My first culture post!
In preparation for my imminent trip to the US I have been reading up about American democracy and the foundation of the United States. Thanks to a hella-good musical called Hamilton (seriously listen to the soundtrack) I actually knew a lot more than I thought, but there is still a lot to get through. I've picked out some of the key facts everyone should know if they're planning on visiting the US. Let the history lesson commence.
Did you know that despite being the national bird of the United States, bald eagles were put on the list of endangered species in 1967? Thankfully they're recovering now so finger's crossed I might get to see one.
1. America declared independence on the 4th of July 1776
In spite of this King George III didn't speak about the declaration until October 31st. Presumably this was due to lengthy delays in getting information from the US to the UK but even so, three months without any acknowledgement seems odd. I guess maybe if I lost an important colony then I would probably sulk for a while too.
2. In contrast the the UK, the US has a written constitution which outlines the supreme law of the land.
Okay so this is a bit embarrassing, I didn't know until this year that the UK doesn't have a written constitution. In my defence the Magna Carta forms a lot of the basis for one, and I did know about that, but there is no actual codified constitution. For the US the constitution is a pretty big deal, and it is actually one of the oldest examples of constitutionalism in the world. The constitution governs the US in two key ways:
1. It created a central government to unite the various States.
2. It divided power into three branches (the Executive or Presidential, Judicial and Legislative) in order to ensure that there are checks and balances of power in the system, to prevent autocratic leadership.
The other main things to know about are the first three words of the preamble (basically the introduction at the top of the document).
"We the people..."
Yes, those three words are pretty much the foundation of America. The people rose up and therefore it is the people who govern themselves not a sovereign power (aka us, the British, who were at the time governing the US in a "remote boss" situation that was way before it's time). The second important thing is that it was James Madison, the fourth POTUS, who is known as the "Founding Father" of the constitution, not Thomas Jefferson whom I had believed wrote it.
3. There are 27 amendments to the Bill of Rights! 27!!
Backstory: The Bill of Rights (another very important document), which came about due to Federalist (lead by Alexander Hamilton) vs Anti-Federalist (lead by Thomas Jefferson) groups arguing about the constitution.
Anyway without going into too much detail, the BoR has been a work-in-progress document for the last three hundred or so years. As a result, it has been amended quite a lot to take into account the changing needs of the American people over time. For me the most interesting ones are:
The Second Amendment
This is one of the most controversial amendments as it covers the right of ordinary people to bear arms. Personally I think that the world is much better off without guns, and that may be naive, but the statistics really do speak for themselves. In the UK you can own a shotgun, but it is highly regulated and they are much harder to get, whereas you can "open carry" in the US (though some states have stricter regulations). I actually hope to meet with pro-gun ownership supporters during my time in the US, as I want to understand more about this topic. If you have any opinions on this topic let me know in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fifth Amendment
Ever heard of "taking the fifth"? If your a fan of Suits you'll perhaps remember Season 2 Episode 7 where Donna pleads the fifth. If not, taking or pleading the fifth basically means you can't be used as a witness against yourself. There are a number of well known and very interesting examples such as Kenneth Lay, the CEO of Enron, who took the fifth during the accounting scandal, among others.
The Eighteenth Amendment
Aka the party-pooper amendment. During the 1920s, the fabulous era of the Great Gatsby, and changing social norms following the First World War, the production, transport and sale of alcohol was prohibited. Consumption was still okay (the lawmakers aren't completely insane) but without production or sale of alcohol, supplies ran low and dangerous "moonshine" was drunk instead. Thankfully this amendment was repealed (aka reversed). Cheers!*
All in all, the history and foundation of the United States is a huge topic. This is already a pretty lengthy post so I'll stop here for now. For more information there are a number of resources including:
* Please drink responsibly. You can find out more about safe alcohol consumption here and here.