The American Constitution


“We, the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, 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.”


After winning its independence, the new nation needed a real national government to deal with problems such as defence, foreign policy, interstate as well as foreign trade, and taxation. In 1787, a group of 55 delegates met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution of the new USA, which came into effect two years later. These people were called the “Founding Fathers” and they included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the nation. It establishes the form of the US government and the rights and liberties of the American people. The original copy of the document is preserved in the National Archives in Washington, DC.

The Constitution had a preamble and seven articles. One of them said that the Constitution could be amended. In 1791 ten amendments were added which are known as the Bill of Rights. They guaranteed individual liberties, such as freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. More  amendments have been added over the years, such as the 13th , which made slavery illegal (1865) the 15th , which gave Black people the right to vote (1870), and the 19th , which gave the same rights to women (1920).


The first plan of national government the United States had was not the Constitution but a plan called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The name was soon shortened to the Articles of Confederation by most people. The Confederation (a loosely joined group of states that gives only limited powers to a central government, with each state keeping the most important powers for itself) turned out to be the wrong type of government for the thirteen states that then made up the United States of America. It did not work very well and lasted only a short time. The Articles of Confederation was drawn up in 1777, and the last state did not ratify (agree to) it until 1781. It went out of existence in 1789, when the Constitution was adopted (accepted). Until the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the states had been under the rule of England, and at the time where fighting the Revolutionary War to remain free. The reason they first chose a confederation was that they were afraid that if  the central government was given too much power, they would be trading their newly found freedom for another kind of tyranny (unreasonably harsh rule) of their own making. When the Constitution was adopted, these fears were seen to have been unnecessary, but after their experience with English rule, the states could not be blamed for having had them. This plan of government called for no central power except an assembly (a gathering of persons). There was no executive (person who sees that the laws are carried out), and there was no judiciary (system of courts). The assembly was called Congress but had none of the legislative (lawmaking) powers our Congress (national legislature) has today. Congress could not tax (raise money to support the government); it could only ask the states for money. It could not raise an army; it could only ask the states for troops to defend the country. In fact, the members of Congress could not be made to attend meetings, and often so few came that a quorum (number of members that must be present to do business) could not be had. When a quorum could be had, each state had only one vote, regardless of its size, and these votes were meaningless because Congress could not make either the states or individuals obey its commands. It was powerless. The states slow to send troops for George Washington’s Continental (national) Army; they felt they needed them home for their own protection. They were even slower to send money to support the government and the army.

After the Revolutionary War, things went from had was not backed by gold or silver, and paper money soon became worthless. The states set up tariffs (taxes) on goods crossing their borders, and trade slowed down. Some states even signed treaties with foreign governments. Thinking men all over the United States began to feel that something had to be done. In 1787 a convention (meeting) was called in Philadelphia to revises change and improve) the Articles of Confederation. Delegates (representatives) came from all the s except Rhode Island. Instead of changing the Articles of Confederation, the delegates, under the leadership of such great American as James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, decided on a bold new plan one that no other country had ever tried, to write a constitution setting up a federal government for the states. This federal government would have three branches: a legislative branch responsible for making the laws; am executive branch responsible for explaining the laws and providing just courts of law. It would also be a government of “checks and balances”: each branch is given powers to check (limit) the action of the other two, so that no one branch may become more powerful than the others an attempt to take over the government. This balances (divides evenly), or very nearly balances, the powers of the three branches. The writing of the Constitution was difficult. There were many opposing ideas as to what should be done. These ideas were settled by compromise (an agreement reached by each opposing side giving in on some points). The three main issues that had to be compromised were:

  1. The Great Compromise. The large states wanted representation in Congress to be according to each state’s population (the number of people in a given place), while the small states wanted equal representation for each state. This was settled by giving Congress two houses. The House of Representatives has representation by population, and the Senate has equal representation.
  2. The Commercial Compromise. To please both the agricultural (farming) southern states, Congress was given the power to regulate commerce (control trade) with foreign countries and among the states, but Congress could not make laws against bringing slaves into the country before 1808; it could not tax exports (goods being shipped out of a country); and to ratify a treaty (agreement between nations) with a foreign country, a two-thirds vote of the Senate would be needed.
  3. The Three-fights Compromise. The South wanted slaves to count as population toward representation in the House of Representatives. The North did not. This was settled by allowing each slave to count as three fifths of a person. In other words only three fifths of a state’s slaves could be counted as population for the purpose of representation.

Another problem that had to be solved was how to set up a strong federal government and at the same time let the states keep important powers of government. Certain powers were to be powers held by Congress only (exclusive federal powers). Some were to be powers held by both state and federal governments (concurrent powers), and other powers were forbidden to either government (denied powers). Any power not mentioned by the Constitution as falling into one of these, three groups would be considered powers of the states and of the people. The writers of the Constitution intended to submit it to the people of the states; rather than to states’ legislatures, to be ratified. In 1787 means of transportation and communication were slow, so as it turned out, Constitutional conventions were set up in the States and the people sent delegates to these conventions. Before the Constitution could become law, it had to be ratified, by three fourths nine out of thirteen) of the states. When it was offered to the people for this purpose, two opposing side began to form. One group called themselves the Federalist (person in favour of strong central government), and the other, the Anti-Federalist (persons in favour of keeping strong state government). As is the American way, each group argued against the ideas of the other and tried to persuade the people to its way of thinking by making speeches and writing in the newspapers. These two opposing groups later became the foundation blocks for our first political parties (groups that attempt to control government by winning elections and holding offices). By July 2, 1788, ten states had ratified the Constitution and it was adopted. It did no go into effect, however, until March 4, 1789, and it was not until 1790 that all the thirteen states had accepted it as the supreme (highest) law of the United States.