Don't Know Much

After the Veep, who comes next? (Civics Primer Part 3)


Someone asked me recently what Americans need to know about our history and government. The answer is easy. There’s a test for that.

It’s called the Naturalization Test, given by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and applicants for citizenship must pass it.

Could most American-born citizens pass it? In my experience testing audiences with some of these questions, many people are on shaky  ground. That’s one reason I am offering this Civics Primer as Election Day approaches.

So here are a couple of  questions from the test, Can you keep your passport?  (Answers below. Don’t peek!) —

1. The Vice-President takes over if the President can’t serve. What official is next in line? (And what is that person’s name currently?)

2. What do we call the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution?

3. What are the three branches of government?

4. Name one of the three writers of the Federalist Papers (essays which supported ratifying the Constitution)?

5. Name one of the two longest rivers in America. (Gotcha. You didn’t think there was any Geography on this test, did you?)

My previous posts focused on the first two of the initial Ten Amendments to the Constitution. Here’s a quick refresher on Numbers Three and Four.

Amendment Three is the Rodney Dangerfield of Amendments– it gets no respect.

No Soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner prescribed by law.

A reaction to the enforced housing of British troops in colonial America before independence was achieved, this amendment has never been the basis for a Supreme Court decision since its adoption. It does mean, however, that the Army can’t just move into your house if it decides it needs a barracks for some troops.  It also serves as an important reminder of what the major concerns were for the men who wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights: they were concerned about protection of individual rights and property and feared, perhaps more than anything, the unlimited power of government.

Amendment Four has gotten much more attention.

Protects from unreasonable search and seizure. Calls for probable cause.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

At the heart of the debate over “criminals’ rights,” this amendment was intended to protect privacy and personal security as essential to liberty. This means that no one can be arrested without a warrant naming a specific individual with a specified crime. Arrests without warrants may be made in the case of a felony when the police arrest someone suspected of a crime. After such an arrest, a judge must determine if there is probable cause to hold that person. A police officer can also arrest someone who commits a minor infraction, or misdemeanor, in the presence of the arresting officer.

The amendment also permits only “reasonable” searches and covers evidence that is uncovered during a search that relates to a separate crime. All of these issues depend on the court hearing them. No warrant is necessary for police to look for something outside a building or private yard or property.


1. The Speaker of the House of Representatives (currently Nancy Pelosi)

2. The Bill of Rights

3. Legislative (Article I of the Constitution); the Executive (Article II of the Constitution); Judicial (Article III of the Constitution)

4. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay

5. The Missouri or the Mississippi

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