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United States Constitution

Completed on September 12, 1787, and later ratified by special conventions
in each of the original thirteen American states, the Constitution of the
United States represents the supreme law of the United States of America and
is the oldest comprehensive written national constitution still in force and
has served as a model for a number of constitutions around the world. It
created a more unified government in place of what was then a group of
independent states operating under the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitution owes its staying power to its simplicity and flexibility.
Originally designed to provide a framework for governing 4 million people in
13 very different states along America's Atlantic coast, its basic
provisions were so soundly conceived that, with only 27 amendments, it now
serves the needs of more than 280 million Americans in 50 even more diverse
states that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.


The path to the Constitution was neither straight nor easy. A draft document
emerged in 1787, but only after intense debate and six years of experience
with an earlier federal union. The 13 British colonies in America declared
their independence from their motherland in 1776. A year before, war had
broken out between the colonies and Britain, a war for independence that
lasted for six bitter years. While still at war, the colonies now calling
themselves the United States of America drafted a compact that bound them
together as a nation. The compact, designated the "Articles of Confederation
and Perpetual Union," was adopted by a congress of the states in 1777 and
formally signed in July 1778. The Articles became binding when they were
ratified by the 13th state, Maryland, in March 1781. The Articles of
Confederation devised a loose association among the states and set up a federal 
government with very limited powers. In such critical matters as defense, public 
finance, and trade, the federal government was at the mercy of the state
legislatures. It was not an arrangement conducive to stability or strength.
Within a short time the weakness of the confederation was apparent to all.
Politically and economically, the new nation was close to chaos. In the
words of George Washington, who would become the first president of the
United States in 1789, the 13 states were united only "by a rope of sand."

It was under these inauspicious circumstances that the Constitution of the
United States was drawn up. In February 1787 the Continental Congress, the
legislative body of the republic, issued a call for the states to send
delegates to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to revise the Articles. Delegates
began to arrive starting on May 14 and the Constitutional Convention first
convened on May 25, 1787, in Independence Hall, where the Declaration of
Independence had been adopted eleven years earlier, on July 4, 1776.
Although the delegates had been authorized only to amend the Articles of
Confederation, they pushed aside the Articles and proceeded to construct a
charter for a wholly new, more centralized form of government. The new
document, the Constitution, was completed September 17, 1787, and was
officially adopted March 4, 1789.

The fifty-five delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the
outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation. They
represented a wide range of interests, backgrounds, and stations in life.
All agreed, however, on the central objectives expressed in the preamble to
the Constitution:

     "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect
     union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the
     common defense, 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."

The primary aim of the Constitution was to create a strong elected
government, directly responsive to the will of the people. The concept of
self-government did not originate with the Americans; indeed, a measure of
self-government existed in England at the time. But the degree to which the
Constitution committed the United States to rule by the people was unique,
even revolutionary, in comparison with other governments around the world.
By the time the Constitution was adopted, Americans had considerable
expertise in the art of self-government. Long before independence was
declared, the colonies were functioning governmental units controlled by the
people. After the Revolution had begun between January 1, 1776, and April
20, 1777, ten of the thirteen states had adopted their own constitutions.
Most states had a governor elected by the state legislature. The legislature
itself was elected by popular vote.

The Articles of Confederation had tried to unite these self-governing
states. The Constitution, by contrast, established a strong central, or
federal, government with broad powers to regulate relations between the
states and with sole responsibility in such areas as foreign affairs and

Centralization proved difficult for many people to accept. America had been
settled in large part by Europeans who had left their homelands to escape
religious or political oppression, as well as the rigid economic patterns of
the Old World that locked individuals into a particular station in life
regardless of their skill or energy. These settlers highly prized personal
freedom, and they were wary of any power especially that of government that
might curtail individual liberties.

The diversity of the new nation was also a formidable obstacle to unity. The
people who were empowered by the Constitution in the 18th century to elect
and control their central government represented different origins, beliefs,
and interests. Most had come from England, but Sweden, Norway, France, the
Netherlands, Prussia, Poland, and many other countries also sent immigrants
to the New World. Their religious beliefs were varied and, in most cases,
strongly held. There were Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Huguenots,
Lutherans, Quakers, Jews. Economically and socially, Americans ranged from
the landed aristocracy to slaves from Africa and indentured servants working
off debts. But the backbone of the country was the middle class farmers,
tradespeople, mechanics, sailors, shipwrights, weavers, carpenters, and a
host of others.

Americans then, as now, had widely differing opinions on virtually all
issues, including the wisdom of breaking free of the British Crown. During
the American Revolution a large number of British loyalists known as Tories
had fled the country, settling mostly in eastern Canada. Those who stayed
behind formed a substantial opposition bloc, although they differed among
themselves on the reasons for opposing the Revolution and on what
accommodation should be made with the new American republic.

It was the continuing job of the Constitution and the government it had
created to draw these disparate interests together, to create a common
ground and, at the same time, to protect the fundamental rights of all the people.

Compared with the complexities of contemporary government, the problems of
governing 4 million people in much less developed economic conditions seem
small indeed. But the authors of the Constitution were building for the
future as well as the present. They were keenly aware of the need for a
structure of government that would work not only in their lifetime but for
generations to come. Hence, they included in the Constitution a provision
for amending the document when social, economic, or political conditions
demanded it. Twenty-seven amendments have been passed since ratification,
and the flexibility of the Constitution has proven to be one of its greatest
strengths. Without such flexibility, it is inconceivable that a document
drafted more than 200 years ago could effectively serve the needs of 260
million people and thousands of governmental units at all levels in the
United States today. Nor could it have applied with equal force and
precision to the problems of small towns and big cities.

Drafting the Constitution

The period between the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and
the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 was one of weakness, dissension,
and turmoil. Under the Articles of Confederation, no provisions were made
for an executive branch to enforce the laws or for a national court system
to interpret them. A legislative congress was the sole organ of the national
government, but it had no power to force the states to do anything against
their will. It could theoretically declare war and raise an army, but it
could not force any state to meet its assigned quota for troops or for the
arms and equipment needed to support them. It looked to the states for the
income needed to finance its activities, but it could not punish a state for
not contributing its share of the federal budget. Control of taxation and
tariffs was left to the states, and each state could issue its own currency.
In disputes between states and there were many unsettled quarrels over state
boundaries Congress played the role of mediator and judge but could not
require states to accept its decisions.

The result was virtual chaos. Without the power to collect taxes, the
federal government plunged into debt. Seven of the 13 states printed large
quantities of paper money high in face value but low in real purchasing
power in order to pay Revolutionary War veterans and a variety of creditors
and to settle debts between small farmers and large plantation owners.

By contrast, the Massachusetts legislature imposed a tightly limited
currency and high taxes, triggering formation of a small army of farmers led
by Daniel Shays, a former Revolutionary War army captain. In a bid to take
over the Massachusetts statehouse, Shays and others demanded that
foreclosures and unfair mortgages be dropped. Troops were called out to
suppress the rebellion, but the federal government took notice.

Absence of a uniform, stable currency also disrupted trade among the states
and with other countries. Not only did the value of paper currency vary from
state to state, but some states (like New York and Virginia) levied duties
on products entering their ports from other states, thereby provoking
retaliatory actions. The states could say, as had the federal superintendent
of finance, that "our public credit is gone." To compound their problems,
these newly independent states, having separated violently from England, no
longer received favored treatment at British ports. When U.S. Ambassador
John Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty in 1785, the British
refused on the grounds that the individual states would not be bound by it.

A weak central government, without the power to back its policies with
military strength, was inevitably handicapped in foreign affairs as well.
The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading
posts in the new nation's Northwest Territory, as they had agreed to do in
the peace treaty of 1783 that marked the end of the Revolutionary War. To
make matters worse, British officers on the northern boundaries and Spanish
officers to the south supplied arms to various Indian tribes and encouraged
them to attack American settlers. The Spanish, who controlled Florida and
Louisiana as well as all territory west of the Mississippi River, also
refused to allow western farmers to use the port of New Orleans to ship
their produce.

Although there were signs of returning prosperity in some areas of the
fledgling nation, domestic and foreign problems continued to grow. It became
increasingly clear that the confederation's central government was not
strong enough to establish a sound financial system, to regulate trade, to
enforce treaties, or to exert military force against foreign antagonists
when needed. Internal divisions between farmers and merchants, debtors and
creditors, and among the states themselves were growing more severe. With
Shays' Rebellion of desperate farmers in 1786 vividly in mind, George
Washington warned: "There are combustibles in every state which a spark
might set fire to."

This sense of potential disaster and the need for drastic change pervaded
the Constitutional Convention that began its deliberations on May 25, 1787.
All of the delegates were convinced that an effective central government
with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the impotent congress
established by the Articles of Confederation. Early in the proceedings the
delegates agreed that the new government would be composed of three separate
branches legislative, judicial, and executive each with distinct powers to
balance those of the other two branches. It was also agreed that the
legislative branch like the British Parliament should consist of two houses.

Beyond this point, however, there were sharp differences of opinion that
threatened at times to disrupt the convention and cut short its proceedings
before a constitution was drafted. The larger states argued in favor of
proportional representation in the legislature each state should have voting
power according to its population. The smaller states, fearing domination by
the larger ones, insisted on equal representation for all states. The issue
was settled by the "Great Compromise," a measure giving every state equal
representation in one house of Congress and proportional representation in
the other. In the Senate, every state would have two seats. In the House of
Representatives, the number of seats would depend on population. Because it
was considered more responsive to majority sentiment, the House of
Representatives was given the power to originate all legislation dealing
with the federal budget and revenues.

The Great Compromise ended the rift between the large and small states, but
throughout the long summer the delegates worked out numerous other
compromises. Some delegates, fearful of giving too much power to the people,
argued for indirect election of all federal officials; others wanted as
broad an electoral base as possible. Some wanted to exclude the western
territories from eventual statehood; others saw the future strength of the
nation in the virgin lands beyond the Appalachians. There were sectional
interests to be balanced; differing views to be reconciled on the term,
powers, and method of selection of the president; and conflicting ideas on
the role of the federal judiciary.

The high quality of the delegates to the convention eased the way to
compromise. Only a few of the great leaders of the American Revolution were
absent: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both future presidents were serving
as America's envoys to France and England; John Jay was busy as secretary of
foreign affairs of the confederation. A handful of others, including Samuel
Adams and Patrick Henry, chose not to participate, believing that the
existing governmental structure was sound. Of those in attendance, the best
known by far was George Washington, commander of American troops and hero of
the Revolution, who presided over the convention. Benjamin Franklin, the
scientist, scholar, and diplomat, was also there. So, too, were such
outstanding men as James Madison of Virginia, Gouverneur Morris of
Pennsylvania, and Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant young lawyer from New York.

Even the youngest delegates, still in their twenties and thirties, had
already displayed political and intellectual gifts. As Thomas Jefferson in
Paris wrote to John Adams in London, "It really is an assembly of demigods."

Some of the ideas embodied in the Constitution were new, but many were drawn
from British governmental tradition and from the practical experience in
self-government of the 13 states. The Declaration of Independence was an
important guide, keeping the minds of the delegates fixed on the ideas of
self-government and preservation of fundamental human rights. The writings
of such European political philosophers as Montesquieu and John Locke were
also influential.

In late July the convention appointed a committee to draft a document based
on the agreements that had been reached. After another month of discussion
and refinement, a second committee, headed by Gouverneur Morris, produced
the final version, which was submitted for signing on September 17. Not all
the delegates were pleased with the results; some left before the ceremony,
and three of those remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph and George
Mason of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Of the 39 who did
sign, probably no one was completely satisfied, and their views were ably
summed up by Benjamin Franklin, who said, "There are several parts of this
Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall
never approve them." He would accept the Constitution, however, "because I
expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best."


The way was now set for the arduous process of ratification, that is,
acceptance of the Constitution by specially constituted conventions, in at
least nine states. Delaware was the first to ratify, followed swiftly by
Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. Of these four states the vote for
ratification was unanimous in the three least populous states (ie excluding
Pennsylanvia). After a further ratification by a large majority in
Connecticut, a bitter debate occurred in Massachusetts. That state finally
ratified by a narrow majority with a strong recommendation that a bill of
rights guaranteeing certain fundamental rights be appended to the
Constitution. The rights held to require such explicit protection included
freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; the right to trial by
jury; and the prohibition of unreasonable searches or arrests. A number of
other states added similar provisos, and the result of this pressure was
incorporation in the Constitution of the first ten amendments drafted by
James Madison, now known as the Bill of Rights (see below), in 1791.

By late June 1788, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire had given
their assent, satisfying the requirement for ratification by nine states.
Legally, the Constitution was in force. But two powerful and pivotal states,
New York and Virginia, remained undecided, as did the two smaller states of
North Carolina and Rhode Island. It was clear that without the consent of
New York and Virginia, the Constitution would stand on shaky ground.

Virginia was sharply divided, but the influence of George Washington,
arguing for ratification, carried the state legislature by a narrow margin
on June 26, 1788. In New York, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John
Jay combined to produce a remarkable series of written arguments for the
Constitution, The Federalist Papers and won a narrow vote for approval on
July 26. In November, North Carolina added its approval. Rhode Island held
out until 1790, when its position as a small and weak state hedged in by a
large and powerful republic became untenable.

The process of organizing the government began soon after ratification by
Virginia and New York. On September 13, 1788, Congress fixed the city of New
York as the seat of the new government. (The capital was moved to
Philadelphia in 1790 and to Washington D.C., in 1800.) It set the first
Wednesday in January 1789 as the day for choosing presidential electors, the
first Wednesday of February for the meeting of the electors to select a
president, and the first Wednesday of March for the opening session of the
new Congress.

Under the Constitution, each state legislature had the power to decide how
presidential electors, as well as representatives and senators, would be
chosen. Some states opted for direct elections by the people, others for
election by the legislature, and a few for a combination of the two.
Rivalries were intense; delays in setting up the first elections under the
new Constitution were inevitable. New Jersey, for example, chose direct
elections but neglected to set a time for closing the polls, which stayed
open for three weeks.

The full and final implementation of the Constitution was set for March 4,
1789. But by that time, only 13 of the 59 representatives and 8 of the 22
senators had arrived in New York City. (Seats allotted to North Carolina and
Rhode Island were not filled until those states ratified the Constitution.)
A quorum was finally attained in the House on April 1 and in the Senate on
April 6. The two houses then met jointly to count the electoral vote.

To no one's surprise, George Washington was unanimously elected the first
president, and John Adams of Massachusetts, the vice president. Adams
arrived in New York on April 21, and Washington on April 23. They were sworn
into office on April 30, 1789. The business of setting up the new government
was completed. The job of maintaining the world's first republic had just begun.


   * Connecticut
        o William Samuel Johnson
        o Roger Sherman
   * Delaware
        o George Read
        o Gunning Bedford, Jr.
        o John Dickinson
        o Richard Bassett
        o Jacob Broom
   * Georgia
        o William Few
        o Abraham Baldwin
   * Maryland
        o James McHenry
        o Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer
        o Daniel Carroll
   * Massachusetts
        o Nathaniel Gorham
        o Rufus King
   * New Hampshire
        o John Langdon
        o Nicholas Gilman
   * New Jersey
        o William Livingston
        o David Brearly (Brearley)
        o William Paterson (Patterson)
        o Jonathan Dayton
   * New York
        o Alexander Hamilton
   * North Carolina
        o William Blount
        o Richard Dobbs Spaight
        o Hugh Williamson
   * Pennsylvania
        o Benjamin Franklin
        o Thomas Mifflin
        o Robert Morris
        o George Clymer
        o Thomas Fitzsimons (FitzSimons; Fitzsimmons)
        o Jared Ingersoll
        o James Wilson
        o Gouverneur Morris
   * South Carolina
        o John Rutledge
        o Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
        o Charles Pinckney
        o Pierce Butler
   * Rhode Island
        o did not send any delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
   * Virginia
        o John Blair
        o James Madison Jr.
        o George Washington

The Constitution

The U.S. Constitution calls itself the "supreme law of the land." Courts
have interpreted this clause to mean that when state constitutions or laws
passed by state legislatures or by the national Congress are found to
conflict with the federal Constitution, these laws have no force. Decisions
handed down by the Supreme Court over the course of two centuries have
confirmed and strengthened this doctrine of constitutional supremacy.

Final authority is vested in the American people, who can change the
fundamental law, if they wish, by amending the Constitution or in theory, at
least drafting a new one. The people do not exercise their authority
directly, however. They delegate the day-to-day business of government to
public officials, both elected and appointed.

The power of public officials is limited under the Constitution. Their
public actions must conform to the Constitution and to the laws made in
accordance with the Constitution. Elected officials must stand for
re-election at periodic intervals, when their records are subject to
intensive public scrutiny. Appointed officials serve at the pleasure of the
person or authority who appointed them and may be removed at any time. The
exception to this practice is the lifetime appointment by the president of
justices of the Supreme Court and other federal judges, so that they may be
free of political obligations or influence.


Most commonly, the American people express their will through the ballot
box. The Constitution, however, does make provision for the removal of a
public official from office, in cases of extreme misconduct or malfeasance,
by the process of impeachment. Article II, Section 4 reads: "The President,
Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be
removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery,
or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Impeachment is a charge of misconduct brought against a government official
by a legislative body; it does not, as is commonly thought, refer to
conviction on such charges. As set forth in the Constitution, the House of
Representatives must bring charges of misconduct by voting a bill of
impeachment. The accused official is then tried in the Senate, with the
chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding at the trial.

Impeachment is considered a drastic measure, one that has been used on only
rare occasions in the United States. Since 1797 the House of Representatives
has voted articles of impeachment against 16 federal officials: two
presidents, one cabinet member, one senator, one justice of the Supreme
Court, and eleven federal judges. Of those impeached, the Senate has
convicted seven, all of them judges.

In 1868 President Andrew Johnson was impeached over issues relating to the
proper treatment of the defeated Confederate states following the American
Civil War. The Senate, however, fell one vote short of the two-thirds
majority necessary for conviction, and Johnson completed his full term in
office. In 1974, as a result of the Watergate affair, President Richard
Nixon resigned from office after the Judiciary Committee of the House
recommended impeachment, but before the full House of Representatives could
vote on a bill of impeachment.

As recently as 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of
Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. After a
trial, the Senate acquitted the president on both charges, voting not guilty
on perjury by a margin of 55-45 and dividing evenly at 50-50 on obstruction
of justice. To remove the president from office would have required a guilty
verdict by a majority of 67 votes on either charge.

The Principles of Government

Although the Constitution has changed in many aspects since it was first
adopted, its basic principles remain the same now as in 1789:

The three main branches of government - executive, legislative, judicial are
separate and distinct from one another. The powers given to each are
delicately balanced by the powers of the other two. Each branch serves as a
check on potential excesses of the others.

The Constitution, together with laws passed according to its provisions and
treaties entered into by the president and approved by the Senate, stands
above all other laws, executive acts, and regulations.

All persons are equal before the law and are equally entitled to its
protection. All states are equal, and none can receive special treatment
from the federal government. Within the limits of the Constitution, each
state must recognize and respect the laws of the others. State governments,
like the federal government, must be democratic in form, with final
authority resting with the people.

The people have the right to change their form of national government by
legal means defined in the Constitution itself.

Provisions for Amendment

The authors of the Constitution were keenly aware that changes would be
needed from time to time if the Constitution was to endure and keep pace
with the growth of the nation. They were also conscious that the process of
change should not be facile, permitting ill-conceived and hastily passed
amendments. By the same token, they wanted to ensure that a minority could
not block action desired by most of the people. Their solution was to devise
a dual process by which the Constitution could be revised.

The Congress, by a two-thirds vote in each house, may initiate an amendment.
Alternatively, the legislatures of two-thirds of the states may ask Congress
to call a national convention to discuss and draft amendments. In either
case, amendments must have the approval of three-fourths of the states
before they enter into force.

Aside from the direct process of changing the Constitution, the effect of
its provisions may be changed by judicial interpretation. Early in the
history of the republic, in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme
Court established the doctrine of judicial review, which is the power of the
Court to interpret acts of Congress and decide their constitutionality. The
doctrine also embraces the power of the Court to explain the meaning of
various sections of the Constitution as they apply to changing legal,
political, economic, and social conditions. Over the years, a series of
Court decisions, on issues ranging from governmental regulation of radio and
television to the rights of the accused in criminal cases, has had the
effect of bringing up to date the thrust of constitutional law, with no
substantive change in the Constitution itself.

Congressional legislation, passed to implement provisions of the basic law
or to adapt it to changing conditions, also broadens and, in subtle ways,
changes the meaning of the Constitution. Up to a point, the rules and
regulations of the many agencies of the federal government may have a
similar effect. The acid test in both cases is whether, in the opinion of
the courts, such legislation and rules conform with the intent of the

The Bill of Rights

The Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1789, and it is likely to
be further revised in the future. The most sweeping changes occurred within
two years of its adoption. In that period, the first ten amendments, known
collectively as the Bill of Rights, were added. Congress approved these
amendments as a block in September 1789, and 11 states had ratified them by
the end of 1791.

Much of the initial resistance to the Constitution came not from those
opposed to strengthening the federal union but from statesmen who felt that
the rights of individuals must be specifically spelled out. One of these was
George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was a
forerunner of the Bill of Rights. As a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention, Mason refused to sign the document because he felt it did not
protect individual rights sufficiently. Indeed, Mason's opposition nearly
blocked ratification by Virginia. Because of similar feelings in
Massachusetts, that state conditioned its ratification on the addition of
specific guarantees of individual rights. By the time the First Congress
convened, sentiment for adoption of such amendments was nearly unanimous,
and the Congress lost little time in drafting them.

These amendments remain intact today, as they were written two centuries
ago. The first guarantees freedom of worship, speech, and press; the right
of peaceful assembly; and the right to petition the government to correct
wrongs. The second guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms. The third
provides that troops may not be quartered in private homes without the
owner's consent. The fourth guards against unreasonable searches, arrests,
and seizures of property.

The next four amendments deal with the system of justice. The fifth forbids
trial for a major crime except after indictment by a grand jury. It
prohibits repeated trials for the same offense, forbids punishment without
due process of law, and provides that an accused person may not be compelled
to testify against himself. The sixth guarantees a speedy public trial for
criminal offenses. It requires trial by an unbiased jury, guarantees the
right to legal counsel for the accused, and provides that witnesses shall be
compelled to attend the trial and testify in the presence of the accused.
The seventh assures trial by jury in civil cases involving anything valued
at more than 20 U.S. dollars. The eighth forbids excessive bail or fines,
and cruel or unusual punishment.

The last two of the ten amendments contain very broad statements of
constitutional authority. The ninth declares that the listing of individual
rights is not meant to be comprehensive; that the people have other rights
not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. The tenth provides that
powers not delegated by the Constitution to the federal government nor
prohibited by it to the states are reserved to the states or the people.

Vital Protection for Individual Liberties

The genius of the Constitution in organizing the federal government has
given the United States extraordinary stability over the course of two
centuries. And the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments have placed
fundamental human rights at the center of the U.S. legal system.

Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights cover a wide
range of subjects. One of the most far-reaching is the fourteenth, ratified
in 1868, which establishes a clear and simple definition of citizenship and
guarantees equal treatment under the law. In essence, the Fourteenth
Amendment required the states to abide by the protections of the Bill of
Rights. Other amendments have limited the judicial power of the national
government; changed the method of electing the president; forbidden slavery;
protected the right to vote against denial because of race, color, sex, or
previous condition of servitude; extended the congressional power to levy
taxes to individual incomes; and instituted the election of U.S. senators by
popular vote.

The most recent amendments include the twenty-second, limiting the president
to two terms in office; the twenty-third, granting citizens of the District
of Columbia the right to vote; the twenty-fourth, giving citizens the right
to vote regardless of failure to pay a poll tax; the twenty-fifth, providing
for filling the office of vice president when it becomes vacant in midterm;
the twenty-sixth, lowering the voting age to 18; and the twenty-seventh,
concerning the compensation of U.S. senators and representatives.

It is of significance that a majority of the 27 amendments stem from
continued efforts to expand individual civil or political liberties, while
only a few are concerned with amplifying the basic governmental structure
drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.


The preamble consists of a single sentence that introduces the document and
its purpose:

     We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect
     union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the
     common defense, 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.

The problem of building a "more perfect Union" was the obvious issue facing
the 13 states in 1787. It was quite clear that almost any union would be
more nearly perfect than that which existed under the Articles of
Confederation. But devising another structure to replace it involved
critical choices.

     "... To Form a More Perfect Union"

All the states were covetous of the sovereign power they had exercised since
the break with England 11 years earlier. Balancing states' rights with the
needs of a central government was no easy task. The makers of the
Constitution accomplished this by letting the states keep all the powers
necessary to regulate the daily lives of their citizens, provided that these
powers did not conflict with the needs and welfare of the nation as a whole.
This division of authority, which is termed federalism, is essentially the
same today. The power of each state over local affairs ? in matters such as
education, public health, business organization, work conditions, marriage
and divorce, local taxation, and ordinary police powers ? is so fully
recognized and accepted that two neighboring states frequently have widely
differing laws on the same subject.

Ingenious though the constitutional arrangement was, the controversy over
states' rights continued to fester until, three-quarters of a century later,
in 1861, a four-year war broke out between the states of the North and those
of the South. The war was known as the Civil War, or the War Between the
States, and the underlying issue was the right of the federal government to
regulate slavery in the newer states of the Union. Northerners insisted that
the federal government had such a right, while southerners held that slavery
was a matter for each state to decide on its own. When a group of southern
states attempted to secede from the Union, war broke out and was fought on
the principle of the preservation of the republic. With the defeat of the
southern states and their reentry into the Union, federal supremacy was
reaffirmed and slavery abolished.

     "... To Establish Justice"

The essence of American democracy is contained in the Declaration of
Independence, with its ringing phrase, "All men are created equal," and the
follow-up statements "that they are endowed by their creator with certain
unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of

The Constitution makes no distinction as to the wealth or status of persons;
all are equal before the law, and all are equally subject to judgment and
punishment when they violate the law. The same holds true for civil disputes
involving property, legal agreements, and business arrangements. Open access
to the courts is one of the vital guarantees written into the Bill of

     "... To Insure Domestic Tranquility"

The stormy birth of the United States and the unsettled conditions along the
American western frontier convinced Americans of the need for internal
stability to permit the new nation to grow and prosper. The federal
government created by the Constitution had to be strong enough to protect
the states against invasion from the outside and from strife and violence at
home. No part of the continental United States has been invaded by a foreign
nation since 1815. The state governments have generally been strong enough
to maintain order within their own borders. But behind them stands the
awesome power of the federal government, which is constitutionally empowered
to take the necessary steps to preserve the peace.

     "... To Provide for the Common Defense"

Even with its independence secured, the new nation faced very real dangers
on many sides in the late 18th century. On the western frontier, settlers
faced a constant threat from hostile Indian tribes. To the north, the
British still owned Canada, whose eastern provinces were jammed with
vengeful American Tories, who had remained loyal to the British Crown during
the Revolutionary War. The French owned the vast Louisiana Territory in the
continental midwest. To the south, the Spanish held Florida, Texas, and
Mexico. All three European powers had colonies in the Caribbean Sea, within
striking distance of the American coast. Moreover, the nations of Europe
were embroiled in a series of wars that spilled over into the New World.

In the early years, the constitutional objective of providing a "common
defense" focused on opening up the territory immediately beyond the
Appalachian Mountains and negotiating a peace with the Native American
tribes who inhabited the area. Within a short time, however, the outbreak of
war with England in 1812, skirmishes with the Spanish in Florida, and war
with Mexico in 1846 underscored the importance of military strength.

As America's economic and political power increased, its defensive strength
grew. The Constitution divides the defense responsibility between the
legislative and executive branches: Congress alone has the power to declare
war and to appropriate funds for defense, while the president is
commander-in-chief of the armed forces and bears primary responsibility for
the defense of the country.

     "... To Promote the General Welfare"

At the end of the Revolution, the United States was in a difficult economic
position. Its resources were drained, its credit shaky, and its paper money
was all but worthless. Commerce and industry had come to a virtual halt, and
the states and the government of the confederation were deeply in debt.
While the people were not in imminent danger of starving, the prospects for
economic development were slim indeed.

One of the first tasks the new national government faced was to put the
economy on a sound footing. The first article of the Constitution provided
that: "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes ... to pay the
debts and provide for the ... general welfare of the United States."

The tax power enabled the government to finance its war debts and to put the
currency on a firmer basis. A secretary of the treasury was appointed to
look after the fiscal affairs of the nation, and a secretary of state to
handle relations with other nations. Also appointed were a secretary of war
to be responsible for the nation's military security, and an attorney
general to act as the chief law officer of the federal government. Later, as
the country expanded and the economy became more complex, the well-being of
the people necessitated the creation of additional executive departments.

     "... To Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity"

The emphasis on personal liberty was one of the salient features of the new
American republic. Coming, as many of them had, from a background of
political or religious suppression, Americans were determined to preserve
freedom in the New World. The framers of the Constitution, in giving
authority to the federal government, were careful to protect the rights of
all persons by limiting the powers of both the national and state
governments. As a result, Americans are free to move from place to place;
make their own decisions about jobs, religion, and political beliefs; and go
to the courts for justice and protection when they feel these rights are
being infringed upon.

Articles of the Constitution

The remainder of the constitution consists of seven articles:

   * Article One describes Congress (the legislative branch) and outlines
     its powers and limits including the commerce clause.
   * Article Two describes the presidency (the executive branch).
   * Article Three describes the court system (the judicial branch),
     including the Supreme Court.
   * Article Four describes the relationship between the states and the
     federal government.
   * Article Five describes the process of amendment.
   * Article Six establishes the Constitution and the laws and treaties of
     the United States made in accordance with it as the supreme law of the land.
   * Article Seven describes the method of ratification.


The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of
Rights. The subsequent amendments are:

   * Eleventh Amendment (1795) Clarifies judicial power over foreign
     nationals, and limits ability of citizens to sue states.
   * Unratified Amendment Twelve defined a formula for how many congressmen
     there would be. Never ratified.
   * Twelfth Amendment (1804) Changes the method of presidential elections.
   * Thirteenth Amendment (1865) Abolishes slavery.
   * Fourteenth Amendment (1868) Defines United States citizen and includes
     the privileges and immunities, due process and equal protection
     clauses; regulation of congressional elections; restrains states from
     infringing upon consititutional protections such as the Bill of Rights
     and other "fundamental rights" of citizens and persons under the
     jurisidiction of the United States.
   * Fifteenth Amendment (1870) Ensures right of former slaves to vote.
   * Sixteenth Amendment (1913) Creates the income tax.
   * Seventeenth Amendment (1913) Method for choosing Senators.
   * Eighteenth Amendment (1919) Prohibition of alcohol.
   * Nineteenth Amendment (1920) Women's right to vote.
   * Twentieth Amendment (1933) Details of presidential succession.
   * Twenty-first Amendment (1933) Repeals prohibition of alcohol.
   * Twenty-second Amendment (1951) Limits president to two terms.
   * Twenty-third Amendment (1961) Grants electors to District of Columbia.
   * Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) Limits poll tax.
   * Twenty-fifth Amendment (1967) More presidential succession rules.
   * Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971) Right of eighteen-year-olds to vote.
   * Twenty-seventh Amendment (1992) Limits congressional pay raises.
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