The United States Constitution is the principal governing document of the United States of America, drafted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Written over six months in 1787 in order to establish a framework of government for the United States, replacing the 1777 Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was effectively ratified by 21 June 1788 and commenced operation on 4 March 1789. The United States Constitution was first significantly amended in 1791, as a result of the first ten amendments adopted as the Bill of Rights. The process of amendment has continued into the modern era, the Constitution achieving its current form with the ratification of the Twenty-seventh Amendment on 5 May 1992.
The United States Constitution enjoys a central place in United States law, government and politics. The U.S. Constitution has also been closely emulated in other countries on several occasions since its adoption, while exerting significant influence in political and legal thought worldwide. It is the oldest written constitution in operation anywhere in the world.
- Main Article: Constitutional Convention
The Constitutional Convention opened on 25 May 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was convened under the authority of the Continental Congress, which was then meeting in New York City. The convention was called following an informal conference in Annapolis, Maryland (known as the Annapolis Conference) in 1786. The delegates to the Annapolis Conference, which had been convened to discuss issues of trade and commerce among the states, quickly realized that the problems facing the fledgling nation were not merely confined to trade and commerce, but involved the need for a stronger central government than was provided for by the Articles of Confederation.
The delegates to the Philadelphia convention only expected to discuss the deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation, but several key members, especially James Madison, decided to use the convention to try to fundamentally change the structure of the government.
Twelve states sent delegates to the convention. Only Rhode Island failed to send delegates. The delegates to the convention included some of the most distinguished members of American society, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, George Mason, and James Wilson. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did not attend as they were diplomats in Europe. In all, 55 men attended the convention.
The document produced at the convention was hand-written on three broadside sheets of parchment paper. The last sheet was signed by 39 of the delegates. Copies of the final draft were sent to the old Congress in New York, which set up a ratification procedure and sent the document to each state.
The delegates to the convention are generally referred to as the "framers of the Constitution."
The Preamble to the Constitution states the reason the document was written and the general goals of the framers. The actual text reads:
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.
Article I creates the legislative branch
This article takes up more than half of all the words in the entire constitution. It has much detail about the structure and powers of the law-making part of government. The legislature, called the U.S. Congress overall, consists of members elected periodically to represent segments of the population. Congress includes two major legislative bodies: 1) the U.S. Senate (a.k.a. the "upper house of Congress"), and 2) the U.S. House of Representatives (a.k.a. the "lower house of Congress"). To become law, proposed legislation must be approved first by the lower house, then the upper house, and then signed by the President within ten days (excluding Sundays) of his receiving it from the Senate.
The President has the power to veto a new law by failing to sign it. In such a case, Congress has the potential power to override the president's veto if a two-thirds vote in favor of the law can be obtained in both the House and the Senate.
The Senate (100 members serving 6-year terms)
There are two Senators per state, and they are elected for six-year terms. Senators represent the interests of the entire state from which they are elected. The endings of senate terms are staggered so that, every two years, exactly one-third of all senators run for reelection.
The House of Representatives (435 members serving 2-year terms)
There are on average 8-9 Representatives per state, though more populous states have more, and smaller states less, according to the overall state population. Each representative (also called a "Congressman" or "Congresswoman" colloquially) is elected by citizens within a specific, numbered Congressional District. It is the representative's job to push for laws that are advantageous for his or her local district, not for the state as a whole. Nowadays, a single "Congressional District" represents an average of about 700,000 people. To keep the apportionment of representatives across states fair, Article 1 requires that a census be taken every 10 years to determine the number of representatives from each state.
Article I lists the powers specifically granted to the Congress and also powers specifically denied to the states. Powers granted to the Congress, known as enumerated powers, include the power to declare war, the power to coin money, and the power to create and arm an army and navy. Powers denied to the states include the power to tax imports and exports, sign treaties, or grant titles of nobility.
Article II creates the executive branch
- Main Article: Article II of the United States Constitution
Article II lays out the basic structure of the executive branch of the U.S. government. The executive is composed of the President and the Vice President. The executive also includes all departments of the government (such as the Department of State).
The President must be a natural-born citizen, must have lived in the United States for at least 14 years, and must be at least 35 years old. The Constitution makes an exception for the natural-born requirement for any person who was a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. The requirements for Vice President are the same as those for the President. The President and Vice President are elected every four years.
The President is elected by an institution called the Electoral College. Each state is granted a number of electoral votes equivalent to the number of Representatives and Senators it has. The state selects electors by whatever means it desires, and on an appointed day, all electors cast their votes for President and Vice President (originally, electors cast two votes for President, and the winner of the vote was President; the runner-up became Vice President).
Article III creates the judicial branch
- Main Article: Article III of the United States Constitution
Article III lays out the basic structure of the judicial branch of the U.S. government. The judiciary is composed of a Supreme Court and any inferior courts the Congress creates.
Federal judges and Supreme Court justices are selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Federal judges and justices hold office during good behavior, which means they have a lifetime term, removable only by means of impeachment.
Article IV defines interstate relations
- Main Article: Article IV of the United States Constitution
Article IV refers to the states, and was designed to correct perceived deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation. For example, Article 4 requires "full faith and credit" be given to the acts, records, and judicial proceedings of each state by every other state. For example, a legal marriage recorded in one state must be fully recognized in all other states.
Article IV also includes the rules for the creation of new states. For example, a state may not created from parts of two other states unless the two states agree to the separation. New states are admitted on a majority vote of the Congress.
Article V describes the process for amending the constitution
- Main Article: Article V of the United States Constitution
Article 5 details how changes to the Constitution, known as amendments, are enacted. The amendment process in the Articles of Confederation was found to be unworkable, requiring unanimous consent of all states to any changes. The Constitution instead requires assent of three quarters of all states.
Additionally, all amendments have to be agreed to by two thirds of both houses of Congress. Amendments may also be proposed by an amendment convention, if two thirds of all states petition for such a convention.
The Constitution currently has 27 amendments, all of which were proposed by Congress. No amendment convention has ever been held.
Though the Constitution does not specify how amendments are incorporated into the text of the Constitution, by tradition, amendments are added at the end of the Constitution.
Article VI says that state laws may not contradict the constitution
- Main Article: Article VI of the United States Constitution
Article VI notes a few technical details. For example, it assured that all debts of the United States under the Articles of Confederation will be honored by the United States under the Constitution. It also notes that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, along with laws and treaties made pursuant to it, and articles of state constitutions and state laws in contradiction of the Constitution are inapplicable.
Article VI also ensures that no religious test should ever be required to hold an office in the United States.
Article VII says that 9 colonies must ratify the constitution
- Main Article: Article VII of the United States Constitution
Article VII notes the requirements for the ratification of the Constitution: nine of the thirteen states must ratify for the Constitution to take effect.
After the final draft was signed, copies were made for the Congress and for each of the thirteen states. The Congress unanimously approved the Constitution on 28 September 1787, and requested that the states debate it and vote to ratify.
The first state to ratify was Delaware, on 7 December 1787. Within the next month, three other states ratified: Pennsylvania on 12 December 1787; New Jersey on 18 December 1787; and Connecticut on 9 January 1788.
Georgia ratified on 2 February 1788; Massachusetts on 6 February 1788; Maryland on 28 April 1788; and South Carolina on 23 May 1788. New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify, on 21 June 1788. Officially, at that point, the Constitution would replace the Articles.
The new Constitution, however, had no chance of creating a viable government without the backing of two of the largest of the states, New York and Virginia. To further the cause during the ratification debates, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published a series of letters to the people of New York using the pseudonym "Publius." These writings were later bundled and republished as the Federalist Papers. The letters explain much of the new Constitution for the layman and touch on historical precedent and political theory. Today, the collected works are considered a masterpiece of political exposition. The actual influence of the Federalist Papers on the votes of the New York ratification convention are debatable, but New York did ratify on 26 July 1788. Virginia, home of many of the Constitution's greatest backers (including Madison and George Washington), ratified on 25 June 1788.
On 2 July 1788, the Congress was informed that the Constitution had been ratified by the required number of states. A few months later, on 13 September 1788, the Confederation Congress voted itself out of existence, scheduling elections for the new Congress which would open in the following March:
Resolved That the first Wednesday in Jany next be the day for appointing Electors in the several states, which before the said day shall have ratified the said constitution; that the first Wednesday in feby . next be the day for the electors to assemble in their respective states and vote for a president; and that the first Wednesday in March next be the time and the present seat of Congress the place for commencing proceedings under the said constitution.
On 4 March 1789, newly elected members of the House and Senate gathered in New York City and were sworn in as the First Congress. On 30 April 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States.
North Carolina (U.S. state) finally ratified the Constitution on 21 November 1789. Recalcitrant Rhode Island, which had not even sent delegates to the convention, finally ratified the Constitution on 29 May 1790.
- Main Article: Amendments to the United States Constitution
The Constitution was quickly amended once it was ratified and the first Congress convened. One of the main arguments against the Constitution during the ratification process was the lack of a bill of rights. One of the main champions of the Constitution, during the Convention and the ratification process, was James Madison. Madison was also elected to the House of Representatives in the first Congress, and he had promised his constituents that he would push through a bill of rights. Madison introduced several amendments in 1789. His list was trimmed and modified in Congress and eventually twelve articles of amendment were sent to the states. Two years later, in 1791, ten of these amendments were ratified. These ten amendments are known collectively as the Bill of Rights.
In total, the Constitution has been amended 27 times, most recently in 1992.
- Representatives must be residents of the state they represent, must have been citizens for at least seven years, and must be at least 25 years old. Each state must have at least one representative, regardless of its population.
- Using euphemism, the Article indicates that slaves be counted separately from free persons, and counted in the population total as three-fifths of their number. People who were not citizens were counted, but not Indians not under local control.