend on government to assure freedom and order, but recognize it as a possible source of harm and oppression. The Founding Fathers wanted to establish a strong central authority but limit its ability to abuse power. Their first attempt at forming a government was a confederation of states. The Articles of Confederation granted independence to each state and gave little authority to the central government. Under this confederation, each state minted its own money and regulated its own trade. This caused confusion and an economic slump in the United States. In 1786, thousands of farmers in western Massachusetts, led by Daniel Shays, attempted to prevent the courts from foreclosing mortgages on their farms. The central government could not deal with the uprising and the country’s economic problems, so the states called for a convention to review the Articles of Confederation.


Delegates at the convention recognized the weaknesses in the document:

  • Each state had only one vote, regardless of its size and population.

  • Congress had no power to collect taxes and duties.

  • Congress had no power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce.

  • There were no provisions for a national court system.

  • An amendment could be ratified (approved) only with the consent of all states.

  • A 9/13 majority was required to enact a law.

  • The Articles were at best “a firm league of friendship” among the states.


A majority of the representatives at the convention decided that the problems of the republic could be addressed only by forming a new government and writing a new constitution. The Federalists, led by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central government and supported ratification of a constitution. The Anti-Federalists, led by Patrick Henry and John Hancock, objected to ratification mainly because they feared the central government would become too powerful, and the constitution did not include a bill of rights.


After much compromise and debate, a U.S. Constitution was ratified based on the following principles: 


  • Popular sovereignty. The people have supreme power. They establish the government, which is subject to the will of the people.

  • Limited government. The government may do only what the people have empowered it to do.

  • Separation of powers. The responsibilities of the government are divided among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

  • Checks and balances. Each branch of government has the authority and responsibility to check (restrain) the power of the other two branches. This balance prevents the misuse of power by any one branch.

  • Judicial review. Since 1803 it has been established that the federal courts have the power to review acts of the executive and legislative branches. If the court decides that an act or law violates a provision of the Constitution, it can nullify (cancel) the act.

  • Federalism. Power is shared between national and local governments. This system ensures that the national government is powerful enough to be effective, but that some powers (or functions) are reserved to the states and the citizens themselves.



Preamble to the Constitution The preamble is the introduction to the Constitution. Only one sentence long, the preamble states the six reasons for creating the document that embodies the basic principles and laws of the United States. The preamble clearly affirms that the people—not the states, not the central government—have the sovereign (supreme and absolute) authority to ordain (establish) the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. The people’s intention is to:

  • Strengthen the country by unifying the states.

  • Enact and apply laws that treat all citizens reasonably, fairly, and impartially.

  • Maintain order to ensure peace on home soil.

  • Make sure that the country is prepared to defend itself from its enemies.

  • Provide services and make efforts to improve the quality of life for all citizens.

  • Preserve and protect the rights and liberties of Americans, and to pass those
    freedoms on to future generations.


In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln defined

American democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”


The seven Articles of the Constitution lay the foundation for the United States’ system of government. They establish three separate and distinct branches of government; define the relationships of the states between themselves and with the federal government; describe the procedures for amendment; state that the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land”; and explain how the Constitution will be ratified.


Article I establishes the Congress—the legislative, or lawmaking, branch of government that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. This article explains the powers and limits of the legislature, the qualifications for office, and the methods of electing representatives. It also places some restrictions on state governments.


Article II establishes the executive branch of government and the offices of the president and vice president. This article explains the powers, duties, and limits of the president and the qualifications and methods of electing the president and vice president.


Article III establishes the judicial branch of government and the Supreme Court. This article also gives Congress the power to establish other “inferior” courts. The article explains the judicial power of federal courts.


Article IV, adopted almost exactly from the Articles of Confederation, describes the relationships the states must have with one another, the relationships between the federal government and the state governments, and the procedure for adding states and territories.


Article V details the procedures for amending, or making formal changes to, the Constitution.


Article VI states that the Constitution and all subsequent federal laws are the supreme law of the land. This article requires all state judges to follow the Constitution, even if state laws or constitutions contradict it, and requires all legislative, judicial, and executive officials of the federal and state governments to swear under oath to support the Constitution.


Article VII explains how the Constitution shall be ratified, or approved, by the states in order for it to be established. According to Article VII, only nine states had to approve the Constitution for it to go into effect in those states. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire—the ninth state—ratified the Constitution and made it officially the law of the land. But several states refused to ratify the document until Congress agreed to add a list of basic rights held by the people. This list became the Bill of Rights.

of our liberties.” —Abraham Lincoln



Have you ever seen a college sweatshirt with the name “Electoral College” on it? Probably not. That’s because it’s not an actual college, but instead is the name of the group of people who elect the president. The number of these electors in each state is determined by and equal to its number of senators and members of Congress. Each political party appoints that number of electors to cast all their votes for the party’s candidate. It’s a winner-takes-all system—that means that when a candidate wins a state by even the slightest margin, that person gets all the electoral votes for that state. The Founding Fathers’ original intent for the Electoral College was to allow each state a delegation of informed and knowledgeable people who would select the president based on merit and without regard to political party. Many people believe the Electoral College is a flawed system because it does not exactly reflect the popular vote. In seventeen presidential elections, presidents who did not receive a majority of the popular vote got elected because they were able to get a majority of the electoral votes.


The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. These amendments, which guarantee individual rights and freedoms, were added to the Constitution less than three years after it became effective. James Madison drafted the Bill of Rights, borrowing key points from the Magna Carta. These amendments do not give us new liberties; they protect the liberties we already have.


The First Amendment is perhaps the most well-known. It protects freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and grants citizens the rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the government.


Unlike the First Amendment, which protects your right to speak out, the Fifth Amendment

protects your right to keep quiet and not reveal incriminating facts against yourself.


The Second Amendment is one of the most controversial of the 10 amendments.

It asserts every state’s right to have a “well-regulated militia” and the right of the

people to have and carry weapons.


The Third Amendment protects citizens from being forced to take soldiers into their homes to feed and board them. The exception to this is in wartime if Congress enacts a law requiring that citizens do so.


The Fourth Amendment prohibits the unreasonable search and seizure of people, their houses, papers, and private property. In most cases, searches, seizures, and arrests require a warrant issued by a judge.


The Fifth Amendment describes the rights of citizens in criminal cases. A person may not stand trial for a serious crime punishable by death or imprisonment unless a grand jury decides there is enough evidence against the individual to bring that person to trial. A citizen may not be tried twice for the same offense (this is called double jeopardy), and may not be forced to testify against himself or herself. This amendment also states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without “due process of law,” or fair and legal procedures. The last provision deals with “eminent domain,” or the government’s power to take private property for public use. It prevents the government from taking the property without paying the owner a fair price.


The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial. A person charged with a crime must have a speedy and public trial heard by an impartial jury. The defendant has the right to be told of the charges against him or her, be confronted by the accuser, be allowed to introduce witnesses for him or herself, and have the benefit of legal counsel.


The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury in civil cases where the disputed amount exceeds $20. Either party in the suit may ask for a jury trial.


The Eighth Amendment prohibits courts from imposing excessive bails and fines. It also forbids the use of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Americans debate every day about whether the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment for a person convicted of murder. Some people argue that paddling students for breaking school rules is cruel and unusual. What do you think? T


The Ninth Amendment makes clear that the rights mentioned in the first eight amendments include certain, but not all, rights of the citizens. It states that the people retain any rights not specifically listed in the Constitution.


The 10th Amendment asserts that the states or the people retain those powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution.


In all of world history, the Bill of Rights is one of the greatest documents protecting individual rights. It has provoked protest rallies, legal challenges, even riots, as Americans interpret and defend their rights. Some of the most hotly debated subjects include gun control, abortion rights, school prayer, censorship, and the teaching of the theory of evolution. No matter where you stand on these issues, the First Amendment guarantees that you can voice your opinion.


Changing the Constitution

Written words in the Constitution can be changed or added through the formal amendment process described in Article V. An amendment may be proposed in one of two ways: by a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress; or by a national convention called by Congress at the request of two-thirds of the state legislatures. The proposed amendment may be ratified in one of two ways: by three-fourths of the state legislatures; or by three-fourths of the states during conventions called for that purpose. In the informal amendment process, changes in the Constitution take place over time without altering or adding to the written words. These informal amendments develop as a result of congressional legislation, presidential actions, Supreme Court decisions, activities of political parties, and custom.



The Constitution is a flexible document that adapts to the changing needs of American society. Since the Bill of Rights was adopted, the Constitution has been amended 17 times.


The 11th Amendment (1795) prohibits a citizen of one state or a citizen of another country from suing another state in federal court. However, a citizen may file suit in federal court against state authorities for depriving that person of constitutional rights.


The 12th Amendment (1804) requires members of the Electoral College to cast two separate ballots: one for president and one for vice president.

  • When the Founding Fathers wrote Article II of the Constitution, they planned one election for both president and vice president. Electors each had two votes to cast for two people without specifying the office. The person with the most votes became president and the runner-up became vice president. In the election of 1800, however, Thomas Jefferson tied Aaron Burr. The House of Representatives, after much argument, decided the outcome of the election by casting more ballots for Jefferson.


The 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery in the United States and in territories under its jurisdiction.


The 14th Amendment (1868) declares that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and under its authority are citizens of the United States and in the state in which they live. The intention of this amendment, known as the civil rights amendment, was to give citizenship to former slaves. The amendment also forbids states to pass and enforce laws depriving people of their privileges as citizens. It prohibits states from denying people equal protection of their laws or from depriving a person of life, liberty, or property without “due process of law.”


The 15th Amendment (1870) prohibits the U.S. government and the states from denying any citizen the right to vote on account of race, color, or having been a slave. The amendment also asserts that states must extend to the citizens within their jurisdiction all the protections guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.


The 16th Amendment (1913) grants Congress the right to levy an income tax without

regard to each state’s population.


The 17th Amendment (1913) gives the people of the states the power to elect their

senators. This amendment repealed those parts of Article I relating to the election of

U.S. senators by state legislatures.


The 18th Amendment (1919), known as the prohibition amendment, prohibits the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States.


The 19th Amendment (1920), also known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment, prohibits the U.S. government and the states from denying any woman the right to vote. “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed this Union.” —From Susan B. Anthony’s speech defending a woman’s right to vote, 1873


The 20th Amendment (1933), often called the lame duck amendment,

changes the dates that newly elected presidents and members of

Congress take office, moving the inaugurations closer to the date of

the elections (January 20 for the president, January 3 for Congress).


The 21st Amendment (1933) repealed the 18th Amendment

(prohibition amendment) in its entirety.


The 22nd Amendment (1951) limits a president’s term of office to

two terms. It also limits the term of office of a president who has served

more than two years of another’s term to one elected term.


The 23rd Amendment (1961) grants residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote in presidential elections.


The 24th Amendment (1964) prohibits the U.S. government and states from denying citizens the right to vote in federal elections for “failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”


The 25th Amendment (1967) establishes the order of succession to the presidency if the president or vice president leaves the office. It also provides for the vice president to succeed to the presidency if the president becomes disabled, and it details how presidential disability is determined.

  • The 25th Amendment was put to the test in 1973. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to charges of tax fraud. So President Richard M. Nixon appointed Gerald R. Ford, a congressman from Michigan, to replace Agnew. Then, just 10 months later, Nixon resigned because of his role in the Watergate scandal. Vice President Ford became president and appointed Nelson A. Rockefeller, former governor of New York, to the vice presidency.


The 26th Amendment (1971) grants the right to vote to citizens 18 years of age and older.


The 27th Amendment (1992) bans midterm congressional pay raises.


The Constitution expands with each amendment, as if it is breathing and growing with the people. This great document has guided the United States through wars, racial strife, bigotry and intolerance, and the unforeseen challenges of a diverse and modern society. Ongoing, unresolved, and new issues continue to shape the Constitution. Proposed amendments to balance the budget, prohibit abortions, permit prayer in public schools, set term limits for members of Congress, prohibit flag burning, and eliminate the Electoral College will live or die according to the wishes of the people. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. (1956–90) said: “The genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it may have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and present needs.”


“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained; for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” —Abraham Lincoln

Agree to Disagree

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1902–32) urged people to think of free speech as “the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for thought that we hate.”


2020 is an election year, if you are 18 or older, make sure you vote on November 3!

Lame Ducks

When the Constitution was written in 1787, travel from one part of the country to another was slow and difficult. For this reason, Article I and the 12th Amendment allowed plenty of time for newly elected officials to make their way from their home states to the nation’s capital. However, those representatives who were defeated or chose not to run for another term had to serve four to 13 more months before their successors were inaugurated. These officials were called lame ducks because they worked without power or prestige. But by 1933, with trains and cars available, elected representatives could arrive at the capital in a shorter period of time.


The founders of the United States, concerned with the potential abuse of authority, created a representative government that divided the duties among three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. This separation of powers and system of checks and balances prevented any one branch from becoming too powerful.



The Constitution established a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives so that one chamber might be a check on the other. The Senate has 100 members; two senators are elected from each state. The House of Representatives has 435 members; the number of representatives from each state is based on the population of the state according to the latest census. This plan, which was a result of a compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, ensures that the states are represented in the Senate as coequal members of the Union and in the House as democratically proportional to their populations.


The Constitution does not fix the number of members in the House of Representatives, instead allowing Congress to determine the total. As the population of the United States increased, so did the number of House members. Congress worried that adding more members would cripple the ability to do business in the House, so it passed the Reapportionment Act of 1929 to limit the number to 435 members. Every state is guaranteed at least one representative; the remaining 385 seats are reapportioned (redistributed) among the states after each decennial census (taken every 10 years). Boundaries of congressional districts are redrawn to keep the populations of voting districts equal. Senators are elected to six-year terms. Members of the House are elected to two-year terms. Each term of Congress (numbered consecutively) lasts two years with a new term beginning, according to the 20th Amendment, at noon on the third day of January of every odd-numbered year. Voters elect senators in statewide elections and elect members of the House from their congressional districts.


If Congress adjourns its session within 10 days (excluding Sundays) of sending a bill to the president, and the president keeps the bill without signing it, then the bill dies. This is called a pocket veto.


In addition to the power to pass laws, the Constitution (Article I, Section 8) grants Congress the powers to

  • Raise money to run the government.

  • Regulate foreign and interstate commerce.

  • Determine how aliens become U.S. citizens.

  • Provide for and maintain the nation’s armed forces.

  • Regulate weights and measures.

  • Grant copyrights and patents.

  • Establish post offices.

  • Coin money.

  • Declare war.

  • Create the lower federal courts.



The president’s chief responsibility is to enforce and administer the laws, but the office carries other responsibilities as well. The Constitution gives the president the expressed powers to:

  • Serve as commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces.

  • Commission all military officers.

  • Appoint the heads of executive departments.

  • Appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and other officials with the consent of the Senate.

  • Appoint high-ranking officials to fill vacancies when the Senate is in recess.

  • Grant pardons and reprieves for federal crimes.

  • Make treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate.

  • Inform Congress from time to time about the state of the Union.

  • Recommend necessary bills.

  • Call either or both chambers of Congress into special session, if necessary.

  • Act as host to ambassadors and representatives of other nations.


The president also has implied powers, including the right to seek opinions of official advisers. The executive departments have developed, by custom and tradition, into an informal advisory body called the Cabinet, with each department headed by a secretary (except the Department of Justice, which is headed by the attorney general). Today, there are 15 executive departments. The executive branch includes independent agencies, regulatory commissions, and other offices within the Executive Office—including the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisors, NASA, and the Office of Management and Budget. 



The judicial branch of the U.S. government interprets and applies the laws. Although the Constitution names only the Supreme Court, it authorizes Congress to establish and abolish inferior, or lower, federal courts. All of these courts are called guardians of the Constitution.


District Courts​

The district court is the lowest level of the federal court system. There are 94 courts at this level, and each state (as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) has at least one district court. Judges appointed by the president preside over these courts and serve for life. The district courts are the main trial courts in the federal court system. These courts have original jurisdiction, or the power to hear a case first—before any other court. The district courts hear criminal and civil cases that involve federal law. These are the only federal courts that regularly use grand juries to indict defendants and petit juries to decide the guilt or innocence of the accused.


A grand jury usually consists of 12 to 23 citizens who meet in secret to investigate facts and hear witnesses. This jury determines if the evidence against a person charged with a crime is sufficient to justify a trial. A petit jury is a trial jury made up of 12 (sometimes six) citizens. These jurors examine the evidence and make the final decision about the facts in a civil or criminal case.


Courts of Appeals

Congress created the courts of appeals in 1891 to relieve the Supreme Court of the

number of cases it heard on appeal directly from the district courts. An appeal is a

request for the review or rehearing of a case. These courts also review the decisions

of federal regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission. The 94 district

courts are organized into 13 judicial circuits, including the District of Columbia, with

one court of appeals (appellate court) for each circuit. Each court of appeals has

from six to 28 circuit judges sitting on the court as well as one assigned Supreme

Court justice.


Except in connection with their checks on the other branches, the three branches of government have distinct orientations to past, present, and future: The judicial branch is primarily concerned with past actions, the executive branch with present actions, and the legislative branch with future actions.


Supreme Court

The highest level of the federal court system is the Supreme Court. This court is composed of the chief justice of the United States and eight associate justices, all appointed by the president, with the consent of the Senate, to preside for life. Because the justices do not have to worry about being re-elected, they are free to consider the law without the pressures of executive control, public opinion, and political influence. The Supreme Court hears three kinds of cases:

  1. Cases in which the court has original jurisdiction, or that involve a representative of another nation or a state as one of the parties

  2. Cases appealed from lower federal courts

  3. Cases appealed from the highest appeals court in a state


Most federal and state courts in the United States may exercise judicial review, which is the important power of deciding the constitutionality of an act of government in any branch. The Supreme Court has the final authority to interpret the meaning of the Constitution and determine if the law is being applied correctly and fairly. For that reason, the Supreme Court is known as “the court of last resort.”


Special Courts

Over the years, Congress has created two types of federal courts: constitutional and special courts. Constitutional courts include the courts described above as well as the U.S. Court of International Trade. Special courts—often called legislative courts because Congress created them to help carry out legislative power—hear a narrow range of cases. These courts include the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces; the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; the U.S. Court of Federal Claims; the U.S. Tax Court; territorial courts for the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Marianas; and the courts of the District of Columbia.

Did you know?

Before 1891, people named these courts the circuit courts of appeals because the Supreme Court justices “rode circuit” (traveled around the judicial district) to hear appeals from the lower courts. Today, the courts of appeals are often still called the circuit courts.

Checks and balances.PNG


Partners & Watchdogs

Active citizens provide the most effective check, or restraint, on government actions. The opportunities to get involved with each branch range from support to management and even opposition. Millions of civilians work directly for the government. Others run for public office or campaign for candidates. The best way to participate is to exercise your rights: Vote, serve on juries, attend public hearings, pay attention to what new bills are being considered by Congress, and tell your elected officials how you want them to represent you.


The framers of the Constitution mistrusted groups of people who united to promote their own narrow causes over the interests of the larger community. James Madison called these groups factions. But he knew that trying to abolish the factions would also abolish freedom.

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State. …”

—From George Washington’s farewell address, 1796




No political parties existed when the Constitution was written, but the people soon split into camps over its ratification. The Federalists, considered the party of the rich and well-born, represented the interests of merchants, bankers, businessmen, and rich plantation owners. They favored a close relationship with Great Britain and a broad interpretation of the Constitution to promote their commercial interests. Federalists believed that property owners should vote, and that ordinary people were too easily influenced to handle much power.


The Anti-Federalists supported the common man—farmers with little acreage and working people in the cities. They thought that if people were educated, they could be trusted to govern themselves. The Anti-Federalists worried that the Federalists, who wanted a strong central government, would destroy republican principles and individual liberties. This made the Anti-Federalists favor a strict interpretation of the Constitution. By 1796, these two groups became political parties and nominated presidential candidates. The Federalist Party declined in power and disappeared by 1816. Under Thomas Jefferson’s two-term presidential leadership, the Anti-Federalists became known as the Jeffersonian Republicans and remained in power for 40 years. But divisions developed in the party. In the 1820s, supporters of John Quincy Adams broke away to form the National Republican Party. When Andrew Jackson ran against Adams, his supporters took the name Democratic-Republicans. After Jackson won, he changed the party name to Democrats. In 1834, the National Republican Party united with other anti-Jackson forces and formed the Whig Party.


In the presidential election of 1796, the Federalists backed Vice President John Adams for president and the Anti-Federalists backed Thomas Jefferson. Adams beat Jefferson by three electoral votes, so Jefferson became the vice president. Imagine having an elected president and vice president from different parties serving together in the executive branch!


The issue of slavery split the Whig Party in the 1850s and fragmented the Democratic Party. Those Whigs who favored slavery left the party and joined pro-slavery Democrats. Those Whigs who opposed it sided with anti-slavery Democrats and created the Republican Party that we recognize today. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 as the first Republican president, he ended the long era of Democratic control. The Democratic Party survived in the South but was crippled by the Civil War. The party slowly built up its base of voters while the Republicans dominated national politics for almost 75 years.


The 1932 election marked a big change in the public’s attitude about the role of government. During the Great Depression, which began in 1929, the unemployment rate was high—33 percent. People wanted the government to help them find jobs and take care of their families. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s victory brought the Democrats back to power, his New Deal programs put Americans to work and expanded the social and economic responsibilities of the national government. For the next 36 years, Republicans criticized the Democrats from the sidelines for their “big government” and “bureaucracy.” Since the late 1960s, control of the national government has been divided. If one party had the White House, the other party held the majority of seats in Congress. Although the Founding Fathers did not foresee the rise of political parties, they created a government that separated the powers of political parties and a system of checks and balances.



The American political system started as a two-party system, and the current election process follows this structure. People form political parties to control government by winning elections and holding public offices. If one party gets control of the executive and legislative branches, it can direct public policy and enact laws to advance the party’s position. If different parties have control of Congress and the Executive Office, the elected officials must compromise to get anything accomplished. A two-party system, rather than a government splintered by multiple parties, makes compromise much easier.


In most elections, voters can choose only one candidate for an office, and only one candidate can win that office. Many people think voting for a third-party candidate who has little chance of winning is wasting their vote. Also, Republicans and Democrats are able to work together to enact election laws that make it more difficult for third-party candidates to get their names on the ballots. In fact, non-major party candidates have appeared on the ballot in every state only seven times in the history of American presidential elections. While it’s more difficult for these minor party candidates to get on the ballot, they are still a part of the system and many have large followings.



A minor party is a cross between a major political party and a special-interest group. It generally forms around an ideology or an issue, and then becomes a party to nominate its own candidates for public office. Minor parties are:

  • Ideological, such as the Libertarian Party

  • Single-issue, such as the Right to Life Party

  • Economic protest, such as the Populist Party

  • Splinter, such as the Progressive Party


When the Republican Party nominated incumbent (current) President William Howard Taft as its candidate for the 1912 election, former President Theodore Roosevelt broke away from the Republican Party to run for president on his own “Bull Moose” Progressive Party ballot. Roosevelt’s move split the Republican vote, allowing Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, to win the presidency.


A strong third-party candidate can have a great impact on an election. In 2000, Ralph Nader ran for president as the Green Party candidate against Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Nader received 3 percent of the popular vote but received no electoral votes. Gore won the popular vote, but Bush collected the most Electoral College votes and became president. Having a third-party candidate made this an extraordinarily close election.


Unlike the two major political parties, minor parties are willing to take a stand on controversial issues. They draw the public’s attention to problems that the major parties might try to avoid. As often happens, the two major parties steal the positions of minor parties on those issues that stir the public’s interest. Minor parties serve important functions in the political system, but the Republican Party is the only party in American political history to rise from being a third party to becoming a major political party.


Today’s Democrats and Republicans have their roots in opposite party philosophies. Although the Democrats are direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s republican philosophies, they also borrow Federalist ideas about a strong federal government and broad interpretation of the Constitution. Present-day Republicans have taken Jefferson’s views supporting “less government” as their own platform.

“No party can fool all of the people all of the time. That’s why we have two parties.”

—Bob Hope (1903–2003), comedian who entertained 12 presidents during his lifetime



People who share an interest often band together. Special-interest groups form around a cause or an issue to help shape public policy. These groups try to persuade elected officials to respond to their particular concerns and to pass legislation that will promote their causes. Unlike political parties, special-interest groups do not nominate candidates for public office. They are private organizations—only accountable to their members—that focus on issues, not people. In fact, they are concerned with only those issues and policies that directly affect the interests of the group members. The groups may, however, support candidates who support their positions. These groups are as varied as their interests.


Some examples are:

  • Business groups: Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers

  • Trade associations: National Restaurant Association, American Trucking Associations

  • Labor organizations: Fraternal Order of Police, American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO)

  • Agricultural groups: American Farm Bureau Federation, National Grange

  • Professional associations: American Medical Association, American Bar Association 

  • Religious organizations: National Council of Churches, American Jewish Congress


Some special-interest groups promote the welfare of specific groups (American Association of Retired Persons); promote or oppose certain causes (Sierra Club or The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence; and advance public-interest issues (Common Cause). Special-interest groups raise awareness about public policies that promote or threaten their causes. They serve as another facet of the checks and balances system by keeping tabs on public agencies and officials. These groups are another effective way for citizens to participate in politics. As James Madison knew when he drafted the First Amendment (guaranteeing the rights to assemble and to petition the government), special-interest “factions” compete with one another in the public arena and actually counterbalance and moderate extreme points of view.


Campaigning on Infomercials

Ross Perot ran for president and started his own movement, the Reform Party, in 1992. He frequently appeared on television with flash cards to educate the public about the national budget deficit and explain his own economic plan to balance the federal budget. Perot captured nearly 20 percent of the vote. Although Perot did not win, he tapped into public dissatisfaction with elected officials and put the issue of fiscal (financial) responsibility on the public agenda.


As you watch the evening news on television or read a newspaper, consider how the national issues covered relate to what you have already read in this merit badge pamphlet. Do the topics affect a citizen’s rights and freedoms? Have new bills been proposed in Congress? Are the senators and the president deadlocked over an issue like health care or Social Security? Did the Supreme Court rule on a controversial case? Which Cabinet department dominates the news? In countries where freedom of the press and the right to free speech do not exist, the government controls mass media. Citizens know only what their leaders are willing to tell them. But in the United States, citizens have the right to know the truth.



The vast communication network that reaches large audiences of diverse individuals at the same time through television, newspapers, radio, magazines, and the internet is called mass media. These communication channels provide much entertainment, but they are also important sources of political information. Although they don’t exist to influence the government, the mass media have the power to focus the public’s attention on certain issues. By telling audiences not what to think, but what to think about, the media help to shape the public agenda.


Even though requirement 3 asks you to track the evening news on television OR read a daily newspaper, try to compare on one day how a specific national issue is covered on television and in the newspaper. You will probably discover that television touches lightly on the topic and presents brief bits of information. In a newspaper, reporters—like their readers—have more opportunity to explore the issue in detail.


Learn how to recognize propaganda so that you do not accept biased information as fact. Political parties and special-interest groups want to persuade you to agree with them. Read newspaper editorials to figure out what issues and candidates the paper supports. Think about whether the news report presents a one-sided or balanced view. Are conclusions supported by concrete information, or are opinions based on selected facts?


Great leaders, great orators, and great speechwriters can mark the importance of a historical moment so that it is fixed in our memories. Certain speeches express the conscience and spirit of a people. Others warn about oppression (domination), memorialize fallen soldiers, or uplift a discouraged nation. These speeches urge citizens to take action, inspire, and redirect history. Throughout this merit badge pamphlet, you have read quotes from famous speeches. Consider reading those speeches in their entirety. Or choose another speech such as:

  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in which he calls for an end to segregation and racial discrimination

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, asking Congress to declare war on Japan

  • Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech that challenged Communist leaders to end the Cold War and foster peace between West and East Germany



It is our privilege as American citizens to contact our elected representatives and expect an answer. You can find out how to contact your senators or the representative from your congressional district by looking in the government (blue) pages of your local telephone book or on the internet.

Choose a national issue that interests you and gather the facts before contacting your public official. Try to learn as much as you can about all sides of the issue before forming an opinion. The websites for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives make it simple to contact your representatives by email. You can write a letter online or send a letter by mail.


To write an effective letter, follow these tips.

  • Address the official using his or her correct title.

    • U.S. Senator.

      • The address: The Honorable John Smith

      • The greeting: Dear Senator Smith:

    • Member of the House of Representatives.

      • The address: The Honorable Mary Doe

      • The greeting: Dear Ms. Doe:

  • Identify yourself and your reasons for writing the letter.

  • Refer to a specific bill by number or name, if applicable.

  • Explain—briefly, rationally, politely—why you are concerned about the issue.

  • Send your letter before the bill is brought to the floor or while your representative can still do something about your concern. •

  • Request a response and include your return address.


Senators and representatives want to know what you think, but they receive thousands of letters each month. An aide probably will answer your letter. However, you may have an opportunity to contact your congressional representative in person if he or she is visiting the local field office.


An important way for U.S. citizens to appreciate their hard-won rights and freedoms is to visit the sites where major historical events took place and where people from different cultures settled, or tour public buildings and observe firsthand their government officials at work. Although books, photographs, and virtual tours on the internet help us understand our heritage, nothing compares to the experience of standing on a Civil War battlefield, touring the White House, or exploring the Anasazi cliff dwellings built in the Southwest more than a thousand years ago.


Your family may have lived in this country for hundreds of years or for 20 years. It does not matter. If you are a U.S. citizen, you share a heritage with every other American citizen. So go see some of the significant public buildings, historical parks, landmarks, and monuments. After all, these national treasures are our connections with this country’s past.



The National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is in charge of national

parks as well as certain historic settings. Besides protecting those scenic parks valued for their

spectacular natural features, such as Yellowstone National Park, the National Park Service identifies and

preserves all the historic buildings and sites that have national importance—that is, those places that

mean something to most Americans. The National Park Service maintains an official list of cultural resources

worth preserving called the National Register of Historic Places. Three percent of the properties listed are

designated as National Historic Landmarks.

Before you head for one of the National Historic Landmarks or National Monuments, call to find out if visitors are allowed. Schedules for tours vary and are always subject to change.



National Historic Landmark—a particular site, structure, or object of national importance (Vietnam Veterans Memorial)


National Monument—an area preserved for its historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest that includes at least one resource of national importance (Fort Sumter National Monument)


National Historic Site—a place of national historical significance, usually with a single primary feature (Ford’s Theatre)

National Historical Park—a larger, more complex area than a National Historic Site, it includes several areas and features of national historical importance (Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia)


Public buildings include a variety of government facilities such as the Johnson Space Center, Federal Reserve banks, the Library of Congress, and federal courthouses. Even if you live in a small town, you probably can find a federal facility, such as a post office, that serves the local community. When you visit a federal facility, you see your government working for you. Think about how the activity in that building or on that site affects your life.


American citizens have a debt to the people who came before us, and an obligation to the generations to follow. National landmarks and monuments are places to experience history. Many are endangered, but they deserve to be preserved for what they represent as part of America’s history and culture. You can help preserve these places by joining a local or national historic preservation organization and by volunteering to work at one of the historic landmarks. Preserving national sites is only a part of preserving America’s heritage. As a good citizen, you must guard your rights and celebrate your freedom. Stand up for others. Seek information. Become a concerned citizen. The American people made their own government. It is still a work in progress, but it bends and embraces its citizens. You have the right, the duty, and the privilege to help shape your government. Value your freedom. As Thomas Paine wrote in his Common Sense pamphlets of 1776: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. … We have it in our power to begin the world again.”

Anchor 1



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Make sure to download the connected worksheet for this month's adventure!


Think about this scenario: Your dad’s college roommate was helping him study late one night at the dorm. They got hungry, but it was so late the pizza delivery was closed. So they had to drive to an all-night convenience store for snacks. On the way, they see one of your dad’s classmates standing beside her stalled car. Your dad and his roommate offer to give her a ride home. They come inside to meet the girl’s roommate—who, after a few years, becomes your mom.


Many events had to happen for your dad to meet your mom. That does not count all the events that had to happen for your dad’s roommate to be there to help him study, for the girl’s car to break down when and where it did, and for your future mom to be where she was at a certain moment in time. If you think about it, history is sort of like that. Events of today are all connected to events of the past, whether the past is two hours ago or 200 years ago. You cannot have one without the other. Events that happened centuries ago, no matter how minor, probably affect what is happening today. For instance, Michael Jordan may be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He began his NBA career without controversy, but where would he be without the actions of people throughout history?


Go back about 200 years, when legal slavery in the South helped fuel the Civil War. When the war was settled, Reconstruction began with the intent of granting full civil rights to African Americans. Instead, Reconstruction angered many Southern whites, resulting in fierce racial discrimination in the South. Southern discrimination spurred African American activist W.E.B. DuBois to help create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. African American seamstress Rosa Parks joined the NAACP in 1943. When she was arrested in 1955 after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, the NAACP organized a local bus boycott. Local minister Martin Luther King Jr. transformed that boycott into a national movement for civil rights. And many years later, Michael Jordan, an African American athlete, enjoyed the fruits of that movement as he became known as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.


Of course, this example is very simple. In reality, thousands of events occurred and millions of people worked together to shape the United States into a country where every person truly is equal. That is the heart of American heritage—people and events affecting one another over hundreds of years to get us where we are today. You must understand the events of yesterday to appreciate and understand the events of today. The past causes the present.


Understanding American heritage is not about memorizing historical dates and names. It is about

understanding—for example, understanding current events that surrounded the signing of the

Declaration of Independence and why the signers believed this document was so vital to establishing the

fundamental rights of the new republic. If you comprehend what the declaration meant to Americans then,

you can appreciate how the past has influenced your present. Understanding your country’s heritage is how

you will come to truly know what it means to be an American.



During the 1770s, American colonists were outraged. Although they had been loyal subjects of the British Empire for years, Americans suddenly were feeling like second-class citizens. To help raise money for a war with France, Britain had imposed taxes on everything from sugar to newspaper ads to paper to tea. While the colonists had paid taxes locally, this was the first time that the British Parliament—in which the colonists had no representation—was imposing taxes on the colonists alone. The colonists believed they should be treated with the same rights and privileges as British citizens in Britain itself. What was happening just was not fair.


 When a group of men from Boston, Massachusetts, dumped thousands of dollars’ worth of tea into the harbor in protest, the British responded harshly. They hurt local businesses by closing the Boston port, and they disbanded an elected council and outlawed town meetings. Americans wondered if what was happening in Boston could happen elsewhere in America. 


Colonial leaders formed the first Continental Congress to address what they felt were unfair practices by Britain. Their goal was to put economic pressure on Britain—for instance, by boycotting British products—so that Britain would stop making harsh laws for the colonies. The Continental Congress drew up a list of complaints to send to Britain’s King George III. There was little talk of independence; the colonists just wanted things returned to the way they had been. King George never responded directly to the colonists’ complaints. Instead, he declared a state of rebellion

in the colonies in 1775 after colonists resisted the British

attempt to destroy military stores at Lexington and Concord. By

year’s end, the king had banned all Colonial trade. Still,

American leaders like George Washington believed that they

were fighting for their basic rights within the British Empire. It

was a civil war, not a war for independence. But that feeling

did not last. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, first published in

January 1776, persuaded many Americans to favor independence.

In June 1776, a committee was chosen to write “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” Today, we call this document the Declaration of Independence.


As you read the declaration and put it into your own words, you will notice that it can be broken down into five basic parts.


  1. The Introduction. This tells the reader that the declaration will explain the causes of America’s need for independence from Great Britain.

  2. The Preamble. This spells out the basic human rights to which the colonists believed everyone was entitled. It states that when people are denied these basic rights, it is their duty to overthrow and break free of whoever is denying them these rights.

  3. The Body (first section). This is a list of “abuses” put forth by the king onto the colonists.

  4. The Body (second section). This is a statement that the colonists had tried everything to solve these problems with Britain, without any luck.

  5. The Conclusion. This states that because of these conditions, it is the colonists’ right to separate from Britain. It declares the states free from the British Empire. The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence knew full well that the penalty for it if they were caught by the British would be death.


When you read the Declaration of Independence, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What rights did the colonists believe they had?

  • Who gave them these rights, and who could take them away?

  • What purpose did the government serve in securing these rights?

  •  Where did the government get its power?


The Declaration of Independence has inspired people in other countries to fight for basic rights, and it has inspired Americans to continue fighting for what they believe are the basic human rights they are entitled to. As recently as 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the document as a way to show that all Americans—especially African Americans being discriminated against because of their race—deserve freedom. King stated: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Preamble to the Declaration of Independence


“... 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; 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.”


With the Declaration of Independence, the 13 colonies stated their intent to separate from the mother country. But to become truly independent, America needed its own symbols to establish an identity apart from that of Great Britain. The symbols of the United States represent the country’s core beliefs and values. They signify what it means to be an American. Many of these symbols have changed over the years, often to reflect the changing attitudes within the country. As you study America’s symbols, it is important to think about what America’s core values and beliefs mean to different Americans. What did those symbols mean to people when they were first adopted? What do they mean today?


The American Flag

The flag that flies in front of your school or your town hall is not the same one that colonists fought

under during the American Revolution. In fact, the design of the United States flag has changed many

times to reflect the changing country. The first official U.S. flag was approved in 1777. To represent the

13 colonies, the flag had 13 horizontal stripes and 13 stars in the canton, or upper corner. There was no

official design of the stars, so several patterns existed.

In 1795, two more stars and two more stripes were added to represent the newest states, Vermont and Kentucky. In 1818, after five more states had been admitted to the union, Congress decided that the flag would always have just 13 stripes, but the number of stars would reflect the number of states. Someday you may see additional changes to the flag, for instance, if an American territory such as Puerto Rico is admitted into the union. The most recent change to the flag was in 1960, after Hawaii became a U.S. state. The U.S. flag is the ultimate symbol of this country’s freedom.


It inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The flag symbolizes freedom, not only for Americans, but for people around the world.


Pledge of Allegiance

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That was the original Pledge of Allegiance, as published in 1892. In 1924, the phrase “my Flag” was replaced with “the flag of the United States of America.” The pledge became official in 1942 but underwent one more change in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower added the phrase “under God.” And there is always the possibility that the pledge could undergo more changes in the future.


Some people believe the phrase “under God” violates America’s separation of church and state. In 2002, a man sued the government to take out the phrase. On Flag Day two years later, the Supreme Court dismissed the case. The ruling ensures that students will continue to be able to recite the pledge in its current form at school.


The Great Seal and Bald Eagle

Look on the back of a dollar bill, and you will see the front and back of the Great Seal of the United States. Adopted in 1782 after six years of designs and debates, the seal represents the country’s core values and beliefs. The original design called for an imperial eagle, but early Americans decided that the seal should be truly American. That is when the American bald eagle became the main element on the front of the seal. In one talon is a bundle of 13 arrows (representing the 13 colonies), in the other, an olive branch. In its mouth, the eagle holds an inscription: E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for “out of many, one” and represents the union of the American people.


The reverse side of the seal shows a 13-step, unfinished pyramid representing the

original 13 colonies and showing that the country is always building and changing. The

eye and the motto over it, Annuit Coeptis (“He has favored our undertakings”), allude

to divine—or God’s—intervention in the success of the country. The letters and

numbers on the first step of the pyramid are Roman numerals for 1776, the year the

Declaration of Independence was signed. The motto Novus Ordo Seclorum, “a new order

of the ages,” signifies a new era of American influence. In the Great Seal, the olive branch and arrows symbolize the power of both peace and war.


In God We Trust

Religion has always played a role in America’s heritage. Freedom of religion—allowing citizens to worship how they choose—is one of the core values upon which the United States was formed. The founding fathers believed that a supreme power had guided them in their fight for independence, so it is no surprise that references to God appear in the Declaration of Independence, the national motto, and the national anthem. The Constitution, however, deliberately makes no reference to any kind of deity—another guarantee of every American’s freedom of religion.


The phrase “In God We Trust” began appearing on American coins in 1864, during the Civil War. In 1908, legislation made it mandatory to include the motto on all coins issued in the United States, and in 1955 the motto was added to all paper money as well. In 1956, “In God We Trust” became our national motto. The national motto has been challenged in court at least three times. Some people are concerned that the motto forces religion upon people. The courts usually have decided, however, that the motto is not a religious statement. It is more of a reflection of America’s heritage, in which religion has played a role.


The National Anthem

In 1814, America was at war with Britain once again. A lawyer named Francis Scott Key

had boarded a British ship to try to free a friend and became trapped in the middle of

the battle. From the ship, he watched as the British fired upon Fort McHenry in

Baltimore, Maryland. Then one night, the shelling stopped. Had the Americans

surrendered? Had the British given up? As the sun began to rise, Key saw the American flag was still flying high over the fort. The United States had won the battle. Key was inspired to write a poem he called “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” a title that later became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 

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Did you know?

Americans adopted “The Star-Spangled Banner” as their national anthem more than a century before Congress made it official in 1931.

O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there. O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?


Americans are known around the world for their independent thinking and innovative ideas. They cherish their right to act and speak as they please—as long as it does not hurt anyone else. Americans know that with hard, honest work, the possibilities of what they can achieve are limitless. These values have been associated with the United States since the country’s beginning. In few other countries do all people enjoy such freedom, and that makes people proud to be Americans and willing to defend their country and its values.



No matter if your family came over on the Mayflower or if you are the first person in your family to be born in the United States, your family history is important. Understanding how your family came to the United States and what experiences they had can help you understand American heritage.


Only a few Americans can trace their families back to the native people who were here before Europeans landed. Most families arrived here to try to increase their fortunes or to escape a hard life, as many Asian and European immigrants did in the 1800s. Or they could have arrived after a forced journey as an African slave. Learning why your family came to America and how they took part in American history—whether it was fighting in the Civil War, helping to build a railroad that would connect opposite ends of the country, marching in a protest for equal rights for women, or simply casting their vote for a president—helps you understand why history is more than just dates and names. It is real people living real lives, whose actions—no matter how small—affect the future.


Start researching your family history by talking to your parents. Find out when and where they were born, where they grew up, and how they met. Ask them what major events affected their lives and how they responded to them. See if they have any documents for you to look at, such as birth and death certificates or a family Bible with names and dates in it. 


Researching your family history goes beyond learning about American heritage. Knowing about your family’s role in the history of this country can teach you about what American ideals and traditions are important to your family—things that you can proudly pass down to your own children.


Ask other relatives—especially older ones—the same questions. Talk to your

grandparents about where they came from, and find out if they have any living relatives

you can interview as well. Ask them for stories about their lives growing up as well as

what their parents and grandparents were like. Where did they grow up? What did they

do for a living? How did they participate in the major events of the times? What family

traditions did they have? Make sure to record your interviews so you do not forget

anything. Ask your relatives to show you some old family photographs and tell you what

they remember about the lives of the relatives pictured. 


America’s heritage also has been molded by its citizens in defense of the liberties they hold dear. Of course, the people most directly linked to this phase of American heritage are those who have defended it in conflicts both near and abroad—our military. Talking to military veterans is a great way to learn about what being an American means to its citizens. You probably know someone—or know someone who knows someone—who has served or is serving in the military. These veterans and active soldiers usually are happy to talk about their experiences defending the country and its values, whether in wartime or peacetime.



Nonmilitary citizens also have strong feelings about what it means to be an American. Their views can differ depending on their ages. Consider what effect growing up in different time periods will have on citizens. For example, think about how growing up during one of the following periods of history would have affected you.


Some people lost their homes during the 1930s and lived in roadside communities that sprang up on the outskirts of many large cities. Local Veterans Affairs offices or Veterans of Foreign Wars posts can recommend a veteran whom you could interview.



When stock market prices plummeted in 1929, many people were financially ruined. By 1932, about 30 percent of the workforce was unemployed, and by 1933, almost half of U.S. banks had failed. Americans learned to be extremely frugal, saving money as best they could. Many kept their money in their homes instead of in banks, and many depended heavily on government programs for help.



WORLD WAR II (1941-1945)

When Japanese forces attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans rallied to defend their country. America immediately entered World War II, and the U.S. Army quickly expanded from about 1.6 million soldiers to about 8.3 million. Civilians who traditionally were not part of the workforce—mostly women and African Americans—took positions in factories to help support the troops. Although most of America was united in the war, other groups were not allowed to participate. For instance, under what was called national security, many Japanese Americans were rounded up and held in internment camps. They were basically prisoners because of their Japanese descent. In recent years, the U.S. government has made reparations to many of the Japanese American families who suffered losses during that time.

Advertising campaigns featuring Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to join the workforce during World War II.


The civil rights crisis divided the country like no other issue since the Civil War. In the southern states, African Americans were not allowed to attend school or eat in restaurants with whites—even their drinking fountains and restrooms were separate. Blacks had more freedom in the northern states, but discrimination still was evident in things like employment and housing. Civil rights demonstrations often turned violent. Riots sometimes broke out as leaders on both sides tried to defend their beliefs. It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that serious progress was made toward equal treatment of the races.


THE KOREAN WAR (1950-1953)

This war placed many Americans at the forefront of the battle against communism, as North Korea invaded South Korea. While America’s presence in the war was short-lived, it was among the deadliest for American soldiers.


BOOM IN CALIFORNIA (1950s and 1960s)

Boom in California (1950s–1960s) America’s population boomed after World War II, and California was perhaps affected most. Its cities exploded with new housing and highways, and many icons of American culture migrated from New York to Los Angeles. Among the most notable arrivals to the new West Coast scene were television production studios

and Brooklyn’s beloved baseball team, the Dodgers.



Until 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik I, the first space satellite,

Americans relied on jet test pilots to reach new frontiers in flight. Their spirits

soared with hope after President John F. Kennedy’s optimistic promise to land on

the moon by the end of the 1960s. His vision was reached in July 1969, when

Apollo 11 astronauts successfully landed on the moon and returned to Earth.


Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon, was an Eagle Scout.


In the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Americans were treated to technological advances that were designed for more convenience in their homes. From TV dinners to live television via satellite, advancements resulted in more convenience and immediacy for the average American.

THE 1970s

Americans’ morale seemed to dip during this decade because of several events. The Vietnam War grew unpopular as more and more Americans began to question why we were fighting. The Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon to resign after he was accused of covering up a break-in at his rival’s headquarters. The country also plunged into a deep recession, in which prices were high and an oil shortage forced cars to line up for hours at gas stations.


Interviewing Tips & Tricks


If you choose either option 2c or 2d, here are some basic tips to

remember as you plan your interviews.

  • When coming up with questions to ask people, start with the
    five Ws and H that journalists use to get their story: who,
    what, when, where, why, and how. Questions that start with
    those words will help stir the memory of the person you are
    interviewing, and they will help you think of other
    interesting questions.

  • Ask easy questions first, such as the person’s name, age, and where they live. This helps them become comfortable as you proceed to more difficult, thought-provoking questions.

  • Form your questions so that the person you are interviewing must answer with more than “yes” or “no.” An example of such a question might be “Tell me why you enjoyed your service in the Navy” instead of “Did you like your service in the Navy?”

  • Ask follow-up questions like “Can you be more specific?” and “Can you give me an example?”

  • Record the interview. (Make sure to get permission from your interview subject first.) Most people talk too fast for you to write down complete answers, and taping an interview will make sure you do not miss a thing.


Not all history makers need to be George Washington or Martin Luther King Jr. While these men certainly left their fingerprints on American history, many ordinary citizens have made lasting impressions as well. Lawyer Francis Scott Key probably had no idea that his poem would someday become America’s national anthem. Independence, freedom, and innovativeness are all associated with the United States, and even the most “average” American citizens have become known for working to further the ideals of their country.



Our 39th president, Jimmy Carter, may be about the most shining example of “ordinary to extraordinary.” He was born in 1924 and grew up in rural Georgia. Carter was educated in the public school system and later attended Georgia Southwestern College, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the U.S. Naval Academy. He also did graduate work in nuclear physics at Union College in New York. His father was a farmer and business owner; his mother, a nurse. In 1953, after his father’s death, Jimmy Carter resigned from his commission with the U.S. Navy to take care of the family business. His interest in education eventually led him to politics. Carter served as U.S. president from 1977 to 1981. During that time, his administration focused on foreign relations, human rights, and environmental issues. Since leaving office, Carter has continued his service to the public and to those who are less fortunate. He teaches Sunday school and does volunteer work for many organizations, among them Habitat for Humanity.



Learning about how public and private citizens have changed history can be as easy as going to the library. Decide what time period you are interested in, or ask the librarian for a recommendation, and then head over to the library’s biography section. If you choose option 2a, you might consider comparing two figures from similar times in history, such as President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Both men worked to promote the values of the United States, but each had a unique approach.


John F. Kennedy

The grandson of a Boston mayor, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had a heritage of public service. Kennedy planned on becoming a teacher or a writer after his service in World War II, but when his politically ambitious brother Joe was killed, John Kennedy changed his career plans. Kennedy served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was later elected to the U.S. Senate. He professed to represent the values of regular Americans and pushed for better working conditions, more public housing, higher wages, and lower prices. Kennedy understood the power of the people. On the eve of the 1960 presidential election, he helped release Martin Luther King Jr. from prison. The resulting support from African Americans may have helped Kennedy become the youngest American president. As president, Kennedy championed many causes he felt would strengthen America, including the Peace Corps and the space program. He supported the civil rights movement, believing that it was important to show the world that the best way to live was in a free and democratic society such as America. Yet during this time, African Americans were not really free.


Kennedy was worried that activists’ protests and demonstrations would anger white people and create resistance toward civil rights legislation. After many Americans viewed a violent protest on television news, Kennedy addressed the nation about the civil rights crisis. “This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds,” he said. “It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Soon after, Kennedy started gathering support from both Democrats and Republicans for a civil rights program. The proposed legislation was making rounds through Congress when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. It would be up to his replacement, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to usher the civil rights bill into law. In his inaugural speech in January 1961, President Kennedy implored Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”


Martin Luther King Jr.

Growing up in the South, Martin Luther King Jr. thought the separation of races was normal. As a young adult, he visited Connecticut, where he saw blacks and whites eating together and attending the same church. This was how America was supposed to be, he thought. King studied law and medicine in college but ultimately decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, entering public service through the ministry. An eloquent speaker, King could help his church members spiritually, but he also could inspire them to demand equality. King’s first test came in 1955, when he was chosen to lead bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. King was only 26 years old, but he inspired African Americans to stop riding on buses until the city’s buses were desegregated a year later. Realizing the power that ordinary people could have over discrimination, King began working toward a mass movement for civil rights. Forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he began speaking all over the country. He called for nonviolent protests. Although he encouraged legal action from the government, he did not believe the government was doing enough. “Nonviolence can touch men where the law cannot reach them,” he said.


King’s work was dangerous. He was arrested many times. His house and church were bombed.

One time he was even stabbed. But he believed that his sacrifices were necessary to show how much

he believed in what America could be. In perhaps the most wide-reaching demonstration, King and

other civil rights leaders organized the March on Washington. On August 28, 1963, Americans

watched on TV as more than 200,000 people—both blacks and whites—peacefully came together

to demand equal rights for all races. Soon most of the country supported a strong civil rights law,

and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. The Voting Rights Act was passed a year later. During the

March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech,

saying, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In 1968, King was assassinated in Tennessee. However, the civil rights movement has continued. King and Kennedy both answered a call to service: Kennedy in the military and politics, King in the ministry. They both were powerful speakers and knew how to use the medium of television to their advantage. Both men had definite ideas of how America should be. In a sense, it was the same America, one where everyone had equal opportunities to succeed and be free. But they had different ways of achieving their goals. Kennedy wanted to use the law. King wanted to mobilize the people. Both methods worked. In fact, both methods probably were necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of racial equality.



  • Clara Barton (1821–1912). “Angel of the Civil War battlefield” and founder of the American Red Cross.

  • César Chávez (1927–1993). Helped organize a union of Hispanic and Filipino farm workers in 1962.

  • Frederick Douglass (1817–1895). Born a slave and became the first black man to stand boldly against slavery in America.

  • Bob Hope (1903–2003). Comedian and actor who entertained several generations, including U.S. soldiers overseas in service to their country.

  • Barbara Jordan (1936–1996). Powerful orator and the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate (1966) and U.S. House of Representatives (1972).

  • Helen Keller (1880–1968). Education reformer, lecturer, and writer who lost her sight and hearing at age 19 months. 

  • Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993). The first African American justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Thomas Paine (1737–1809). English-born philosopher whose pamphlet Common Sense argued for complete American independence from Britain. 

  • Sally K. Ride (1951–2012).The first American woman in space, as a crewmember of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

  • Jackie Robinson (1919–1972). African American baseball player whose athletic prowess and determination helped break the color barrier in major-league sports.

  • Sam Walton (1918–1992). Businessman and entrepreneur whose centralized distribution system allowed his stores to buy high volumes of brand-name goods and sell them at discount prices.

  • Tiger Woods (1975– ). Multiracial professional golfer whose exceptional play has made him the youngest player ever to reach such heights in the sport.



 The actions of many people working toward a common goal can make a huge difference. Millions of Americans helped the Civil Rights Act of 1964 come to fruition. Each individual contributed in some way. That is why people often join organizations. They have an issue that is important to them. They want to work with other people who feel the same way so that they can make a difference in American society. They may work to help a local political candidate get elected. They may volunteer to teach children to read. They may help organize marathons to raise money for disease research. Or they may write letters to government leaders to urge them to vote a certain way. It sometimes is hard to see how one person can make a difference. But one person working with other people toward a common cause can truly lead to changes. One example is the National Audubon Society. Because of the efforts of thousands of people, American wildlife has a better chance of survival.


In 1886, George Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream magazine, asked his readers to sign a pledge promising not to hurt birds. When about 40,000 people agreed, the Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds was founded. Membership grew so quickly that Grinnell was unable to keep pace with the growth. Ten years later, the Massachusetts Audubon Society was started when cousins Harriet Hemenway and Mirna Hall urged people to stop wearing feathered hats in order to halt the killing of birds. Soon people in more and more states were forming organizations under the name of the Audubon Society. By 1901, a national organization, the National Committee of Audubon Societies—now known as the National Audubon Society—was born, with the purpose of protecting native birds and other wildlife.


National Audubon Society members believe that the United States always has had a special relationship with its land. They believe that protecting and conserving the land and the creatures that live on it helps preserve our American heritage. In 1901, the Florida Audubon Society discovered a colony of brown pelicans—the last of their kind—on the east coast of Florida. The society began a campaign to protect the pelicans. Two years later, President Theodore Roosevelt named Pelican Island as the first National Wildlife Refuge.


Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man helped spark the beginning of the civil rights movement.


Let’s say you live in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the home of Oklahoma State University. Researching the town’s history will show you that the town started during the 1889 Oklahoma land rush, in which the government opened up Indian Territory to white settlers. The new settlement stood between two creeks but was miles from any railroad, which could bring in supplies and people, so the settlers lobbied for a new land-grant college to help increase the area’s importance. In 1890, Oklahoma A&M College (now OSU) was founded. Without the college, the town of Stillwater might have disappeared—and you would be living somewhere else. Learning about your town’s history can bring American heritage alive by showing you how your life today has been affected by the past. Important questions can come up as you research your town’s history. For instance, in the Stillwater example, you may wonder what industry developed in the town to make it successful, what happened to the American Indians who were displaced when white settlers rushed in, or whether African Americans, who were no longer slaves but often not granted the same rights as whites, were allowed to claim land. Finding the answers to thoughts like these will help you understand what your town was like when it began—and who contributed to its history.