Article

The U.S. Constitution: An Overview

An article from the New Book of Knowledge discusses the history of the United States Constitution, including the ratification and amending of the document.

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

In 1987, Americans celebrated the bicentennial, or 200th anniversary, of the signing of the Constitution of the United States. This document, which has served as "the Supreme Law of the Land" for more than two centuries, is the world's oldest written constitution still in use.

The United States Constitution is a system of basic laws and principles that defines the rights of American citizens and sets limits on what the government can and cannot do. It provides the framework for the federal (national) government and establishes a system of federalism, by which responsibilities are divided between the national government and the states' governments.

One of the important principles on which the Constitution is based is the separation of powers, which divides power between the three separate branches of the federal government. The legislative branch (represented by Congress) has the power to create laws; the executive branch (represented by the president and his advisers) has the power to enforce laws; and the judicial branch (represented by the Supreme Court and other federal courts) has the power to dismiss or reverse laws that it determines are "unconstitutional."

 

Why the Constitution Was Written

When the United States won its independence from England in 1781, a majority of Americans felt a stronger allegiance to their individual states than to their new country. Most people did not wish to create a strong national government, far away from their homes, over which they felt they would have little or no control -- they had just fought a long and bitter war to free themselves from such a government. In response to these suspicions, leaders organized the new American government according to a document known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles gave each state a great deal of independence and represented little more than a league of friendship between them.

The main purpose of the Articles was to establish a system by which the states could co-operate if they needed to defend themselves against a foreign enemy. The Articles established a Congress that could raise an army and a navy, but only when the states gave permission. Congress also had the authority to issue and borrow money and to handle foreign and Indian affairs. Congress could also pass laws, yet it did not have the power to make the states obey them. Nor was it able to control citizen uprisings, such as Shays' Rebellion, which occurred from 1786 to 1787. Farmers in western Massachusetts staged violent protests against their state government. As a result of this and other similar revolts, many people began to feel that a stronger national government might be necessary after all.

In 1786 leaders in Virginia passed a resolution calling for delegates from the 13 states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the nation's problems. Their goal was to amend (change) the Articles to make the national government more effective. But only twelve representatives from five states attended this Annapolis Convention, so they resolved to call another meeting the following year.

 

The Contitutional Convention

On May 14, 1787, delegates from twelve of the states (all except Rhode Island) began to gather in Philadelphia, and the Constitutional Convention opened in Independence Hall on May 25th. In attendance were many remarkably talented scholars, philosophers, war leaders, and politicians. Alexander Hamilton, representing New York, was largely responsible for arranging the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin, representing Pennsylvania, freely offered the incomparable wisdom of his 81 years. Gouverneur Morris, also from Pennsylvania, headed up the committee that actually wrote the Constitution. George Washington, from Virginia, took the chair as president of the convention. And James Madison, also from Virginia, earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution" because time and again his brilliant ideas and tireless energy kept the convention moving toward its goal.

Almost immediately after the convention opened, a struggle developed between the delegates of the large and small states as to what form the new government should take. The more populous states supported the Virginia Plan, which proposed that representation within the government should be based on the size of a state's population. The plan was designed to give states with large populations a proportionately large share of decision-making power. Less populous states, however, supported the New Jersey Plan, by which every state, regardless of size, would have the same representation within the government.

The convention came to a standstill until the delegates from Connecticut devised an ingenious way to settle the dispute. The Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise) called for the creation of a bicameral (two-house) legislature, or Congress. One of the two houses of the new Congress (the House of Representatives) would be elected according to the states' relative populations. The other house (the Senate) would give equal voice to each state no matter what its size. Once this breakthrough had occurred, the delegates agreed more readily on most of the remaining issues.

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed by 39 of the original 55 delegates. Several had left the convention altogether. Three others — Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia — refused to sign because they lacked confidence in the document's ability to rule the nation. But although no one realized it at the time, the document the delegates signed that day not only gave rise to the government of a new nation, but became a symbol of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world.

 

Ratifying the Constitution

The Constitution was signed by most of the delegates who created it. Yet the task still remained for the states' governments to approve it. The Constitution itself specified that 9 of the 13 states would have to ratify the document before it could become effective.

Delaware had the honor of being the first state to approve the Constitution on December 7, 1787. But the remaining drive for ratification was far from easy. In three of the largest states — Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia — the contest was close. And the founders knew that the new government would have no chance of succeeding without the support of these large states. So they mounted a campaign in defense of the Constitution by publishing a series of essays in New York newspapers. These essays, which came to be known as The Federalist, were written under the name Publius, a pen name adopted by the authors James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.

People who opposed the Constitution, known as anti-federalists, launched a campaign to defeat ratification, believing the Constitution would make the national government too powerful. But mostly they objected that the document did not contain a bill of rights, which would guarantee citizens certain privileges that the government could never take away from them. Anti-federalists published their own series of essays, under such pen names as Brutus, to discourage ratification.

In response to the opposition, John Hancock at the Massachusetts ratifying convention proposed that a bill of rights be added as the first group of amendments to the Constitution. Ratification in Massachusetts and almost all the rest of the uncommitted states depended on the understanding that adopting a bill of rights would be the new government's first order of business.

On June 21, 1788, the Constitution went into effect when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. New York and Virginia followed suit soon thereafter, thus ensuring the new government would have the support it needed to succeed.

 

Amending the Constitution

The first Congress to conduct business under the authority of the new Constitution met in New York City on March 4, 1789. The issue of a bill of rights was proposed at once, and the new government began following constitutional procedures to change, or amend, the document. According to the Constitution itself, amendments must be approved by at least two thirds of the members of each house of Congress and by three quarters of the states. (There is also an alternate amendment process that has never been used.)

In 1791, the first ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution. These ten amendments define and protect the rights of the American people. Each of the 16 amendments that followed over the course of the next two centuries reflects, in its own way, the needs and desires of the ever-changing American society. The power to amend the Constitution is the primary reason the document has been able to survive the turbulent changes throughout the past two hundred years.

L. Sandy Maisel
Professor of Government
Colby College

Copyright © 2003 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Subjects:
    Citizenship, Democracy, Constitution and Bill of Rights, Law
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