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United States Constitution

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"We the People", as it appears on the top of an original copy of the Constitution.
Signing the Constitution, September 17, 1787.

The United States Constitution is the highest law of the United States of America. It was put in writing on September 17, 1787 by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and later put into effect, or ratified, by representatives of the people of the first 13 states.[1] When nine of the states ratified the document, they put forth a union of sovereign states, and a federal government for that union. That government started on March 4, 1789, taking the place of the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitution of the United States is the oldest federal constitution now in use.[2]

Since 1787, changes have been made to the United States Constitution 27 times by amendments (changes). The first ten of these amendments are together called the Bill of Rights.

Articles of the Constitution[edit | edit source]

When it was written in 1787, the Constitution had a preamble and seven main parts, called articles.

Preamble[edit | edit source]

The Preamble states:

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 Preamble is not a law. It gives the reasons for writing the Constitution. The Preamble is one of the best known parts of the Constitution. The first three words, "We the people," are used very often. The six intentions that are listed are the goals of the constitution.

Legislative power[edit | edit source]

United States Constitution.

Article One says that the Congress of the United States (the legislative branch) will make the laws for the United States. Congress has two parts (Bicameral), called "Houses," the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Article says who can be elected to each part of Congress, and how they are elected.

The House of Representatives has members elected by the people in each state. The number of members from each state depends on how many people live there. Each member of the House of Representatives is elected for two years.

The Senate has two members, called Senators, from each state, no matter how many people live there. Each Senator is elected for six years. The original Constitution allowed the state legislatures to choose the Senators, but this was changed later by the seventeenth amendment.

Article One also says how the Congress will do its business and what kinds of laws it can make. It lists some kinds of laws the Congress and the states cannot make. Article One also makes rules for Congress to impeach and remove from office the President, Vice President, judges, and other government officers.

Executive power[edit | edit source]

Article Two says that the President (the executive branch) will carry out the laws made by Congress. This article says how the President and Vice President are elected, and who can be elected to these offices. The President and Vice President are elected by a special Electoral College chosen by the states, for four years. The Vice President takes over as President if the President dies, or resigns, or is unable to serve. Article Two also says that the President is in charge of the army and navy. He can make treaties with other countries, but these must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate. He appoints judges, ambassadors, and other officers, but the Senate also must approve these appointments. The President can also veto bills. However, Congress can override the veto.

Judicial power[edit | edit source]

Article Three says there will be a court system (the judicial branch), including the Supreme Court. The article says that Congress can decide which courts, besides the Supreme Court, are needed. It says what kinds of "cases and controversies" these courts can decide. Article Three also requires trial by jury in all criminal cases, and defines the crime of treason.

States' powers and limits[edit | edit source]

United States extent in 1790.

Article Four is about the states. It says that all states must give "full faith and credit" to the laws of the other states. It also says that state governments must treat citizens of other states as fairly as they treat their own citizens, and must send arrested people back to another state if they have been charged with a crime.

Article Four also says that Congress can make new states. There were only 13 states in 1787. Now there are 50 United States. It says Congress can make rules for Federal property and can govern territories that have not yet been made into states. Article Four says the United States must make sure that each state has a republican form of government, and protect the states from invasion and violence.

Process of amendment[edit | edit source]

Article Five gives two ways to amend, or change, the Constitution.

  1. Congress can write a change, if two-thirds of the members in each House agree.
  2. The state governments can call a convention to write changes, although this has not happened since 1787.

Any change that is written by Congress or by a convention must be sent to the state legislatures or to state conventions for their approval. Congress decides whether to send a change to the legislatures or to conventions. Three-fourths of the states must approve a change for it to become part of the Constitution.

An amendment can change any part of the Constitution, except one—no amendment can change the rule that each state has equal suffrage (right to vote) in the Senate.

Federal power[edit | edit source]

Article Six says that the Constitution, and the laws and treaties of the United States, are higher than any other laws. It also says that all federal and state officers must swear to "support" the Constitution.

Ratification[edit | edit source]

Article Seven says that the new government under the Constitution would not start until conventions in at least nine states approved the Constitution.

Amendments[edit | edit source]

Since 1787, Congress has written 33 amendments to change the Constitution, but the states have ratified only 27 of them.

The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights. They were made in 1791. All of these changes limited the power of the federal government. They were:

Number Year Description
1st 1791 Congress must protect the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of petition. Congress cannot establish a national religion.
2nd 1791 "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." - People have the right to keep and carry weapons, for example, guns.
3rd 1791 The government cannot send soldiers to live in private homes without the permission of the owners.
4th 1791 The government cannot get a warrant to arrest a person or search their property unless there is "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed.
5th 1791 The government cannot put a person on trial for a serious crime until a grand jury has written an indictment. That a person cannot be put on trial twice for the same crime. The government must follow due process of law before punishing a person or taking their property. A person on trial for a crime does not have to testify against himself in court.
6th 1791 Any person who is accused of a crime should get a speedy trial by a jury. That person can have a lawyer during the trial. They must be told what they are charged with. The person can question the witnesses against them, and can get their own witnesses to testify.
7th 1791 A jury trial is needed for civil cases.
8th 1791 The government cannot require excessive bail or fines, or any cruel and unusual punishment.
9th 1791 The listing of individual rights in the Constitution and Bill of Rights does not include all of the rights of the people and the states.
10th 1791 Anything that the Constitution does not say that Congress can do should be left up to the states, or to the people.

After the Bill of Rights, there are 17 more changes to the Constitution that were made at different times.

Number Year Description
11th 1795 Citizens cannot sue states in federal courts. There are some exceptions.
12th 1804 Changed the way the President and Vice President are elected.
13th 1865 Ended slavery in the United States.
14th 1868 Every person born in the United States is a citizen. States must follow due process of law before taking away any citizen's rights or property.
15th 1870 A citizen's right to vote cannot be taken away because of race, the color of their skin, or because they were previously slaves.
16th 1913 Congress can put a tax on income.
17th 1913 The people will elect Senators. Before this, Senators were elected by state legislatures.
18th 1919 Made a law against drinking alcohol, called Prohibition.
19th 1920 Gave women the right to vote.
20th 1933 Changed the days for meetings of Congress and for the start of the President's term of office.
21st 1933 Ended the Prohibition law of the Eighteenth Amendment. States can make laws about how alcohol is used in each state.
22nd 1951 A person may not be elected President more than two times.
23rd 1961 Gave the people in the District of Columbia the right to vote for President.
24th 1964 Made it illegal to make anyone pay a tax to have the right to vote.
25th 1967 Changes what happens if a President dies, resigns, or is not able to do the job. Says what happens if a Vice President dies or resigns.
26th 1971 Makes 18 years old the minimum age for people to be allowed to vote
27th 1992 Limits how Congress can increase how much its members are paid.

Related pages[edit | edit source]

Related documents[edit | edit source]

Related Authors[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Amar, Akhil Reed (2005). "In the Beginning". America's Constitution: A Biography. New York: Random House. ISBN 1-4000-6262-4.
  • Edling, Max M. (2003). A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514870-3.
  • Fallon, Richard H. (2004). The Dynamic Constitution: An Introduction to American Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-84094-5.
  • Finkelman, Paul "Affirmative Action for the Master Class: The Creation of the Proslavery Constitution," University of Akron Law Review 32 (No. 3, 1999): 423-70.
  • Levy, Leonard W., ed. (2000). Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (2nd Edition ed.). New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-864880-3.
  • Marshall, Thurgood, "The Constitution: A Living Document," Howard Law Journal 1987: 623-28.

Official U.S. government sources[edit | edit source]

Non-government web sites[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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