United States Constitution

Page I of the Constitution of the
Page I of the Constitution of the United States of America
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Page II of the United States Constitution
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Page III of the United States Constitution
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Page IV of the United States Constitution
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The Syng inkstand, with which the Constitution was signed

The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America and is the oldest codified written national constitution still in force. It was completed on September 17, 1787, with its adoption by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was later ratified by special conventions called for that purpose in each of the then-existing thirteen American states. It created a more unified government in place of what was then a group of semi-independent states operating under the Articles of Confederation. It took effect in 1789 and has served as a model for the constitutions of numerous other nations.

The original copy of the Constitution is on permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.



Main article: History of the United States Constitution

After the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies first formed a very weak central government—with the Congress being its only component—under the Articles of Confederation. Congress lacked any power to impose taxes, and, because there was no national executive or judiciary, relied on state authorities (who were often uncooperative) to enforce all of its acts. It also had no authority to override tax laws and tariffs between states. The Articles required unanimous consent from all the states before they could be amended and states took the central government so lightly that their representatives were often absent. For lack of a quorum, Congress was frequently blocked from making even moderate changes.

In September 1786, commissioners from five states met in the Annapolis Convention to discuss adjustments to the Articles of Confederation that would improve commerce. They invited state representatives to convene in Philadelphia to discuss improvements to the federal government. After debate, the Confederation Congress endorsed the plan to revise the Articles of Confederation on February 21, 1787. Twelve states (Rhode Island being the only exception) accepted this invitation and sent delegates to convene in May 1787. The resolution calling the Convention specified its purpose was to propose amendments to the Articles, but the Convention ignored its limitations. It voted to keep deliberations secret and decided to draft a new fundamental government design which eventually stipulated that only 9 of the 13 states would have to ratify for the new government to go into effect. These actions were criticized as exceeding the convention's mandate and existing law. However, Congress, noting dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation government, agreed to submit the proposal to the states despite the exceeded terms of reference. On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was completed in Philadelphia, and the new government it prescribed came into existence on March 4, 1789, after fierce fights over ratification in many of the states.

For a list of those who signed the Constitution, see List of signatories of the United States Constitution.

The Constitution

The U.S. Constitution styles itself the "supreme law of the land." Courts have interpreted this phrase to mean that when laws (including state constitutions) that have been passed by state legislatures, or by the (national) U.S. Congress, are found to conflict with the federal constitution, these laws are null and have no effect. Decisions by the Supreme Court over the course of two centuries have repeatedly confirmed and strengthened the doctrine of Constitutional supremacy, or the supremacy clause.

The Constitution guarantees the legitimacy of the American state by invoking the American electorate. The people exercise authority through state actors both elected and appointed; some of these positions are provided for in the Constitution. State actors can change the fundamental law, if they wish, by amending the Constitution or, in the extreme, by drafting a new one.

Different kinds of public officials have varying levels of limitations on their power. Generally, middle and other working class officials have extremely limited powers in American government. Their powers are merely discretionary. However, elite actors in government and certain departments like the military have few checks on their power, aside from divergent interests. Ideally, however, their official actions ought to conform to the Constitution, and to the laws made in accordance with the Constitution; but there is little by way of mechanisms for enforcement. Elected officials can only continue in office if they are re-elected at periodic intervals, which they typically are because of the structural limitations on political organization and participation. Appointed officials serve, in general, at the pleasure of the person or authority who appointed them, and may be removed at any time. The exception to this practice is the lifetime appointment by the President of Justices of the Supreme Court and other federal judges; the justification for this exception is that once appointed for life, these judges are presumed capable of acting free of political obligations or influence.

Principles of government

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Although the Constitution has changed in many respects since it was first adopted, its basic principles remain the same now as in 1789.

There are three main branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and they are separate and distinct from one another. The powers given to each are in theory balanced and checked by the powers of the other two. Each branch ideally serves as a check on potential excesses of the others.

The United States is federal in nature. Powers enumerated in the Constitution are given to the Federal Government, and all other, unenumerated, powers remain with the states or the people. (See the Tenth Amendment.)

The Constitution, together with laws passed according to its provisions and treaties entered into by the president and approved by the Senate, stands above all other laws, executive acts, and regulations. Beginning with the case of Marbury v. Madison, the United States judiciary has engaged in judicial review. This means that the federal courts will examine duly enacted laws, and, if they are found to be unconstitutional, will overturn them. They also examine the acts of public officials—up to and including those of the president. (See United States v. Nixon.)

Since the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, all persons have been equally entitled to the law's protection. All states are equal and in principle none can officially receive special treatment from the federal government. Within the limits of the Constitution, each state must recognize and respect the laws of the others. State governments, like the federal government, must be republican in form, with final legitimacy resting with the people.

By means defined in the Fifth Article of the Constitution, Congress may propose amendments to the Constitution. Moreover, any two thirds of the states may themselves initiate a convention for proposing amendments. When ratified as specified, all amendments are considered part of the Constitution.


Main article: Preamble to the United States Constitution

The Preamble to the United States Constitution consists of a single sentence that introduces the document and its purpose. The Preamble itself neither grants any powers nor inhibits any actions. It only explains the rationale behind the Constitution. The preamble, especially the first three words ("We the people"), is one of the most often-quoted and referenced sections of the Constitution.

The Preamble lists five purposes for the Constitution:

  • Providing for better cooperation among the states
  • Ensuring justice and peace
  • Providing for defense against invasion
  • Promote the general well being of the population
  • Securing liberties now and in the future

Articles of the Constitution

The remainder of the constitution consists of seven articles.

Article One

Article One establishes the legislative branch of government, U.S. Congress, which includes the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Article establishes the manner of election and qualifications of members of each House. In addition, it outlines legislative procedure and indicates the powers of the legislative branch. Finally, it establishes limits on federal and state legislative power.

Article Two

Article Two describes the presidency (the executive branch): procedures for the selection of the president, qualifications for office, the oath to be affirmed, the powers and duties of the office, and procedures for selection. It also provides for the office of Vice President of the United States, and specifies that the Vice President succeeds to the presidency if the President is incapacitated or resigns. The article nominally makes the Vice President the presiding officer of the Senate, but in practice the Vice President only serves as such under limited circumstances. Article Two also provides for the impeachment and removal from office of civil officers (the President, Vice President, judges, and others). (See presidential system).

Article Three

Article Three describes the court system (the judicial branch), including the Supreme Court. The article requires that there be one court called the Supreme Court; Congress, at its discretion, can create lower courts, whose judgments and orders are reviewable by the Supreme Court. Article Three also requires trial by jury in all criminal cases, defines the crime of treason, and charges Congress with providing for a punishment for it, while imposing limits on that punishment.

Article Four

Article Four describes the relationship between the states and the Federal government, and amongst the states. For instance, it requires states to give "full faith and credit" to the public acts, records and court proceedings of the other states. Congress is permitted to regulate the manner in which proof of such acts, records or proceedings may be admitted. The "privileges and immunities" clause prohibits from discriminating against those from other states in favor of their own citizens (e.g., having tougher penalties for out-of-staters convicted of crimes within a state). It also establishes extradition between the states, as well as laying down a legal basis for freedom of movement and travel amongst the states. Today, this provision is sometimes taken for granted, especially by citizens who live near state borders; but in the days of the Articles of Confederation, crossing state lines was often a much more arduous (and costly) process.

Article Five

Article Five describes the process necessary to amend the Constitution. It provides for two methods of proposing amendments: either two-thirds of the state legislatures can request a convention for the purpose of considering amendments, or Congress can propose an amendment by a two-thirds majority vote of each house. Proposed amendments, whether submitted by a convention or by Congress, must be ratified by three-fourths of the states to take effect; the Article gives Congress the option of requiring ratification by state legislatures or by conventions called in each state. Article Five currently places only one limitation on the amending power—that no amendment can deprive a state of its equal representation in the Senate without the state's consent.

Article Six

Article Six establishes the Constitution, and the laws and treaties of the United States made in accordance with it, to be the supreme law of the land. It also validates national debt created under the Articles of Confederation and requires that all legislators, federal officers, and judges take oaths to support the Constitution.

Article Seven

Article Seven sets forth the requirements for ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution was originally proposed as an amendment of the Articles of Confederation, which required ratification by all 13 of the original states for amendments to take effect. Article Seven of the Constitution, however, only required ratification by 9 states for that document to take effect. Scholars have traditionally resolved this contradiction by arguing that when the ninth state ratified the Constitution and the document took effect, those 9 states implicitly seceded from the union governed by the Articles and created a new, separate federal union. Under this theory, those states that did not ratify the Constitution would have remained part of a separate country. However, eventually all the states did ratify the Constitution.

Provisions for amendment

The authors of the Constitution were clearly aware that changes would be needed from time to time if the Constitution was to endure and cope with the effects of the anticipated growth of the nation. However, they were also conscious that such change should not be easy, lest it permit ill-conceived and hastily passed amendments. Balancing this, they also wanted to ensure that an overly-rigid requirement of unanimity would not block action desired by the vast majority of the people. Their solution was to devise a dual process by which the Constitution could be changed.

The first option must begin in Congress which, by a two-thirds vote (of a quorum) in each house, may initiate an amendment. Alternatively, the legislatures of two-thirds of the states may ask Congress to call a national convention to discuss and draft amendments. To date, all amendments have been proposed by Congress; although state legislatures have on occasion requested the calling of a convention, no such request has yet received the required concurrence of two-thirds of the states.

In either case, amendments must have the approval of the legislatures or conventions of three-fourths of the existing states before they become part of the Constitution. All amendments save one have been submitted to the state legislatures for ratification; only the 21st Amendment was ratified by conventions.

Unlike most constitutions, amendments to the U.S. constitution are appended to the existing body of the text, rather than being revisions of or insertions into the main articles. There is no provision for expunging from the text obsolete or rescinded provisions.

Some people feel that demographic changes in the U.S.—specifically the great disparity in population between states—have made the Constitution too difficult to amend, with states representing as little as 4% of the population theoretically able to block an amendment desired by over 90% of Americans; others feel that it's unlikely that such an extreme result would happen. However, any proposals to change this would necessarily involve amending the Constitution itself, creating something of a Catch-22.

Aside from the direct process of changing the Constitution, the practical effect of its provisions may be changed by judicial decision. The United States is a common law country, and courts are obliged to follow the precedents established in prior cases. However, when a Supreme Court decision clarifies the application of a part of the Constitution to existing law, the effect is to establish the meaning of that part for all practical purposes. Not long after adoption of the Constitution, in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of judicial review, which is the power of the Court to examine legislation and other acts of Congress and to decide their constitutionality. The doctrine also embraces the power of the Court to explain the meaning of various sections of the Constitution as they apply to particular cases brought before the Court. Since such cases will reflect changing legal, political, economic, and social conditions, this provides a mechanism, in practice, for adjusting the Constitution outside of amendments. Over the years, a series of Court decisions, on issues ranging from governmental regulation of radio and television to the rights of the accused in criminal cases, has had the effect of modifying what had been previously understood to be the meaning of many Constitutional clauses, with no change in the actual text of the Constitution itself.

Congressional legislation, passed to implement provisions of the Constitution or to adapt those implementations to changing conditions, also broadens and, in subtle ways, changes the meaning of the Constitution. Up to a point, the rules and regulations of the many agencies of the federal government have a similar effect. In case of objection, the test in both cases is whether, in the opinion of the courts, such legislation and rules conform with the meaning of the Constitution.


The Constitution has a total of 27 amendments. However, since the first ten of the amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified simultaneously, it has in effect only been amended 18 times.

The Bill of Rights (1–10)

Main article: United States Bill of Rights

United States Bill of Rights
United States Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights comprises the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Those amendments were all adopted within a few years of the ratification of the Constitution, and all relate to limiting the power of the federal government. They were added in response to criticisms of the Constitution by the state ratification conventions and by prominent individuals such as Thomas Jefferson (who was a not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention). These critics argued that without further restraints, the strong central government would become tyrannical. The amendments were proposed by Congress as part of a block of twelve in September 1789. By December 1791 a sufficient number of states had ratified ten of the twelve proposals, and the Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution.

It is commonly understood that the Bill of Rights was not originally intended to apply to the states, though except where amendments refer specifically to the Federal Government or a branch thereof (as in the first amendment, under which some states in the early years of the nation officially established a religion), there is no such delineation in the text itself. Nevertheless, a general interpretation of inapplicability to the states remained until 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, which stated, in part, that:

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.

The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to extend some, but not all, parts of the Bill of Rights to the states. Nevertheless, the balance of state and federal power has remained a battle in the Supreme Court; for example, a recent case dealt with whether a state could be sued by an employee under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (see Federalist Society and Federalism).

The amendments that became the Bill of Rights were actually the last ten of the twelve amendments proposed in 1789. The second of the twelve proposed amendments, regarding the compensation of members of Congress, remained unratified until 1992, when the legislatures of enough states finally approved it and, as a result, it became the Twenty-seventh Amendment despite more than two centuries of pendency. The first of the twelve—still technically pending before the state legislatures for ratification—pertains to the apportionment of the United States House of Representatives after each decennial census. The most recent state whose lawmakers are known to have ratified this proposal is Kentucky in 1792 during that commonwealth's first month of statehood.

The first amendment addresses the rights of freedom of speech and the press; the right of peaceful assembly; and the right of petition. It also addresses freedom of religion, both in terms of prohibiting the establishment of religion and protecting the right to free exercise of religion.

The second states, in its entirety, "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." Current case law (including U.S. Supreme Court decisions) tends to assert that the "right of the people to keep and bear Arms" is an individual right but not an absolute right, and that the states and federal government may omit certain classes of people from the general-public sense of the "militia" for cause (criminal record, young or old age, mental incapacity, etc.), and may limit the types of weapons to which the right applies. The courts have interpreted and re-interpreted the second amendment since it was ratified; the Supreme Court first visiting it in United States v. Cruikshank, in 1875.

The third prohibits the government from using private homes as quarters for soldiers without the consent of the owners. The fourth guards against unreasonable searches, arrests, and seizures of property.

The next four amendments deal with the system of justice. The fifth forbids trial for a major crime except after indictment by a grand jury; prohibits repeated trials for the same offense after an acquittal (except in certain very limited circumstances); forbids punishment without due process of law; and provides that an accused person may not be compelled to testify against himself. The sixth guarantees a speedy public trial for criminal offenses. It requires trial by a jury (of peers), guarantees the right to legal counsel for the accused, and guarantees that the accused may require witnesses to attend the trial and testify in the presence of the accused. The seventh assures trial by jury in civil cases involving anything valued at more than 20 U.S. dollars. The eighth forbids excessive bail or fines, and cruel or unusual punishment.

The last two of the first ten amendments contain very broad statements of constitutional authority. The ninth declares that the listing of individual rights is not meant to be comprehensive; that the people have other rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. The tenth provides that powers the Constitution does not assign to the federal government or does not prohibit the states from having are reserved for the states or the people to exercise.

Subsequent amendments (11–27)

Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights cover a wide range of subjects. The majority of the seventeen later amendments stem from continued efforts to expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.

There also have been many failed attempts to amend the Constitution. There are some that are still ongoing today (See Proposals for amendments to the United States Constitution).

Unratified Amendments

Over 10,000 Constitutional amendments have been proposed in Congress since 1789; in a typical Congressional year in the last several decades, between 100 and 200 are proposed. Most of these proposals never get out of Congressional committee, much less get passed by the Congress. Backers of some amendments have attempted the alternative method mentioned in Article Five, but no proposal of this sort has ever gotten far enough to be considered by all the state legislatures.

The Eighteenth Amendment is the only amendment to be directly and specifically repealed by another (the Twenty-first). The episode highlighted the importance of proposing and ratifying only the most important, and least evanescent, of amendments.

Of the thirty-three amendments that have been proposed by Congress, six have failed ratification by the required three-quarters of the state legislatures—and four of those six are still technically pending before state lawmakers. Starting with the 18th amendment, each proposed amendment (except for the 19th Amendment and for the still-pending Child Labor Amendment of 1924) has specified a deadline for passage. The following are the failed amendments:

  • The Congressional Apportionment Amendment proposed by the 1st Congress on September 25, 1789 defined a formula for how many members there would be in the United States House of Representatives after each decennial census. Ratified by eleven states, the last being Kentucky in June of 1792 (Kentucky's initial month of statehood), this amendment contains no expiration date for ratification. In principle it may yet be ratified, though as written, it became moot when the population of the United States reached ten million.
  • The so-called missing thirteenth amendment, or "Titles of Nobility Amendment" (TONA), proposed by the 11th Congress on May 1, 1810, which would have eliminated the citizenship of any American accepting "any title of nobility or honour" from any foreign power. A few people maintain that this amendment was actually ratified by the legislatures of enough states, and that a conspiracy has suppressed it. Known to have been ratified by lawmakers in at least twelve states, the last in 1812, this amendment contains no expiration date for ratification. It may yet be ratified.
  • A pro-slavery proposal, known as the Corwin amendment, proposed by the 36th Congress on March 2, 1861 which would purportedly have prevented the passage of any future constitutional amendment allowing Congress to regulate "the domestic institutions" within any state. It was ratified by only Ohio and Maryland lawmakers before the outbreak of the Civil War. Illinois lawmakers—sitting as a state constitutional convention at the time—likewise approved it, but that action is of questionable validity. The proposed amendment contains no expiration date for ratification and may yet be ratified. However, adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War have probably made this proposal effectively moot. (Presumably, however, any such subsequent amendment on this subject would likely include the withdrawal of this still-pending proposal.)
  • A child labor amendment proposed by the 68th Congress on June 2, 1924 which stipulates: "The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age." Since this amendment was not ratified, this power theoretically remains with the states: however, subsequent federal child labor laws have uniformly been upheld as a valid exercise of Congress' powers under the commerce clause. This amendment contains no expiration date for ratification. It may yet be ratified.

Expired Amendments

Properly placed in a separate category from the other four constitutional amendments that Congress proposed to the states, but which not enough states have approved, are the following two offerings which—due to deadlines—are no longer subject to ratification.

  • The Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, which reads in pertinent part "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Proposed by the 92nd Congress on March 22, 1972, it was ratified by the legislatures of 35 states, and expired on either March 22, 1979 or on June 30, 1982, depending upon one's point of view of a controversial ratification deadline three-year extension by the 95th Congress in 1978. Of the 35 states ratifying it, five later rescinded their ratifications prior to the extended ratification period which commenced March 23, 1979. There continues to be diversity of opinion as to whether such reversals are valid; no court has ruled on the question, including the Supreme Court. But a precedent against the validity of rescission was first established during the ratification process of the 14th Amendment when Ohio and New Jersey rescinded their earlier approvals, but yet were counted as ratifying states when the 14th Amendment was ultimately proclaimed part of the Constitution in 1868.
  • The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment was proposed by the 95th Congress on August 22, 1978. Had it been ratified, it would have granted to Washington, DC two Senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives as though the District of Columbia were a state. Ratified by the legislatures of only 16 states—less than half of the required 38—the proposed amendment expired on August 22, 1985.

See also: List of unsuccessful attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution

Proposals for amendments

There are currently only a few proposals for amendments which have entered mainstream political debate. These include the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and the flag-burning amendment. For more information see proposed amendments to the United States constitution.

International influences on the development of the Constitution

In  the  acknowledged the debt American law and constitutionalism had to  by erecting a monument at .
In 1957 the American Bar Association acknowledged the debt American law and constitutionalism had to Magna Carta by erecting a monument at Runnymede.

Some of the ideas embodied in the Constitution were new, but many were drawn from Classical Antiquity and the British governmental tradition of mixed government which was in practice among 12 of the 13 states and were advocated by the writings of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu. The United States Constitution was partly based on ideas from the uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, such as Article 39 from the British Magna Carta of 1215 which states that:

No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.

The English Bill of Rights (1689) also acted as a source of ideas for the United States Constitution. For example, like the English Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution requires jury trials, contains a right to bear arms, and prohibits excessive bail and of "cruel and unusual punishments".

Liberties guaranteed by Magna Carta and the 1689 English Bill of Rights were directly incorporated into state statutes and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and many were then further incorporated into the Constitution and the United States Bill of Rights.

International influences from the Constitution

The Constitution of The United States has also served as a model for the constitutions of numerous other nations, including the second oldest codified constitution, the May Constitution of Poland, which was written in 1791. The course and ideas of the French Revolution were also heavily influenced by the United States Constitution.

See also

Wikisource has the full text of the Constitution.


External links

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