The Constitution: A Living Document

Scholastic News shares how the Constitution helped unify and strengthen America's original 13 states.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The Constitution is a document that explains our nation's guiding principles and the rights guaranteed to all U.S. citizens. Many countries have constitutions. But our Constitution is the oldest written national constitution in existence. Because it has passed the test of time, many countries have used it as a model for their constitutions.


Strife Between States
From 1781 to 1788, the government of the U.S. was based on the Articles of Confederation. Congress, as defined by this early document, wasn't strong enough to prevent the 13 states from acting independently. Each state had its own government and could make its own laws. Each could coin its own money and arm its own soldiers. The states competed with one another for business and trade. They were like 13 separate nations rather than one. Congress couldn't raise taxes, borrow money, issue national money, control trade between states or with foreign nations, raise armies, or establish post offices. Most important, it couldn't settle quarrels between states. The new nation was divided.


Working Towards Unity
How could the new nation be strengthened enough to protect its independence? State delegates asked that question when they gathered in Philadelphia in 1787. One way was to rewrite the Articles of Confederation and make the new nation stronger by strengthening the central government. Instead, those who gathered decided to create a new governing document. But they still disagreed about how the new document would be written.

One disagreement was about the number of Representatives each state would send to Congress. Delegates from states with large populations wanted more representation because they paid more taxes. Delegates from small states feared their states would be overpowered by a central government and dominated by the larger states. Finally, a compromise was reached. Congress would consist of two houses. The state's population would determine the number of representatives in the House of Representatives. Each state would send two lawmakers to the Senate.

To give the Congress national authority, the Constitution gave Congress many new powers. Among them were the power to collect taxes, print all money, declare war, and draft soldiers.

To provide a check on this power, the delegates decided to set up three nearly equal branches of government. The Legislative branch would consist of Congress and make the laws. The President and Vice President would compose the Executive branch and enforce the laws. The Judicial branch would consist of the federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court and would interpret Constitutional laws.

Adapted from Scholastic News.

  • Subjects:
    Constitution and Bill of Rights