usconstitution

I felt that it was absolutely necessary to include this important document on this website. The Constitution is the very life of American culture. It defines who we are as a nation, and it defines who we are as people. We are the defenders of democracy, and the majority of freedom seeking people look up to us. If we don’t know what our rights our, then what would be the point of being free?

Here’s my challenge to my EduCons. Before reading this article, do you know what The Constitution is, which branches of government it consists of, how many parts it consists of, what are the Articles of Confederation, and what and how many Amendments are there? Over 95% of Americans can’t answer all of these questions. Do you?

What is The U.S. Constitution?

1) The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States.

Nothing is above the constitution. State and local laws can vary from one another, and federal laws apply to everyone living within the United States. However, neither federal, state, nor local laws are above constitution. Unfortunately, the system isn’t perfect. There are some cases in which the constitution wasn’t upheld. For example, take the illegal action of Japanese-American internment camps in WWII, or a local community/law enforcement not allowing colored people to vote.

2) It is the source of all branches of government: executive, judicial, and legislative.

The Constitution is divided into three different administrative branches (executive, judicial, and legislative), and neither branch holds more power over the other. This is referred to as checks and balances. Each branch of power can check the work of the other branches to make sure that no one is abusing power. This makes the power balanced between the three branches of government.

3) The Constitution consists of three parts:

  • The Preamble
  • Articles of Confederation (7)
  • Amendments (27)

The first ten amendments make up the Bill of Rights. There have been 17 amendments added since the original ten amendments of 1791. The last amendment was implemented in 1992.

Due to the size of the document, we can only fit the first section or two of any Article of Confederation or Amendment. For further reading, please go to thewhitehouse.gov.

The Preamble

The Preamble explains the purposes of the Constitution and defines the powers of the new government:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.”

 Articles of Confederation

Article I: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

Notes: The Constitution divides the federal government into three branches, giving legislative powers to a bicameral (two chamber) Congress.

Article II: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term…”

Notes: This clause provided the title of the chief executive and defined the term of office.

Article III: “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.”

Notes: This clause identifies the third branch of our separated government, empowering the courts to decide cases and limiting them to the exercise of a certain kind of authority. The Constitution makes no mention of judicial review, the right of the Supreme Court to declare federal and state laws unconstitutional. For the sake of independence, justices and judges are given life tenures, subject only to removal by impeachment, and a guarantee that their salaries cannot be reduced.

Article IV:“Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”

Notes: Each state is required to recognize the laws and records (such as licenses) of other states and to enforce rights in its own courts that would be enforced in other state courts.

Article V: “The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress…”

Notes: The Constitution may be amended in two ways. The standard method, used for all amendments so far, is for both houses of Congress to pass by two-thirds vote a proposal, which they send to the states for ratification. The Constitution also authorizes a national convention, when two-thirds of the states petition Congress for such a convention, to propose amendments, which would also have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Article VI: All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation…”

Notes: The new federal government assumed the financial obligations of the old government under the Articles of Confederation.

Article VII: “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”

Notes: The Constitution mandated that the new government would go into effect when nine of the 13 states acted affirmatively.

Amendments

Bill of Rights: The collective name of the first ten amendments that have been in effect since 1791.

Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Notes: The first amendment protects religious freedom by prohibiting the establishment of an official or exclusive church or sect. Free speech and free press are protected, although they can be limited for reasons of defamation, obscenity, and certain forms of state censorship, especially during wartime. The freedom of assembly and petition also covers marching, picketing, and pamphleteering.

Amendment II: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Notes: Whether this provision protects the individual’s right to own firearms or deals only with the collective right of the people to arm and maintain a militia was long debated until the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the amendment protected individuals’ right to possess firearms unconnected to any service in a militia.

Amendment III: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

Notes: This virtually obsolete provision was in response to anger over the British military practice of quartering soldiers in colonists’ homes.

Amendment IV: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Notes: Applying to arrests and to searches of persons, homes, and other private places, this amendment requires a warrant, thereby placing a neutral magistrate between the police and the citizen.

Amendment V: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Notes: Indictment by a grand jury requires the decision of ordinary citizens to place one in danger of conviction. Double jeopardy means that when one has been convicted or acquitted, the government cannot place that person on trial again. The self-incrimination clause means that the prosecution must establish guilt by independent evidence and not by extorting a confession from the suspect, although voluntary confessions are not precluded. Due process of the law requires the government to observe proper and traditional methods in depriving one of an important right. Finally, when the government seizes property to use in the public interest, it must pay the owner fair value.

Amendment VI: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

Notes: Defendants in criminal cases are entitled to public trials that follow relatively soon after initiation of the charges. Witnesses must be brought to the trial to testify before the defendant, judge, and jury. Defendants are also entitled to compel witnesses on their behalf to appear and testify.

Amendment VII: “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

Notes: Mistrustful of some judges, the people insisted on the right to jury trial in civil cases. The minimum level, $20, is so low today that it would burden the federal judiciary, so various methods have been developed to permit alternative resolution of disputes.

Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Notes: Neither bail nor punishment for a crime are to be unreasonably severe. The “cruel and unusual punishments” clause has been the basis for challenges to the death penalty.

Amendment IX: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Notes: Failure of the Constitution to mention a specific right does not mean that the government can abridge that right, but its protection has to be found elsewhere.

Amendment X: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Notes: The federal government is the recipient of constitutionally delegated powers.  What is not delegated remains in the states or in the people.

*End of the Bill of Rights*

Amendment XI (1795/1798): “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”

Notes: When the Supreme Court held in the 1793 case Chisholm v. Georgia that a state could be sued in federal court under Article III of the Constitution, this amendment was rapidly adopted by both houses of Congress.  It provided that states could only be sued in state courts.

Amendment XII (1804): “The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate…”

Notes: After the disputed election of 1800, this amendment required separate designation of presidential and vice presidential candidates, each of whom must meet the same qualifications for eligibility as the president.

Amendment XIII (1865):

Section 1“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Section 2“Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Notes: President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slavery in the states that had not seceded. To abolish slavery entirely, Congress proposed this amendment, which also gave Congress specific authority to enforce the amendment by legislation.

Amendment XIV (1868): There are five sections under the 14th Amendment.“All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws…”

Notes: In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court had said that African-Americans were not citizens. This amendment declared that every person born or naturalized in the U.S. was a citizen. The amendment also establishes that all citizens are entitled to “equal protection of the laws,” the provision which the Supreme Court cited inBrown v. Board of Education in 1954, ruling school segregation unconstitutional.

Amendment XV (1870):

Section 1“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Section 2“The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Notes: This amendment was designed to protect the right of African-Americans to vote and has served as the foundation for such legislation as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Amendment XVI (1913): “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

Notes: In 1895 the Supreme Court had declared a federal income tax law unconstitutional. This amendment reversed that decision and authorized a tax on income.

Amendment XVII (1913): “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures…”

Notes: This amendment provides for senators to be elected the way members of the House are, which is by direct election of the people.

Amendment XVIII (1919): There are three sections to this amendment. “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”

Notes: Prohibition was instituted by this amendment, only to be repealed 14 years later by the 21st amendment.

Amendment XIX (1920): “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Notes: The Constitution has never prohibited women from voting, and for many years before the adoption of this amendment, women did vote in several states. The 19th amendment established a uniform rule for all states to give all women this right.

Amendment XX (1933): There are six sections to this amendment. “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.”

Notes: This amendment reduced the previous four-month period between the November elections and the March 4 starting date of congressional and presidential terms. This ended the custom, when both terms expired on the same day, that required outgoing presidents to sit outside the Senate chamber waiting to sign last-minute legislation. Also, under this amendment, if a presidential election were thrown into the House of Representatives following a deadlock in the January 6 counting of electoral ballots, that decision would be made by a newly elected House rather than one set to go out of existence on March 4.

Amendment XXI (1933): There are three sections to this amendment. “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”

Notes: In repealing Prohibition, this was the only amendment that the states ratified by conventions rather than by legislatures. Imagine not being legally allowed to drink for 14 years?!

Amendment XXII (1951):

Section 1“No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once…”

Section 2:“This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.”

Notes: George Washington established the custom of presidents serving no longer than two terms. Following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election to third and fourth terms, this amendment set a future limit at two terms.

Amendment XXIII (1961):

Section 1: “The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct…”

Section 2: “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Notes: In authorizing the creation of a federal district as seat of government, the Framers made no provision for the suffrage rights of persons who resided there. This amendment gave District of Columbia residents the opportunity to vote for three presidential electors.

Amendment XXIV (1964):

Section 1: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”

Section 2“The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Notes: The poll tax was the last surviving instance of a property qualification for the suffrage, and it was in effect, at the time of the adoption of this amendment, in only five States. The amendment was offered as a removal of another obstacle to the right to vote.

Amendment XXV (1967): There are four sections to this amendment. “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”

Notes: This amendment clarifies the Constitution’s previously ambiguous language about presidential succession, explicitly confirming the long-standing custom that when a president dies in office the vice president becomes president, rather than acts as president. If the vice presidency becomes vacant, the president may nominate a new vice president, subject to the confirmation of both the House and Senate. The amendment also provides procedures for replacing a president who becomes incapacitated.

Amendment XXVI (1971):

Section 1“The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”

Section 2“The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Notes: During the Vietnam War, this amendment lowered the voting age in federal and state elections to 18, the same age at which young men could be drafted for military service.

Amendment XXVII (1992): “No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

Notes: More than two hundred years after it was proposed as part of the original Bill of Rights, this amendment prohibited members of Congress from receiving an increase in salary until after the next election had been held.

 

Let’s Hear From You!

Which Amendment do you think affects you the most, and why? Do you believe that we need all Amendments? Should we add another Amendment? Do you believe that we should update older Amendments to make them more modern?