United States Constitution

United States Constitution
Constitution of the United States, page 1.jpg
Page one of the original copy of the Constitution
Created September 17, 1787
Ratified June 21, 1788
Date effective March 4, 1789; 228 years ago (1789-03-04)
Location National Archives,
Washington, D.C.
Author(s) Philadelphia Convention
Signatories 39 of the 55 delegates
Purpose To replace the Articles of Confederation (1777)

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. [1] The Constitution, originally comprising seven articles, delineates the national frame of government. Its first three articles entrench the doctrine of the separation of powers, whereby the federal government is divided into three branches: the legislative, consisting of the bicameral Congress; the executive, consisting of the President; and the judicial, consisting of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Articles Four, Five and Six entrench concepts of federalism, describing the rights and responsibilities of state governments and of the states in relationship to the federal government. Article Seven establishes the procedure subsequently used by the thirteen States to ratify it.

Since the Constitution came into force in 1789, it has been amended twenty-seven times [2] to meet the changing needs of a nation now profoundly different from the eighteenth-century world in which its creators lived. [3] In general, the first ten amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, offer specific protections of individual liberty and justice and place restrictions on the powers of government. [4] [5] The majority of the seventeen later amendments expand individual civil rights protections. Others address issues related to federal authority or modify government processes and procedures. Amendments to the United States Constitution, unlike ones made to many constitutions worldwide, are appended to the document. All four pages [6] of the original U.S. Constitution are written on parchment. [7]

According to the United States Senate: "The Constitution's first three words—We the People—affirm that the government of the United States exists to serve its citizens. For over two centuries the Constitution has remained in force because its framers wisely separated and balanced governmental powers to safeguard the interests of majority rule and minority rights, of liberty and equality, and of the federal and state governments." [3]

The first constitution of its kind, adopted by the people's representatives for an expansive nation, it is interpreted, supplemented, and implemented by a large body of constitutional law, and has influenced the constitutions of other nations.

Historical context

First government

From September 5, 1774 to March 1, 1781, the Continental Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States. Delegates to the First (1774) and then the Second (1775–1781) Continental Congress were chosen largely through the action of committees of correspondence in various colonies rather than through the colonial or later state legislatures. In no formal sense was it a gathering representative of existing colonial governments; it represented the dissatisfied elements of the people, such persons as were sufficiently interested to act, despite the strenuous opposition of the loyalists and the obstruction or disfavor of colonial governors. [8] The process of selecting the delegates for the First and Second Continental Congresses underscores the revolutionary role of the people of the colonies in establishing a central governing body. Endowed by the people collectively, the Continental Congress alone possessed those attributes of external sovereignty which entitled it to be called a state in the international sense, while the separate states, exercising a limited or internal sovereignty, may rightly be considered a creation of the Continental Congress, which preceded them and brought them into being. [9]

Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first constitution of the United States. [10] It was drafted by the Second Continental Congress from mid-1776 through late-1777, and ratification by all 13 states was completed by early 1781. Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government's power was quite limited. The Confederation Congress could make decisions, but lacked enforcement powers. Implementation of most decisions, including modifications to the Articles, required unanimous approval of all thirteen state legislatures. [11]

Although, in a way, the Congressional powers in Article 9 made the "league of states as cohesive and strong as any similar sort of republican confederation in history", [12] the chief problem was, in the words of George Washington, "no money". [13] The Continental Congress could print money but the currency was worthless. (A popular phrase of the times called a useless object or person ... not worth a Continental, referring to the Continental dollar.) Congress could borrow money, but couldn't pay it back. [13] No state paid all their U.S. taxes; some paid nothing. Some few paid an amount equal to interest on the national debt owed to their citizens, but no more. [13] No interest was paid on debt owed foreign governments. By 1786, the United States would default on outstanding debts as their dates came due. [13]

Internationally, the Articles of Confederation did little to enhance the United States' ability to defend its sovereignty. Most of the troops in the 625-man United States Army were deployed facing – but not threatening – British forts on American soil. They had not been paid; some were deserting and others threatening mutiny. [14] Spain closed New Orleans to American commerce; U.S. officials protested, but to no effect. Barbary pirates began seizing American ships of commerce; the Treasury had no funds to pay their ransom. If any military crisis required action, the Congress had no credit or taxing power to finance a response. [13]

Domestically, the Articles of Confederation was failing to bring unity to the diverse sentiments and interests of the various states. Although the Treaty of Paris (1783) was signed between Great Britain and the U.S., and named each of the American states, various individual states proceeded blithely to violate it. New York and South Carolina repeatedly prosecuted Loyalists for wartime activity and redistributed their lands. [13] Individual state legislatures independently laid embargoes, negotiated directly with foreign authorities, raised armies, and made war, all violating the letter and the spirit of the Articles.

In September 1786, during an inter–state convention to discuss and develop a consensus about reversing the protectionist trade barriers that each state had erected, James Madison angrily questioned whether the Articles of Confederation was a binding compact or even a viable government. Connecticut paid nothing and "positively refused" to pay U.S. assessments for two years. [15] A rumor had it that a " seditious party" of New York legislators had opened a conversation with the Viceroy of Canada. To the south, the British were said to be openly funding Creek Indian raids on white settlers in Georgia and adjacent territory. Savannah (then-capital of Georgia) had been fortified, and the state of Georgia was under martial law. [16] Additionally, during Shays' Rebellion (August 1786 – June 1787) in Massachusetts, Congress could provide no money to support an endangered constituent state. General Benjamin Lincoln was obliged to raise funds from Boston merchants to pay for a volunteer army. [17]

Congress was paralyzed. It could do nothing significant without nine states, and some legislation required all thirteen. When a state produced only one member in attendance, its vote was not counted. If a state's delegation were evenly divided, its vote could not be counted towards the nine-count requirement. [18] The Articles Congress had "virtually ceased trying to govern". [19] The vision of a "respectable nation" among nations seemed to be fading in the eyes of revolutionaries such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Rufus King. Their dream of a republic, a nation without hereditary rulers, with power derived from the people in frequent elections, was in doubt. [20]

On February 21, 1787, the Confederation Congress called a convention of state delegates at Philadelphia to propose a plan of government. [21] Unlike earlier attempts, the convention was not meant for new laws or piecemeal alterations, but for the "sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation". The convention was not limited to commerce; rather, it was intended to "render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union." The proposal might take effect when approved by Congress and the states. [22]

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