United States Constitution

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. The Constitution, originally comprising seven articles, delineates the national frame of government. Its first three articles entrench the doctrine of the separation of powers, whereby the federal government is divided into three branches: the legislative, consisting of the bicameral Congress; the executive, consisting of the President; and the judicial, consisting of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Articles Four, Five and Six entrench concepts of federalism, describing the rights and responsibilities of state governments and of the states in relationship to the federal government. Article Seven establishes the procedure subsequently used by the thirteen States to ratify it.

Since the Constitution came into force in 1789, it has been amended twenty-seven times. In general, the first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, offer specific protections of individual liberty and justice and place restrictions on the powers of government. The majority of the seventeen later amendments expand individual civil rights. Others address issues related to federal authority or modify government processes and procedures. Amendments to the United States Constitution, unlike ones made to many constitutions world-wide, are appended to the end of the document. At seven articles and twenty-seven amendments, it is the shortest written constitution in force. All five pages of the original U.S. Constitution are written on parchment.

The Constitution is interpreted, supplemented, and implemented by a large body of constitutional law. The Constitution of the United States is the first constitution of its kind, and has influenced the constitutions of other nations.

    Historical context

    First government

    From September 5, 1774 to March 1, 1781, the Continental Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States. Delegates to the First (1774) and then the Second (1775–1781) Continental Congress were chosen largely through the action of committees of correspondence in various colonies rather than through the colonial or later state legislatures. In no formal sense was it a gathering representative of existing colonial governments; it represented the dissatisfied elements of the people, such persons as were sufficiently interested to act, despite the strenuous opposition of the loyalists and the obstruction or disfavor of colonial governors. The process of selecting the delegates for the First and Second Continental Congresses underscores the revolutionary role of the people of the colonies in establishing a central governing body. Endowed by the people collectively, the Continental Congress alone possessed those attributes of external sovereignty which entitled it to be called a state in the international sense, while the separate states, exercising a limited or internal sovereignty, may rightly be considered a creation of the Continental Congress, which preceded them and brought them into being.

    Articles of Confederation

    The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first constitution of the United States. It was drafted by the Second Continental Congress from mid-1776 through late-1777, and ratification by all 13 states was completed by early 1781. Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government's power was quite limited. The Confederation Congress could make decisions, but lacked enforcement powers. Implementation of most decisions, including modifications to the Articles, required unanimous approval of all thirteen state legislatures.

    Although in a way, the Congressional powers in Article 9 made the "league of states as cohesive and strong as any similar sort of republican confederation in history", the chief problem with the new government under the Articles of Confederation was, in the words of George Washington, "no money". The Continental Congress could print money; but, by 1786, the currency was worthless. (A popular phrase of the times chimed that a useless object or person was ... not worth a Continental, referring to the Continental dollar.) Congress could borrow money, but couldn't pay it back. No state paid all their U.S. taxes; Georgia paid nothing, as did New Jersey in 1785. Some few paid an amount equal to interest on the national debt owed to their citizens, but no more. No interest was paid on debt owed foreign governments. By 1786, the United States would default on outstanding debts as their dates came due.

    Internationally, the Articles of Confederation did little to enhance the United States' ability to defend its sovereignty. Most of the troops in the 625-man United States Army were deployed facing — but not threatening — British forts being maintained on American soil. Those troops had not been paid; some were deserting and others threatening mutiny.Spain closed New Orleans to American commerce; U.S. officials protested, but to no effect. Barbary pirates began seizing American ships of commerce; the Treasury had no funds to pay their extortionate demands. If any extant or new military crisis required action, the Congress had no credit or taxing power to finance a response.

    Domestically, the Articles of Confederation was failing to bring unity to the diverse sentiments and interests of the various states. Although the Treaty of Paris (1783) was signed between Great Britain, the U.S., and named each of the American states, various individual states proceeded blithely to violate it. New York and South Carolina repeatedly prosecuted Loyalists for wartime activity and redistributed their lands over the protests of both Great Britain and the Confederation Congress. Individual state legislatures independently laid embargoes, negotiated directly with foreign authorities, raised armies, and made war, all violating the letter and the spirit of the Articles.

    During Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts, Congress could provide no money to support an endangered constituent state. Nor could Massachusetts pay for its own internal defense; General Benjamin Lincoln was obliged to raise funds from Boston merchants to pay for a volunteer army. During the next Convention, James Madison angrily questioned whether the Articles of Confederation was a binding compact or even a viable government. Connecticut paid nothing and "positively refused" to pay U.S. assessments for two years. A rumor had it that a " party" of New York legislators had opened a conversation with the Viceroy of Canada. To the south, the British were said to be openly funding Creek Indian raids on white settlers in Georgia and adjacent territory. Savannah (then-capital of Georgia) had been fortified, and the state of Georgia was under martial law.

    Congress was paralyzed. It could do nothing significant without nine states, and some legislation required all thirteen. When a state produced only one member in attendance, its vote was not counted. If a state's delegation were evenly divided, its vote could not be counted towards the nine-count requirement. The Articles Congress had "virtually ceased trying to govern". The vision of a "respectable nation" among nations seemed to be fading in the eyes of revolutionaries such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Rufus King. Their dream of a republic, a nation without hereditary rulers, with power derived from the people in frequent elections, was in doubt.

    On February 21, 1787, the Confederation Congress called a convention of state delegates at Philadelphia to propose a plan of government. Unlike earlier attempts, the convention was not meant for new laws or piecemeal alterations, but for the "sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation". The convention was not limited to commerce; rather, it was intended to "render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union." The proposal might take effect when approved by Congress and the states.

    1787 Drafting

    Signing the Constitution, September 17, 1787

    On the appointed day, May 14, 1787, only the Virginia and Pennsylvania delegations were present. A quorum of seven states met and deliberations began on May 25. Eventually twelve states were represented; 74 delegates were named, 55 attended and 39 signed. The delegates were generally convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the weaker Congress established by the Articles of Confederation. The high quality of the delegates to the convention was remarkable. As Thomas Jefferson in Paris wrote to John Adams in London, "It really is an assembly of demigods." According to one view, the Framers embraced ambiguity in the constitutional text, since it allows for compromise and cooperation about broad concepts rather than specific circumstances.

    Delegates used two streams of intellectual tradition, and any one delegate could be found using both or a mixture depending on the subject under discussion: foreign affairs, the economy, national government, or federal relationships among the states. The Virginia Plan recommended a consolidated national government, generally favoring the most highly populated states. It used the philosophy of John Locke to rely on consent of the governed, Montesquieu for divided government, and Edward Coke to emphasize civil liberties. The New Jersey Plan generally favored the less-populated states, using the philosophy of English Whigs such as Edmund Burke to rely on received procedure and William Blackstone to emphasize sovereignty of the legislature.

    The Convention devolved into a "Committee of the Whole" to consider the fifteen propositions of the Virginia Plan in their numerical order. These discussions continued until June 13, when the Virginia resolutions in amended form were reported out of committee.

    All agreed to a republican form of government grounded in representing the people in the states. For the legislature, two issues were to be decided: how the votes were to be allocated among the states in the Congress, and how the representatives should be elected. The question was settled by the Connecticut Compromise or "Great Compromise". In the House, state power was to be based on population and the people would vote. In the Senate, state power was to be based on state legislature election, with two Senators generally to be elected by their respective state legislatures to better reflect the long term interests of the people living in each state.

    The Great Compromise ended the stalemate between "patriots" and "nationalists", leading to numerous other compromises in a spirit of accommodation. There were sectional interests to be balanced by the Three-Fifths Compromise; reconciliation on Presidential term, powers, and method of selection; and jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. Debates on the Virginia resolutions continued. The 15 original resolutions had been expanded into 23.

    On July 24, a committee of five — John Rutledge (South Carolina), Edmund Randolph (Virginia), Nathaniel Gorham (Massachusetts), Oliver Ellsworth (Connecticut), and James Wilson (Pennsylvania) — was elected to draft a detailed constitution. The Convention recessed from July 26 to August 6 to await the report of this "Committee of Detail". Overall, the report of the committee conformed to the resolutions adopted by the Convention, adding some elements.

    From August 6 to September 10, the report of the committee of detail was discussed, section by section and clause by clause. Details were attended to, and further compromises were effected. Toward the close of these discussions, on September 8, a "Committee of Style" of five was appointed. Its final version was taken up on Monday, September 17, at the Convention's final session. Several of the delegates were disappointed in the result, a makeshift series of unfortunate compromises. Some delegates left before the ceremony, and three others refused to sign. Of the thirty-nine signers, Benjamin Franklin summed up, addressing the Convention: "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, "because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best".

    The advocates of the Constitution were anxious to obtain unanimous support of all twelve states represented in the Convention. Their accepted formula was "Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the States present." George Washington noted in his diary that night, the proposal was agreed to by eleven state delegations and the lone delegate from New York, Mr. Hamilton.

    1788 Ratification

    Transmitted to the Articles Congress then sitting in New York City, the Constitution was forwarded to the states by Congress recommending the ratification process outlined in the Constitution. Each state legislature was to call elections for a "Federal Convention" to ratify the Constitution. They expanded the franchise beyond the Constitutional requirement to more nearly embrace "the people". Eleven ratified in 1787 or 1788, and all thirteen had done so by 1790. The Articles Congress certified eleven states to begin the new government, and called the states to hold elections to begin operation. It then dissolved itself on March 4, 1789, the day the first session of the First Congress began. George Washington was inaugurated as President two months later.

    Territorial extent of the United States, 1790.

    It was within the power of the old Congress to expedite or block the ratification of the new Constitution. The document that the Philadelphia Convention presented was technically only a revision of the Articles of Confederation. But the last article of the new instrument provided that when ratified by conventions in nine states (or two-thirds at the time), it should go into effect among the States so acting.

    Then followed an arduous process of ratification of the Constitution by specially constituted conventions. The need for only nine states' approval was a controversial decision at the time, since the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of all the states.

    Three members of the Convention — Madison, Gorham, and King — were also Members of Congress. They proceeded at once to New York, where Congress was in session, to placate the expected opposition. Aware of their vanishing authority, Congress, on September 28, after some debate, resolved unanimously to submit the Constitution to the States for action, "in conformity to the resolves of the Convention", but with no recommendation either for or against its adoption.

    Two parties soon developed, one in opposition, the Anti-Federalists, and one in support, the Federalists, of the Constitution; and the Constitution was debated, criticized, and expounded upon clause by clause. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, under the name of Publius, wrote a series of commentaries, now known as The Federalist Papers, in support of the new instrument of government; however, the primary aim of the essays was for ratification in the state of New York, at that time a hotbed of anti-Federalism. These commentaries on the Constitution, written during the struggle for ratification, have been frequently cited by the Supreme Court as an authoritative contemporary interpretation of the meaning of its provisions. The closeness and bitterness of the struggle over ratification as a result of the conferring of additional powers on the central government can scarcely be exaggerated. In some states, ratification was effected only after a bitter struggle in the state convention itself. In every state, the Federalists proved to be more united, and only they coordinated action among different states; the Anti-Federalists were localized and did not attempt to reach out to other states.[]

    The Continental Congress — which still functioned at irregular intervals — passed a resolution on September 13, 1788, to put the new Constitution into operation with eleven states. North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified by May 1790.

    Influences

    Enlightenment and Rule of law
    John Locke
    Two Treatises of Government
    life, liberty and property

    Several ideas in the Constitution were new. These were associated with the combination of consolidated government along with federal relationships with constituent states.

    The Due Process Clause of the Constitution was partly based on common law and on Magna Carta (1215), which had become a foundation of English liberty against arbitrary power wielded by a ruler.

    Both the influence of Edward Coke and William Blackstone were evident at the Convention. In his Institutes of the Lawes of England, Edward Coke interpreted Magna Carta protections and rights to apply not just to nobles, but to all British subjects. In writing the Virginia Charter of 1606, he enabled the King in Parliament to give those to be born in the colonies all rights and liberties as though they were born in England. William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England were the most influential books on law in the new republic.

    British political philosopher John Locke following the Glorious Revolution (1688) was a major influence expanding on the contract theory of government advanced by Thomas Hobbes. Locke advanced the principle of consent of the governed in his Two Treatises of Government. Government's duty under a social contract among the sovereign people was to serve the people by protecting their rights. These basic rights were life, liberty and property.

    Montesquieu emphasized the need for balanced forces pushing against each other to prevent tyranny (reflecting the influence of Polybius's 2nd century BC treatise on the checks and balances of the Roman Republic). In his The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argues that the separation of state powers should be by its service to the people's liberty: legislative, executive and judicial.

    A substantial body of thought had been developed from the literature of republicanism in the United States, including work by John Adams and applied to the creation of state constitutions.

    The constitution was a federal one, and was influenced by the study of other federations, both ancient and extant.

    The United States Bill of Rights consists of 10 amendments added to the Constitution in 1791, as supporters of the Constitution had promised critics during the debates of 1788. The English Bill of Rights (1689) was an inspiration for the American Bill of Rights. Both require jury trials, contain a right to keep and bear arms, prohibit excessive bail and forbid "cruel and unusual punishments". Many liberties protected by state constitutions and the Virginia Declaration of Rights were incorporated into the Bill of Rights.

    Original frame

    "We the People" in an original edition

    Neither the Convention which drafted the Constitution, nor the Congress which sent it to the thirteen states for ratification in the autumn of 1787, gave it a lead caption. To fill this void, the document was most often titled "A frame of Government" when it was printed for the convenience of ratifying conventions and the information of the public. This Frame of Government consisted of a preamble, seven articles and a signed closing endorsement.

    Preamble

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