About the United States Constitution


Abraham Lincoln Constitution Quote, E.B. and E.C. Kellogg, 1864

Lincoln’s Constitution quote by E.B. and E.C. Kellogg, 1864.
“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.”

The process set out in the Constitution for its ratification provided for much popular debate in the states. 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 over the 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 the new Constitution in what came to be called the Federalist Papers. Published anonymously in the newspapers The Independent Journal and The New York Packet 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 Constitution. 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 Constitution, 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 under the 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

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, the 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 Amendments

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 compensation.

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 a jury.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments.

The Ninth Amendment states that the list of rights enumerated in the Constitution is not exhaustive and that the people retain all rights not enumerated.

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.

The United States Constitution is the shortest and oldest written national constitution still in use by any nation in the world today.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2019.

Also See:

American History

The Bill of Rights

Full Text of the Constitution

Who’s Who in American History

Source: The White House

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