About the United States
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect
Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, 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.
Preamble to the Constitution
full text of the Constitution
Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the nation.
Empowered with the sovereign authority of the people by the framers and the
consent of the legislatures of the states, it is the source of all government
powers, and also provides important limitations on the government that protect
the fundamental rights of United States citizens.
Why a Constitution?
The need for the Constitution grew out of problems with the Articles of
Confederation, which established a "firm league of friendship" between the
states, and vested most power in a Congress of the Confederation. This power
was, however, extremely limited -- the central government conducted diplomacy
and made war, set weights and measures, and was the final arbiter of disputes
between the states. Crucially; however, it could not raise any funds itself, and
was entirely dependent on the states for the money necessary to operate. Each
state sent a delegation of between two and seven members to the Congress, and
they voted as a group with each state getting one vote. But, any decision of
consequence required a unanimous vote, which led to a government that was
paralyzed and ineffectual.
A movement to reform the Articles began and in September, 1786, commissioners
from five states met in the Annapolis Convention to discuss adjustments to the
Articles of Confederation. After debate, the Congress of the Confederation
endorsed the plan to revise the Articles of Confederation on February 21, 1787.
Invitations to attend a convention in Philadelphia to discuss changes to the
Articles were then sent to the state legislatures.
1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island sent no representatives)
convened in Philadelphia to begin the work of redesigning the government. The
delegates to the Constitutional Convention quickly began work on drafting a new
Constitution for the United States.
A chief aim of the Constitution, as drafted by the Convention, was to create a
government with enough power to act on a national level, but, without so much
power that fundamental rights would be at risk. One way that this was
accomplished was to separate the power of government into three branches, and
then to include checks and balances on those powers to assure that no one branch
of government gained supremacy. This concern arose largely out of the experience
that the delegates had with the King of England and his powerful Parliament.
Three main branches of government were defined, which included the Congressional
Legislature, the Senate and a judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court and
the powers and duties of each branch specified within the
powers not assigned were reserved for the respective states and the people,
thereby establishing the federal system of government.
the debate, which was conducted in secret to ensure that delegates spoke their
minds, focused on the form that the new legislature would take. Two plans
competed to become the new government: the Virginia Plan, which apportioned
representation based on the population of each state, and the New Jersey plan,
which gave each state an equal vote in Congress. The Virginia Plan was supported
by the larger states, and the New Jersey plan preferred by the smaller. In the
end, they settled on the Great Compromise (sometimes called the Connecticut
Compromise), in which the House of Representatives would represent the people as
apportioned by population; the Senate would represent the states apportioned
equally; and the President would be elected by the Electoral College. The plan
also called for an independent judiciary.
The founders also took pains to establish the relationship between the states.
States are required to give "full faith and credit" to the laws, records,
contracts, and judicial proceedings of the other states, although Congress may
regulate the manner in which the states share records, and define the scope of
this clause. States are barred from discriminating against citizens of other
states in any way, and cannot enact tariffs against one another. States must
also extradite those accused of crimes to other states for trial.
The founders also specified a process by which the
Constitution could be
amended, and since its ratification, the Constitution has been amended 27 times.
In order to prevent arbitrary changes, the process for making amendments is
quite onerous. An amendment may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses
of Congress, or, if two-thirds of the states request one, by a convention called
for that purpose. The amendment must then be ratified by three-fourths of the
state legislatures, or three-fourths of conventions called in each state for
ratification. In modern times, amendments have traditionally specified a
timeframe in which this must be accomplished, usually a period of several years.
Additionally, the Constitution specifies that no amendment can deny a state
equal representation in the Senate without that state's consent.
With the details and language of the
Constitution decided, the Convention got
down to the work of actually setting the Constitution to paper. It is written in
the hand of a delegate from Pennsylvania, Gouverneur Morris, whose job allowed
him some reign over the actual punctuation of a few clauses in the
He is also credited with the famous preamble, quoted at the top of this page. On
September 17, 1787, 39 of the 55 delegates signed the new document, with many of
those who refused to sign objecting to the lack of a bill of rights. At least
one delegate refused to sign because the Constitution codified and protected
slavery and the slave trade.
The process set out in the
Constitution for its ratification provided for much popular debate in the
Constitution would take effect once it had been ratified by nine of the
thirteen state legislatures -- unanimity was not be required. During the debate
Constitution, two factions emerged: the Federalists, who supported adoption,
and the Anti-Federalists, who opposed it.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay set out an eloquent defense of
Constitution in what came to be called the Federalist Papers. Published
anonymously in the newspapers The Independent Journal and The New York
under the name Publius between October 1787 and August 1788, the 85 articles
that comprise the Federalist Papers remain to this day an invaluable resource
for understanding some of the framers' intentions for the
The most famous of the articles are No. 10, which warns of the dangers of
factions and advocates a large republic, and No. 51, which explains the
structure of the
its checks and balances, and how it protects the rights of the people.
The states proceeded to begin ratification, with some debating more intensely
than others. Delaware was the first state to ratify, on December 7, 1787. After
New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify on June 21, 1788, the
Confederation Congress established March 9, 1789, as the date to begin operating
Constitution. By this time, all the states except North Carolina and Rhode
Island had ratified, but, they too followed, with Rhode Island being the last to
ratify on May 29, 1790.
The Bill of Rights
Lincoln's Constitution quote by E.B. and
E.C. Kellogg, 1864
Image available for photo prints & editorial downloads
The people of these
United States are the rightful masters of both congresses and courts,
not to over-throw the Constitution, but to over-throw
the men who
pervert that Constitution.
-- Abraham Lincoln
One of the principal points of contention between the Federalists and
Anti-Federalists was the lack of an enumeration of basic civil rights in the
Constitution. Many Federalists argued that the people
surrendered no rights in adopting the Constitution. In several states, however,
the ratification debate in some hinged on the adoption of a bill of
rights. The solution was known as the Massachusetts Compromise, in which four
states ratified the Constitution bu, at the same time, sent recommendations for
amendments to the Congress.
James Madison introduced 12 amendments to the First Congress in 1789 which were
soon to the states for ratification. Designed to protect the civil rights of the
people, the bill guaranteed the freedom of speech, press, assembly,
exercise of religion, the right to fair legal procedure, to bear arms; and that
powers not delegated to the federal government would be reserved for the states
and the people. The Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791, with the
exception of one proposal which dealt with Congressional salaries, that was not
ratified until 1992.
The First Amendment provides that Congress make no law respecting an
establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. It protects freedom
of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances.
The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms.
The Third Amendment prohibits the government from quartering troops in private
homes, a major grievance during the American Revolution.
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. The
government may not conduct any searches without a warrant, and such warrants
must be issued by a judge and based on probable cause.
The Fifth Amendment provides that citizens not be subject to criminal
prosecution and punishment without due process. Citizens may not be tried on the
same set of facts twice, and are protected from self-incrimination (the right to
remain silent). The amendment also establishes the power of eminent domain,
ensuring that private property is not seized for public use without just
The Sixth Amendment assures the right to a speedy trial by a jury of one's
peers, to be informed of the crimes with which they are charged, and to confront
the witnesses brought by the government. The amendment also provides the accused
the right to compel testimony from witnesses, and to legal representation.
The Seventh Amendment provides that civil cases also be tried by jury.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and
The Ninth Amendment states that the list of rights enumerated in the
Constitution is not exhaustive, and that the people retain all rights not
The Tenth Amendment assigns all powers not delegated to the United States, or
prohibited to the states, to either the states or to the people.
In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd introduced an amendment
to a spending bill that establishes September 17 as Constitution Day and
Citizenship Day. This federal observance recognizes the adoption of the U.S.
Constitution and those who have become U.S. Citizens. Before this law was
enacted, September 17 was known as Citizenship Day. Congress mandated
through the act that all publicly-funded educational institutions provide
education about the Constitution on that day.
full text of the Constitution
The Bill of Rights
of America, updated July, 2015.
The White House
The United States Constitution is the
shortest and oldest written national constitution
still in use by any nation in the world today.
From Legends' Photo Print Shop
American History Photos - Dozens of restored vintage photos and
paintings of events in American
History. Includes the American Revolution, the Civil
War, and other American wars; Slavery,
Politics. These images are available in high
quality individual photographic prints, as well as editorial downloads for
publishers and commercial enterprises.