Definition:  The decision reached when a jury votes that an accused person is not guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt).

Affirmative Action

Definition:  A policy or program which seeks to provide minority groups with access to educational and work opportunities, in an attempt to compensate for the continuation of historical and structural injustices.


Definition:  A person who is not a legal citizen of the country in which she or he lives.


Definition:  A citizen who has been asked to serve as an official representative of a country's government. Ambassadors usually live in the country that they represent.


Definition:  Changes made to a document by adding, substituting, or omitting certain parts, partly because societies change and so the tenets of a founding document must be constantly reinterpreted. We typically think of amendments as changes to the U.S. Constitution. Our U.S. Constitution currently has 26 amendments. The first ten of these amendments are the Bill of Rights. Ratified in 1791, they limit governmental power and protect basic rights and liberties of individuals.


Definition:  A chaotic situation in which no particular person or group has political control. Frequently, this occurs when the political system has been overthrown by uprising citizens.


Definition:  When a superior court reviews cases and previous judgments from lower district courts or from federal regulatory agencies.


Definition:  A hearing in which a suspect/criminal defendant is charged with a crime before appearing in front of a judge. The person then pleads guilty or not guilty.

Articles of Confederation

Definition:  Established in 1781, before the existence of the United States, this document marked the first constitution and called for unity among the 13 states, while allowing each state to remain independent. But this system of government was soon viewed as weak and was replaced in 1789 by the Constitution of the United States.

Bill of Rights

Definition:  The first ten amendments to the Constitution. Ratified in 1791, these amendments limit governmental power and protect basic rights and liberties of individuals. The ten Bill of Rights are the following:
(1) Separation of church and state.
(2) Need for a regulated militia and right to bear arms. This right to bear arms referred not so much to all citizens, but to the right of “the people” as a group or as appointed militiamen.
(3) No quartering of soldiers.
(4) No unreasonable search and seizures; no search without probable cause.
(5) Prohibited criminal charges for death penalty without Grand Jury indictment.
(6) All criminals have right to a speedy public trial with an impartial jury.
(7) Juries can be demanded for civil cases.
(8) No excessive bail or fines (except in cases such as murder, or when person might flee).
(9) These rights shall not deny other rights of people.
(10) Powers given to the United States government and not prohibited to the states are reserved to the states or to the people.


Definition:  A written argument prepared by an attorney that usually states the legal reasons for the suit. A brief should lay out the argument, and counter arguments for opposing lawyers.

Brown vs. the Board of Education

Definition:  The 1954 Supreme Court landmark case against racially segregated schools, it declared the "separate-but-equal" educational facilities unconstitutional, and in doing so overruled the "separate but equal" doctrine of the infamous 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson during the reconstruction era. The "Brown" in the case title referred to an African-American third-grader named Linda Brown from Topeka, Kansas, who had to ride the bus five miles to school each day, although a public school was located only four blocks from her house. The school wasn't full and the little girl met all of the requirements to attend, but she was not admitted because African Americans were barred from enrolling in white children's schools. An experiment specifically designed for this case helped point to the devastating psychological effects of segregation and race consciousness. Black children were shown virtually identical dolls, with the only difference being skin color (one was black and one white). The children overwhelmingly preferred the white dolls, identifying them as “nice” and more attractive, while identifying the black dolls as “bad” and less attractive. Brown vs. the Board of Education is viewed as a landmark Civil Rights case.


Definition:  A plan or statement for estimated income as well as spending costs, set up by an individual, government, or organization.


Definition:  Organizations that implement government policies. The term is often used critically when large bureaucracies are seen as having too many rules and “red tape” to go through, making the desired action seem inflexible to the real needs of people.


Definition:  A collection of officers of the major departments of the federal government. For instance, it’s usually used in relation to the President’s cabinet, which refers to the secretary of state, treasurer, and attorney general, among others.


Definition:  An organized effort, usually referring to political, business, or military activities, to gather support for a candidate or particular aim.


Definition:  A process for counting all the people who live in a country, comprising the nation's population. The United States census occurs every ten years, and asks general questions about the people living in a household, such as age, race, and relationships (married, partners, single, children, etc.). Censuses are critical in factoring in state funding, particularly for diverse populations. With each U.S. census, the government stresses its critical nature, yet also expresses frustration in an inability to reach all segments of the population


Definition:  A plan of government that secures particular rights for a group of citizens.

Checks and Balances

Definition:  The doctrine that political power should be dispersed among different branches of the government, and that these branches should be held accountable to others. This system is different from one in which power is held by one individual or group. It requires that each branch of the government shares decision-making and also has the ability to check the other. For example, the legislative branch, Congress, writes the laws. The executive branch, the president, signs the laws and is charged with enforcing them. The judicial branch includes all of the U.S. federal court system.


Definition:  A person who is acknowledged as a legal member of a community (usually a nation). A person obtains this status through birth, the nationality of a parent or parents, or by going through the “naturalization” process through which he/she is legally made a citizen. It is presumed that a citizen shows loyalty to a country, although the interpretations of what makes a “loyal” or “good” citizen are often debated.


Definition:  The status of being a member of a state. Citizenship implies that people owe allegiance to the government and are entitled to its protection and political rights.


Definition:  The study of citizenship and government, usually having to do with the rights and duties of citizens.

Civil Rights

Definition:  Protections and privileges given to all U.S. citizens by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, especially the right to personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress. More specifically, "civil rights" is a term applied toward documents dealing with reparations in the constitutional and legal status and treatment of minority groups that are generally designated by non-majority race, religion, national origin, sex, age, etc.

Civil Rights Movements

Definition:  Continuing efforts to gain the enforcement of the rights guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution, recognizing that rights are sometimes unequally distributed in relation to such factors as gender, race, class, sexual preference, and religion. In the United States, the Civil Rights Movement usually refers to the coalitions demanding fair and equal treatment for black citizens. In the 20th century, the African-American civil-rights movement (usually associated with figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, the Black Panthers, and the NAACP) was instrumental in securing legislation, notably the civil-rights acts of 1964 and 1968 and the voting rights act of 1965. These acts prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, schools, employment, and voting for reasons of color, race, religion, or national origin. Other groups have also mounted civil rights movements, such as women's groups and gay/lesbian groups.

Civilian Control over the Military

Definition:  The belief that civilians should have the authority to preserve the constitutional government by having power over the military.

Common or Public Good

Definition:  Beliefs, systems, or actions that are seen to benefit a politically organized society as a whole.


Definition:  A group of people who share the same interests and concerns, whether within a classroom, religion, organization, city, or country. It’s usually used in reference to a positive concept of "community" in which people feel bonded together.

Consent of the Governed

Definition:  Agreement by the people to set up and live under a government.


Definition:  A group of people who vote in a particular election district and elect someone to represent that district or area.


Definition:  Formed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and ratified the following year, the Constitution of the United States formed the basis of the new national government. It established a republic balanced between the national government and the states. It began to function in 1787, replacing the Articles of Confederation (1781). It contains a preamble, 7 articles, and 27 amendments. The Bill of Rights, comprising the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, was added in 1791 to provide guarantees of individual liberties. There weren't many amendments to the Constitution after 1891. The brevity and generality of the language of the Constitution have made it adaptable to changing times. Over time, the Constitution has been interpreted to mean radically different things. For instance, in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), the Court held racial segregation constitutional, while in Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954), it found the opposite. Among the concepts long subject to reexamination and reinterpretation are states' rights, due process of law, and equal protection under the law.

Contempt of Court

Definition:  A charge of obstructing or interfering with the judicial process.


Definition:  A trial before a panel of military officers, usually for the trial of members of the armed forces or others within this jurisdiction.


Definition:  A person who is accused of a crime. The defendant (the accused) is sued by the plaintiff, who is the person bringing legal action against the defendant.


Definition:  A person appointed or elected to represent others, usually at a conference or convention.


Definition:  A form of government in which all the people have political power and input—-not just government officials. This is opposed, for example, to a dictatorship. Some Democratic principles of the United States are the consent of the governed, equality, majority rule, due process of law, citizen participation, minority rights, and rule of law.


Definition:  The process of conducting hopefully congenial relations with foreign governments. The representative diplomat should generally act with “diplomacy,” referring to discretion, sensitivity, and skill in communication.


Definition:  Unfair and less equal treatment of a person in a particular group which holds less societal power than the majority. It usually refers to unfair consideration or bias toward someone based not upon their individual personality or attitudes, but on general social categories such as race, class, gender, sexual preference, religion, or ethnicity.


Definition:  A term acknowledging that people in our society are identified within categories--usually along lines of race, class, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, and physical abilities. These categories usually are aligned with different levels of access to power, and relate to different perceptions carried by society. Diversity in a culture is not only inevitable, but also beneficial to a pluralist society.

Divine Right

Definition:  Theory of government that holds that a monarch receives the right to rule directly from God and not from the people. It is usually a part of this belief that the rightful successor to the sovereign would be a bloodline relative or offspring, who would similarly be deemed as a rightful inheritor of the god-appointed right to rule. "Divine Right" has since been critiqued in the United States as a political maneuver that draws upon religious beliefs to legitimate the political motives of a few.

Domestic Tranquility

Definition:  Internal peacefulness or the general lack of disturbance within a country. This term is best known in the Preamble (meaning purpose) to the U.S. Constitution, which states the following: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Double Jeopardy

Definition:  Putting a person on trial again for a crime of which he or she was acquitted. In other words, the act of prosecuting a person twice for the same offense. The U.S. Constitution generally regards double jeopardy as unlawful, unless it is established that there were procedural errors in the first trial, or if the jury was unable to reach a verdict.

Due Process of Law

Definition:  The right of every citizen to be held to laws that are not arbitrary, unfair, or unreasonable. It follows that citizens must be protected against arbitrary actions by government. Due process usually refers to the formal legal proceedings in court that are carried out fairly and in agreement with established rules and principles.


Definition:  The people within a district who are eligible to vote in an election.

Eminent Domain

Definition:  The right of the government to take private property (a person's house, for example) for public use, whether or not the owner agrees with this arrangement. The owner must then be compensated for her/his loss. Examples of public uses for eminent domain are schools, highways, parks, airports, hospitals, and other public buildings.

Equal Protection Clause

Definition:  Part of the Fourteenth Amendment provision that grants all citizens equal protection of the laws, which means that states are prohibited from denying equal protection of the laws to all people – that is, discriminating against or giving preference to individuals based on categories such as race, gender, or class.


Definition:  The belief that all citizens should have the same access to power and fair treatment in all aspects of society, whether in political, social, economic, or legal arenas. It also relates in a more personal way to the belief that people should ideally feel that they have the same abilities and rights as anyone else. However, structures of power relating to gender, race, class, and sexual preference sometimes make equal access complicated if not impossible for some individuals.

Establishment clause

Definition:  A portion of the First Amendment that says the government may not establish an official religion. This is particularly significant in this country because freedom of religion is one of the major tenets.


Definition:  A group of people that tend to be identified within a particular race, culture, or society. This affiliation with a particular cultural tradition may be national (English) or regional (Sicilian) in character.

Excise Taxes

Definition:  Taxes on the manufacture, sale, or consumption of a good produced within a country. It’s usually a criteria that the goods are deemed “non-essential,” such as cigarettes or alcohol.

Exclusionary Rule

Definition:  A rule based on the Fourth Amendment's protection against illegal searches and seizures, and also based on the Constitutional promise of the due process of the law for all. It says that evidence that was secured illegally or in “bad faith” may not be used in a criminal trial.

Executive Order

Definition:  A rule the President issues that has the force of law, and doesn’t require the consent of Congress.

Executive Power

Definition:  Power of the president enabling the implementation and enforcement of laws.

Exit Poll

Definition:  A survey taken at election sites that tallies how people voted. Exit polls are usually used to predict probable winners.


Definition:  Returning a suspected criminal to the state or country where the crime was committed. This is usually for reasons of a serious crime, and the person must face the justice system and penalty of that particular country where the crime was committed. Some countries, however, refuse to extradite (send the person back) if it is judged that the prosecution is not warranted.


Definition:  The system stipulated in the Constitution in which the power to govern is shared between the national government and the states. But the issue of how much power each side represents has proven an ongoing debate throughout U.S. history. Since the establishment of the federal government by the U.S. Constitution in 1787, citizens and government officials have debated about which governmental powers, such as social programs, should be located at the national level, and which at the state.


Definition:  Advocates of a strong national government and a faction of original supporters of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.


Definition:  Political and economic medieval system in which a king or queen shared power with the nobility who then required services from the common people. In return, the people were allowed to use the nobles' land. Feudalism was structured like a pyramid, with the king at the top holding the most power, with the various people beneath him. This system was the hierarchical social organization of medieval society. The serfs, the largest group but holding the least power, occupied the lowest part of the pyramid. They were obliged to cultivate the land belonging to their lord. There was no middle class in feudalism, because social rank and movement was determined by your family and could not be changed. When at the end of the Middle Ages a middle class did begin to emerge, it marked the beginning of the end of feudalism.


Definition:  A tactic for defeating a bill in the Senate by talking with continuous speeches until the bill's sponsor withdraws it, or no vote can be taken.

Foreign Policy

Definition:  Policies of the federal government directed to matters beyond U.S. borders, especially relations with other countries. Much domestic policy has foreign policy implications.


Definition:  When the government grants a person or corporation the right to operate a business.

Free Exercise Clause

Definition:  Clause in the First Amendment that says the government will never prohibit the free practice of religious beliefs.

Freedom of Assembly

Definition:  The unquestioned right for people to gather together peacefully in public, whether for political, religious, or personal reasons.

Freedom of Expression

Definition:  Refers to the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition that are protected by the First Amendment.

Freedom of Religion

Definition:  The First Amendment to the Constitution states that U.S. citizens have the freedom to worship or practice spiritual beliefs as they please. This was formed in response to historical religious intolerance in which groups were persecuted for religious beliefs, or were forced to acknowledge the religion of the national leader.

Freedom of Speech

Definition:  The First Amendment states that we can exercise the freedom to say what we want to publicly without government interference. It was specifically formed in response to the previous inability of people to criticize politics and political leaders. Today, freedom of speech is still a revered but also debated issue. People cannot say absolutely anything they want to in any situation. For example, sexual harrassment is a critical issue today. Also, controversies frequently arise when extreme groups, such as “hate groups,” claim the right to speak as they want to.

Freedom of the Press

Definition:  A First Amendment right to print or publish information without government interference. Not all countries have this license, as it tends to be more a part of modern, democratic systems. However, Freedom of the Press is always complicated by the issue of censorship. People in different time periods are concerned with different censorship issues, such as religious heresy, sedition, or obscenity (a major concern today). Also related are notions of blasphemy and personal libel

General Welfare

Definition:  What is judged as being for the good of society as a whole--for the common or public good. Of course, people frequently debate which aspects are good for all people, especially considering diverse perspectives.

General Welfare Clause

Definition:  Clause in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that gives Congress power to provide for "the general welfare of the United States."


Definition:  The form or system of rule by which a state, community, or other division of people is governed or ruled. "Government" generally refers to a particular group in society that has the right to make and enforce laws. There are many classifications of government. Governments are distinguished by whether power is held by one person, a few, or a majority, and could be, for example, classified into parliamentary or presidential systems. The basic law determining the form of government is called the constitution. Besides ostensibly providing internal and external security, order, and justice, most modern governments are also involved in providing welfare services, regulating the economy, and establishing educational systems. The extreme case of governmental regulation of most aspects of people's lives is totalitarianism.


Definition:  When everyday people try to start major political activity at a local level.

Habeas Corpus

Definition:  Court order demanding that a person held in custody be brought before a court so that the court may determine whether the detention is lawful. It’s meant to make sure that the individual received the guaranteed right to due process under the Constitution, but does not determine guilt or innocence. It can be suspended only in cases of rebellion or invasion.

Hate Speech

Definition:  Language that is intentionally deeply offensive to a person based on such categories as the person's perceived gender, race, ethnic affiliation, or sexual orientation.

Home Rule

Definition:  Self-government in the form of power granted by state legislatures to cities, states, or colonies to manage their own affairs.

Hung Jury

Definition:  A jury that cannot agree on a verdict in a criminal case. This usually results in the judge declaring a mistrial, and generally a new trial and new jury are required.


Definition:  In popular usage, "ideology" is typically associated with an overt political and usually corrupt agenda. An increasingly accepted definition, however, refers to a pattern of beliefs held by a group of people, usually assumed to be the dominant group. These beliefs help maintain the power of the dominant group by being projected as "truths." They also gain strength and resilience by seeming natural, normal, and universal. However, ideological notions change among groups and in different historical contexts. (For instance, women were seen as "naturally" and "universally" less rational and intelligent than men in the nineteenth-century, and this can be referred to as an ideological belief, in that it helped groups of men maintain power over women.)


Definition:  A person who comes to a country with the intention of living there permanently.


Definition:  Exemption from penalties, payments, or legal requirements from authorities or states. In other words, legal protection against prosecution.


Definition:  Power of Congress to remove a public official, such as president, vice president, federal judge, and other federal officers from office, usually by proving that he/she committed illegal acts while acting for public duty, did not tell the truth, or misrepresented the truth. For instance, an infamous case in this country concerns the former President Richard Nixon. He resigned in 1974 rather than face impeachment for his involvement in the Watergate affair, in which he was accused of obstructing the investigation and lying to Congress about his participation.


Definition:  To formally accuse a person of a crime. Generally, when a grand jury brings a formal accusation against someone in the form of a trial.

Individual Rights

Definition:  Rights that are possessed by individuals as opposed to those rights possessed by groups. The U.S. Constitution holds that the government should protect these rights to life, liberty, economic freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, exactly how these rights are defined and interpreted is frequently contested.


Definition:  When a law or constitutional amendment originates through citizens’ use of petitions.


Definition:  A public, educational, or charitable organization, such as Congress, the presidency, or the court system, that promotes a particular cause or program, and plays a significant role in its enforcement and conflicts.

Interest Group

Definition:  A group of people who come together in support of a common interest or goal, and try to influence public policy to meet those concerns.

Joint Committee

Definition:  A committee that includes members of both houses of Congress in order to reach a compromise on their differences concerning a particular issue.

Judicial Power

Definition:  Power to manage conflicts about how laws should be interpreted and applied in individual cases.

Judicial Review

Definition:  The review of a decision by a court to determine whether or not the procedures used to make a decision were fair.


Definition:  The authority to hear and decide a case in a court of law within a particular geographic region and/or over particular types of cases. It is vital to determine before a lawsuit is filed which court has jurisdiction, because certain courts have jurisdiction over certain lawsuits. For instance, a person might go to a District Court to resolve cases which involve large sums of money, while someone else might report to a Municipal Court for cases involving smaller sums of money, like traffic matters. Further, state courts have jurisdiction over matters within that state, and federal courts have jurisdiction over lawsuits between citizens of different states.


Definition:  The subject and study of the law and legal questions.


Definition:  The notion that everyone in society should receive equal distributions of benefits and burdens as well as fair correction of wrongs and injuries. Another way of looking at it is that society and the law should not discriminate against anyone, regardless of such categories as gender, race, class, religion, or sexual preference.


Definition:  Meaning in French "allow to do," this policy, most popular in the 19th century, is based on the idea that an economic system functions best when there is no interference by government, and should result in the maximum well-being for the individual and therefore for the community. However, in the late 19th century, laissez-faire became increasingly criticized as leading to monopoly and other oppressive circumstances caused by industrial growth, so that the laissez-faire doctrine was insufficient as a guiding philosophy. In other words, when the economy was “allowed to do” as it wanted without government interference, a lot of everyday people were treated unfairly. Still, laissez-faire creeps up now and again, like in the administrations of Reagan in the U.S. and Thatcher in Britain.


Definition:  The authority under the constitution to make laws, and also to alter or repeal them.


Definition:  The idea, also stated in the American Declaration of Independence, that all United States citizens have the right to be free. Many groups, such as women and African Americans, have argued that some groups in this country have been greater beneficiaries of freedom than other groups, and amendments have modified the constitution to reflect new definitions of who is designated as a person entitled to political freedom or liberty. Next to the flag, the Statue of Liberty is America's most famous symbol for freedom—especially to all the immigrants who entered this country hoping for a better life from persecution and hardship elsewhere.


Definition:  The right of an individual to economic, social, and political freedom. In the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were essential characteristics of the new nation, in contrast to monarchal force. Another important aspect of the tenet of "life" is that the political status of ruling parties, parents, or ancestors should not be forced upon citizens. In later developments of the country, the issue of “life” was debated by groups such as women and African Americans, who argued that their lives shouldn’t be economically, socially, and politically dependent upon another person, such as a husband or master. Many disagreements over the issue of "life" continue today, such as who should hold the power of determining reproductive life.

Line-Item Veto

Definition:  The option of the president to approve certain parts of a bill and to veto others.

Literacy Test

Definition:  An exam to determine that a voter can read, write and understand public issues. Literacy tests are meant to prove that a voter can read, write and understand public issues. However, literacy tests have been criticized in U.S. history for discrimination. For instance, many southern African Americans were prevented from registering to vote because of these tests. In response, in 1965, President Johnson enacted the Voting Rights Act, which abolished literacy tests and other voter restrictions and authorized federal intervention against voter discrimination. Subsequently, black voter registration rose in the South, enabling political changes.


Definition:  A group trying to persuade government officials to support or defeat the goals of a special-interest group. It can also be used as a verb, as in the act of “lobbying” for a cause.

Majority Rule

Definition:  Rule by more than half of those participating in a decision.

Mayflower Compact

Definition:  Document drawn up and signed in 1620 by 41 male Pilgrims (women were not viewed as representative of public, political power) while on The Mayflower before landing at Plymouth Rock. The Compact bound all the signers together to form a sort of government in which they all agreed to follow the same laws that would be established. It was drawn up partly because of the fear that once they landed, some individuals might leave the group and run off on their own. This compact was a way of creating a sense of community and obligation to each other, and eventually became the foundation of Plymouth’s government.

Minority Rights

Definition:  The rights of any group less than a majority. The concept of minority rights is deemed significant because ruling and cultural power are largely determined by the majority group, or the group holding the most political power. An effect of this is often that minority groups do not share the same access to the privileges and systems of power.


Definition:  In contrast to a felony, which is more severe, a misdeameanor is a lesser crime that is punishable by a fine and/or jail time of up to one year. They are tried in the lowest local court and usually include crimes such as petty theft, disturbing the peace, drunk driving without injury to others, drunkenness in public, traffic violations, and public nuisances.


Definition:  Government in which political power is exercised by a single ruler under the claim of divine or hereditary right.

National Debt

Definition:  The total amount the government owes on money it has borrowed.

National Security

Definition:  Condition of a nation's defense and safety from threats, especially threats from external sources.

Natural Rights

Definition:  Belief that individuals are naturally endowed with basic human rights that are so fundamental to human nature that they cannot be taken away or given up. The Declaration of Independence states that these natural rights include those to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."


Definition:  The process by which a person from another country becomes a citizen of the United States.

Nineteenth Amendment

Definition:  The 1920 Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing all United States women the right to vote. The issue of women's lack of voting rights increasingly became a heated issue in the mid-19th century, particularly as women agitating against slavery began to recognize gendered as well as racialized discrimination in this country. A famous and significant gathering for women’s suffrage was called the Seneca Falls Convention, in July 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others issued a declaration that called for women’s right to suffrage as well as to educational and employment opportunities. The text of the 19th Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Ninth Amendment

Definition:  This amendment states, in effect, that the Bill of Rights is only a partial listing of people's rights. In other words, just because certain rights are not mentioned in the Constitution does not mean that they do not or should not exist for the protection of individuals.


Definition:  A law, usually of a city or a county, that governs matters not already covered by state or federal laws, such as zoning, safety and building regulations.


Definition:  When Congress defeats a veto on a bill. The president has the power to approve or reject (veto) the laws passed by Congress, and Congress can override the president's veto of a bill with a 2/3 majority vote.


Definition:  The act of being loyal to one’s country, especially in periods of national turmoil, such as war. However, there are many disagreements over what constitutes a patriotic person, exemplified over the burning of the flag.


Definition:  A fairly frequent practice of setting aside and effectively squashing a bill by a Congressional committee. This means that the bill will not be voted on for consideration.


Definition:  A person or party filing a lawsuit in court against someone else (the defendant).


Definition:  Any principle of a political party's platform. For example, a woman’s right over reproductive choice tends to be a major plank of the Democratic agenda.


Definition:  A political party's statement of its goals and positions on public issues.

Pocket Veto

Definition:  The President's power to veto a bill, if Congress is not in session, by not signing it for 10 days. A bill normally becomes law ten days (excluding Sundays) after it is submitted. If Congress adjourns within that ten-day period without the president having signed the bill, the bill is killed. Unlike other presidential vetoes, a pocket veto cannot be overridden by a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

Political Action Committee (PAC)

Definition:  An organization established to raise money to support an issue or candidate.

Polling Place

Definition:  A building or area where votes are cast in an election.

Popular Sovereignty

Definition:  Democracy in the form of self-government, in which the people have the right to participate in the government. The hope is that everyday citizens will ensure that the government represents the wishes of the entire country, not just of a few in power.


Definition:  An introduction to a formal document that explains its purpose. In this country, we usually think specifically of the Preamble (meaning purpose) to the U.S. Constitution, which states the following: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."


Definition:  A geographic area within a town, city, or country that contains a specific number of voters for election purposes.

Private (or personal) Domain

Definition:  Areas of an individual's life that are not subject to governmental control.

Private Property

Definition:  Property/land that is owned by a particular person or persons, and not by the government or dedicated to public use.


Definition:  A petition asking for a new law.

Public Good

Definition:  Something that is seen as good for the welfare of all. In practice it would be difficult to find complete agreement on public good or interest. Even though there are some beliefs that most people would agree on (for instance, most would agree that it is not in the public interest to allow drunk drivers on the highway), it is also complicated by the many differences in values and morality that people hold. Some personal beliefs and values, then, may be more for the good of an individual or smaller group, rather than for common good of all.

Public Opinion

Definition:  A generally held attitude toward a particular issue in a community, as in the public opinion favors a reform of the health care system. Public opinion, which can be evaluated through public opinion polls, hopefully acts as a check on the government.

Puritan Ethic

Definition:  Belief in the primacy of religious duty, work, conscience, and self-restraint in the life of the individual. It relates to the supposed life philosophy of the Puritans, who were originally protestants who arose in the 16th century within the Church of England, demanding the simplification of doctrine and worship, and greater strictness in religious discipline.

Pursuit of Happiness

Definition:  A component of the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness suggested that all Americans have the fundamental right to act independently, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others.


Definition:  To vote approval of.


Definition:  An election in which proposed laws are submitted to popular vote.


Definition:  To cancel a law either with a repealing statute, or with a public vote. Repealing a provision of the U.S. Constitution , however, requires an amendment.

Representative Government

Definition:  A form of government in which power is held by the voters, who then elect and should be fairly represented by government representatives. Ultimately, the hope is for a government that stands for the common welfare of all the people.


Definition:  The money governments receive from taxes and other sources.


Definition:  A complete, usually sudden, and often drastic and violent change of government and the rules by which government is conducted. The term is used, for instance, in reference to the Industrial Revolution as a radical and profound change in economic relationships and technological conditions.


Definition:  A procedure in which each person is called upon to announce his or her vote. More specifically, it can also refer to a recorded vote taken on the final passage of a bill or on request of a member with support of four other members.

Rule of Law

Definition:  Principle that every member of a society, even a ruler, must follow the law. Underpinning the concept of the rule of law in the United States is the structure of its federal government as established the Constitution. This includes the three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) and the system of checks and balances that ensures that no branch can dominate the government. The rule of law is the opposite of the “rule of men”, which refers to the ability of the few in power to govern as they please, despite the wishes of other governmental entities or everyday citizens.

Rule of Men

Definition:  Ability of government officials and others to govern by their personal whim or desire. Opposed to the "rule of law."


Definition:  The act of separating or dividing people, usually by racial or ethnic identity. It usually refers to the detrimental, forced separation of minority groups by a dominant group. For instance, the South during Reconstruction established political, forced segregation of African Americans, and this resulted in the charge that separate is not equal. Malcolm X later distinguished between segregation (forced upon African Americans for white racial supremacy) and separation--when African Americans strategically need to self-separate from white groups for stronger coalitions.

Separation of Church and State

Definition:  The concept that religion and government should be separate, and the basis for the establishment clause of the First Amendment. It was initially intended to prevent a dominant state religion, but over the last 200 years has evolved into meaning, for most Americans, the exclusion of religion from politics.

Separation of Powers

Definition:  Division of governmental power among several institutions that must cooperate in decision making and are held accountable to each other: the legislative, executive, and judicial powers.


Definition:  The period of time (typically one day’s business) when Congress meets.

Social Security

Definition:  The comprehensive federal program, financed by a special tax, that provides benefits for people who are retired.


Definition:  The supreme power to govern, or the ultimate overseer, or authority, in the decision-making process of the state and in the maintenance of order.


Definition:  The practice of giving jobs as a reward for party loyalty.


Definition:  The right to vote, and is usually associated with the ratification of women’s right to vote in the United States in 1920. In addition to gender, some countries limit the ability to vote to certain racial or ethnic groups, which can be very problematic. For instance, African Americans didn’t used to be able to vote in the United States.

Supremacy Clause

Definition:  A clause in the Constitution which states that laws passed by Congress, and treaties of the United States "shall be the supreme law of the land." This means that Supreme Court rulings can be binding on state courts if involving a constitutional issue. The actual clause (Article VI, Section 2) reads: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the Constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."

Town Meeting

Definition:  A gathering of local citizens to discuss and vote on important issues.


Definition:  A division of a county having the status of a unit of local government with varying governmental powers.


Definition:  A violation of allegiance toward one's country—especially when this violation endangers the country or assists its enemies.


Definition:  A formal agreement between two or more states to create or restrict rights and responsibilities. In the U.S. all treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Presidents sometimes get around the Senate by entering into "Executive Agreements" with leaders of other countries.


Definition:  A fundamental right of the people that the government must not lie or refrain from full disclosure. “Truth” also has more subjective meaning in our culture, as various groups contest over what they deem to be the ultimate “truth” of a situation. For instance, the phrase “All men are created equal” existed as “truthful” at the same time that the United States endorsed slavery. Many abolitionist groups, then, argued against the truthfulness of this statement in regard to racial relations. Also, what is "truth" in one historical period can become very problematic later, like the scientific "truth" in the 19th-century that women were less capable of intellect than men.

Unenumerated Rights

Definition:  Rights which are not specifically listed in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, but which have been recognized and protected by the courts.

United Nations

Definition:  An international organization including most of the nations of the world, formed in 1945 to promote peace, security, and economic development. The United Nations (UN) became the successor to the League of Nations when it was disbanded in 1946.


Definition:  Constitutional power of the president to refuse to sign a bill passed by Congress, thereby preventing it from becoming a law. The president's veto may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

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Civics Online
Creation Date: 2/21/2000
Last Updated: 3/20/2005