The Constitution of the USA

The Constitution of the USA

Any study of modern American history requires an understanding of the American Constitution.

Issues of political and civil rights, the power of federal (central) government and the states, the power of Presidents and members of Congress, the judicial structure of the USA and its relationship with the rest of the world – have all been framed within and around the US Constitution of 1787.

The rules and principles of an organisation  are referred to as its CONSTITUTION.

National constitutions set out the basic political principles and political system of a country.

National constitutions establish the powersproceduresstructures and duties of government. Most national constitutions set out the rights of the individual.

Most constitutions are contained in one written document (sometimes referred to as a ‘codified’ document). For example:

o   US Constitution – 1787

o   French Constitution – 1958 (latest version)

o   German Constitution – 1949 (revised in 1990)

o   Eire Constitution – 1937

o   Tunisian Constitution – 1959

o   Mexico – 1917

o   Nigeria – 1999

o   UK Constitution  . . . . ?

A good constitution –

Outlines the tasks of different parts of government.

Outlines the relationships between different institutions of the State – governmentlegislaturejudiciary etc.

Establishes limitations on the powers of rulers and guarantees the rights of the ruled.

Lists the freedoms of individual citizens. For example:

o   French Bill of Rights (1789, latest version, 1971)

o   US Bill of Rights (added to the Constitution, 1789)

o   UK – does have a Bill of Rights (1688) but this does NOT set out individual rights, it establishes the relationship between Crown and Parliament.

Why have a constitution?

They give legitimacy to those in power.

They can protect individual freedom and limit the powers of politicians.

They may provide stability and a clear sense of order / rules.

They can frame the key goals and values of a political system: For example:

o   USA – federal / limited government

o   Eire – republicanism

o   France – human rights / secularism

o   Iran – ‘sovereignty in God’

A constitution can also highlight a fresh start after war and upheaval

o   Iraq – 2005

o   Germany – 1949

o   Argentina – latest version, 1994

The US Constitution

In US government – everything begins and ends with the Constitution.

It was written in Philadelphia, 1787, by the ‘Founding Fathers’.

It is a product of revolution and a war of independence against British colonial rule.

It consists of seven articles over 7,000 words – it is the oldest written constitution.

It was influenced by the ideas of the European Enlightenment and the political theories of PaineLocke and Montesquieu.

It represents the starting point of the world’s first modern democracy.

The Constitution begins by placing sovereignty (ultimate political authority) with the people 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure 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 . . .

The Constitution was a deliberately ‘thin’ document, providing few details about how the U.S. government would run itself.

It explained the rough organisation of the three branches, how they would interact with the states, and how the document could be amended.

Filling in the details was left to future leaders. This flexibility, this reluctance to restrict future interpretations of the US Constitution is one of the marksof the genius of the ‘Founding Fathers’.

Article I

The longest article in the Constitution places legislative power in the Senate and the House of Representatives. It describes the organisation of Congress and lists its specific powers.

Article II

This article deals with the executive branch and describes the election of the President (and Vice President), the qualifications for holding the office, and the procedures if a president can no longer serve. The powers of the president include serving as commander in chief of the army and navy, making treaties, and, with the “advice and consent of the Senate,” appointing ambassadors, officials, and Supreme Court justices. The president is required to periodically report to Congress on the state of the union, can propose legislation, and can call Congress into special session.

Article III

This article established the Supreme Court and authorises Congress to establish lower federal courts. The types of cases the courts have jurisdiction over are given, and a provision is made for the right to trial by jury.

Article IV

The full faith and credit clause requires that the legislative and judicial actions of one state be honoured by the other states. Additionally, a citizen of any state has the same privileges as citizens of all the other states. Article IV also provides for adding new states to the union, guarantees each state a republican form of government, and ensures protection against invasion or domestic violence.

Article V

The process for amending the Constitution is described. The states are responsible for ratifying amendments.

Article VI

The Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties entered into by the United States are the supreme law of the land. This is known as the supremacy clause.

Article VII

Approval by conventions of nine of the states was required to ratify the Constitution.

The Constitution has been amended (changed) 27 times.

During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly warned that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government.

Fresh in their minds was the memory of the British trampling of civil rights before and during the Revolution.

They demanded a “bill of rights” that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments making up a bill of rights would be offered.

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States proposed to the state legislatures 12 amendments to the Constitution that addressed concerns about the rights of individuals under the original document.

The first two proposed amendments, which concerned the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified.

Articles 3 to 12, however, ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, constitute the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

The US Bill of Rights


·         Freedom of speech

·         Freedom of the press

·         Freedom of religion

·         Freedom of assembly

·         Right to petition the government


·         Right to bear arms


·         Protection against housing soldiers in civilian homes


·         Protection against unreasonable search and seizure

·         Protection against the issuing of warrants without probable cause


•          Protection against

§  trial without indictment

§  double jeopardy

§  self-incrimination

§  property seizure


•          Right to a speedy trial

•          Right to be informed of charges

•          Right to be confronted by witnesses

•          Right to call witnesses

•          Right to a legal counsel


•          Right to trial by jury


•          Protection against

§  excessive bail

§  excessive fines

§  cruel and unusual punishment

•                    Rights granted in the Constitution shall not infringe on other rights.


•                    Powers not granted to the Federal Government in the Constitution belong to the states or the people.

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