Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Constitution of the United States established America’s national government and fundamental laws and guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens. It was signed on September 17, 1787, by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The delegates created a plan for a stronger federal government with three branches—executive, legislative and judicial—along with a system of checks and balances to ensure no single branch would have too much power. The Bill of Rights would have 10 amendments guaranteeing basic individual protections, such as freedom of speech and religion, that became part of the Constitution in 1791. To date, there are 27 constitutional amendments.

James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, with assistance from John Jay, wrote a series of essays to persuade people to ratify the Constitution. The 85 essays, known collectively as “The Federalist” (or “The Federalist Papers”), detailed how the new government would work, and were published under the pseudonym Publius (Latin for “public”) in newspapers across the states starting in the fall of 1787. (People who supported the Constitution became known as Federalists, while those opposed it because they thought it gave too much power to the national government were called Anti-Federalists.)

What Does our Constitution Really Say? 1

The Preamble to the Constitution has no force in law. It establishes the “Why” of the Constitution. Why is this document in existence? It reflects the desires of our founding Fathers to improve on the government they currently had (to be “more perfect” than the Articles of Confederation), to ensure that that government would be just, and would protect its citizens from internal strife and from attack from the outside. It would be of benefit to the people, rather than to its detriment. And, perhaps as importantly, it intended to do the same for the future generations of Americans. The full text of the US Constitution can be found here.

Article 1, establishes the first branch of government, the Legislative.

Section 1 establishes the name of the Legislature to be The Congress, a two-part body.

Section 2 defines the House of Representatives, known as the lower house of Congress. It establishes a few minimum requirements, like a 25-year-old age limit, and establishes that the people themselves will elect the members for two years each. The members of the House are divided among the states proportionally, or according to size, giving more populous states more representatives in the House. The leader of the House is the Speaker of the House, chosen by the members.

Section 3 defines the upper house of Congress, the Senate. Again, it establishes some minimum requirements, such as a 30-year-old age limit. Senators were originally appointed by the legislatures of the individual states, though this later changed. They serve for six years each. Each state has equal suffrage in the Senate, meaning that each state has the exact same number of Senators, two each, regardless of the population. This Section introduces the Vice-President, who is the leader of the Senate (called the President of the Senate); the Vice-President does not vote unless there is a tie.

Section 4 says that each state may establish its own methods for electing members of the Congress, and mandates, or requires, that Congress must meet at least once per year.

Section 5 says that Congress must have a minimum number of members present to meet, and that it may set fines for members who do not show up. It says that members may be expelled, that each house must keep a journal to record proceedings and votes, and that neither house can adjourn without the permission of the other.

Section 6 establishes that members of Congress will be paid, that they cannot be detained while traveling to and from Congress, that they cannot hold any other office in the government while in the Congress.

Section 7 details how bills become law. First, any bill for raising money (such as by taxes or fees) must start out in the House. All bills must pass both houses of Congress in the exact same form. Bills that pass both houses are sent to the President. He can either sign the bill, in which case it becomes law, or he can veto it. In the case of a veto, the bill is sent back to Congress, and if both houses pass it by a two-thirds majority, the bill becomes law over the President’s veto. This is known as overriding a veto.

There are a couple more options for the President. First, if he neither vetoes a bill nor signs it, it becomes a law without his signature after 10 days. The second option is called a pocket veto. It occurs if Congress sends the bill to the President and they then adjourn. If the President does not sign the bill within 10 days, it does not become law.

Section 8 lists specific powers of Congress, including the power to establish and maintain an army and navy, to establish post offices, to create courts, to regulate commerce between the states, to declare war, and to raise money. It also includes a clause known as the Elastic Clause which allows it to pass any law necessary for the carrying out of the previously listed powers.

Section 9 places certain limits on Congress. Certain legal items, such as suspension of habeas corpus, bills of attainder, and ex post facto laws are prohibited. No law can give preference to one state over another; no money can be taken from the treasury except by duly passed law, and no title of nobility, such as Prince or Marquis, will ever be established by the government.

Section 10, finally, prohibits the states from several things. They cannot make their own money, or declare war, or do most of the other things prohibited Congress in Section 9. They cannot tax goods from other states, nor can they have navies.

Article 2 establishes the second of the three branches of government, the Executive.

Section 1 establishes the office of the President and the Vice-President and sets their terms to be four years. Presidents are elected by the Electoral College, whereby each state has one vote for each member of Congress. Originally, the President was the person with the most votes and the Vice-President was the person with the second most, though this is later changed. Certain minimum requirements are established again, such as a 35-year minimum age. Presidents must also be a natural-born citizen of the United States. The President is to be paid a salary, which cannot change, up or down, if he in his office.

Section 2 gives the President some important powers. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and of the militia (National Guard) of all the states; he has a Cabinet to aid him and can pardon criminals. He makes treaties with other nations, and picks many of the judges and other members of the government (all with the approval of the Senate).

Section 3 establishes the duties of the President: to give a state of the union address, to make suggestions to Congress, to act as head of state by receiving ambassadors and other heads of state, and to be sure the laws of the United States are carried out.

Section 4 briefly discusses the removal of the President, called impeachment.

Article 3 establishes the last of the three branches of government, the Judiciary.

Section 1 establishes the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. It also sets the terms of judges, of both the Supreme Court and lower courts: that they serve if they are on “good behavior,” which usually means for life (no Justice and only a few judges have ever been impeached). It also requires that judges shall be paid.

Section 2 sets the kinds of cases that may be heard by the federal judiciary, which cases the Supreme Court may hear first (called original jurisdiction), and that all other cases heard by the Supreme Court are by appeal. It also guarantees trial by jury in criminal court.

Section 3 defines, without any question, what the crime of treason is.

Article 4 concerns the states.

Section 1 mandates that all states will honor the laws of all other states; this ensures, for example, that a couple married in Florida is also considered married by Arizona, or that someone convicted of a crime in Virginia is considered guilty by Wyoming.

Section 2 guarantees that citizens of one state be treated equally and fairly like all citizens of another. It also says that if a person accused of a crime in one state flees to another, they will be returned to the state they fled from. This section also has a clause dealing with fugitive slaves that no longer applies.

Section 3 concerns the admittance of new states and the control of federal lands.

Section 4 ensures a republican form of government (which, in this case, is synonymous with “representative democracy,” and both of which are opposed to a monarchical or aristocratic scheme – the state derives its power from the people, not from a king or gentry) and guarantees that the federal government will protect the states against invasion and insurrection.

Article 5 details the method of amending, or changing, the Constitution.
Article 6 concerns the United States itself.

First, it guarantees that the United States under the Constitution would assume all debts and contracts entered into by the United States under the Articles of Confederation. It sets the Constitution and all laws and treaties of the United States to be the supreme law of the country. Finally, it requires all officers of the United States and of the states to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and the Constitution when taking office.

Article 7 details the method for ratification, or acceptance, of the Constitution: of the original 13 states in the United States, nine had to accept the Constitution before it would officially go into effect.


Beginning on December 7, 1787, five states–Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut–ratified the Constitution in quick succession. However, other states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document, as it failed to reserve undelegated powers to the states and lacked constitutional protection of basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion and the press. In February 1788, a compromise was reached under which Massachusetts and other states would agree to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be immediately proposed. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, and it was subsequently agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789. George Washington was inaugurated as America’s first president on April 30, 1789. In June of that same year, Virginia ratified the Constitution, and New York followed in July. On February 2, 1790, the U.S. Supreme Court held its first session, marking the date when the government was fully operative.

Rhode Island, the last holdout of the original 13 states, finally ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790.

Hands-On Opportunity

Now would be a time to go back to the Magna Carta 2, the Hiawatha Wampum 3, the Declaration of the Thirteen United States of American 4, even the Articles of Confederation 5 and show that our Constitution grew out of many great ideas from many people. Look for the similarities. The laws of our land have had the experience of many generations of people who worked, fought and died to be free. Students should understand that our Constitution was not a quickly generated set of rules but benefited from the input of many.

Next Section: Bill of Rights