Lesson 2:  Introduction to the U.S. Constitution

     The U.S. Constitution states basic principles which guide our country's government and  laws. When it was written in 1787,  it was the plan which told the beginning country  how to form its  government.  For example, the Constitution said that the United States would have a president and a vice president.  The Constitution  also said that people would elect other people to represent them.  These elected representatives would form a Congress.  The Constitution also guarantees the rights and liberties of the American people, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. 

     Today, the Constitution remains the most important guide to all parts of government. It is often called the "highest law of the land." This means that no state, no branch of government, no person, no elected official--not even the president or Congress--can make a law or enforce a condition that goes against the Constitution.  The Constitution continues to protect the rights and freedoms of American citizens. 

Principles and Powers

   The first principle is that government is created by and gets its power from the people.
This idea is called popular sovereignty.  The Declaration of Independence had stated this idea clearly when it said: "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."     

     "We the People" are the first words of the Constitution and are written larger than any thing else. The writers wanted to emphasize that the ability to set up and start a new government came from the people of the United States.  

      A second principle is federalism.  The Constitution divides power, giving some power to the central or national government and some power to state governments. The Constitution lists things the national or federal government can do; these are delegated powers.  The Constitution lists things which the national government and the state governments cannot do. Some powers, like collecting taxes, are concurrent, powers that both the national and state governments can exercise.  The chart below gives some examples.

National powers Concurrent powers State powers
declare war collect taxes set up schools 
handle foreign affairs create courts make marriage laws
print money punish criminals create county and city governments

          The Constitution doesn't list all the powers of the states. Article 1 prohibits or forbids the states to do certain things such as make its own money, declare war on another country, or make treaties with another country.  Amendment 10 of the Constitution then states that powers not given to the national government and not forbidden to the states are reserved to the states. 

     Another main idea or principle in the Constitution is separation of powers.  The first three Articles divide

the national government  into three branches:  legislative, executive, and judicial.  The writers of the Constitution did not want one part of government to become too powerful.
     In addition to dividing power into three branches, the writers were careful to add checks and balances  to the Constitution.  Each branch of government has some limits placed on it by another branch. For example, Congress--the legislative branch-- makes all laws.  But Congress can't make laws which go against the Constitution, and the Supreme Court--the judicial branch-- can declare a law unconstitutional.

Writing the Constitution

Independence Hall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 In 1787, delegates met in Independence Hall to rewrite the Articles of Confederation.  The Articles of Confederation, written after the Declaration of Independence, were a first attempt at designing a government for the new country.  But by 1787, it was obvious that the Articles of Confederation were not working and many changes were needed.

     Delegates from 12 of the 13 states came to Philadelphia in May 1787, but many of the 55 delegates who came were not happy.  Most delegates felt strongly loyal to the states they represented and were opposed to writing a constitution which created a strong national government.   However,  two delegates, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were convinced that the new country needed a strong, central government.  

         The 55 delegates were strong-willed, successful people. Most delegates were important in their state governments.  Many had fought in the American Revolution.   Thomas Jefferson did not come, but 8 people who had signed the Declaration of Independence were there. All delegates agreed that George Washington should be president of the convention.  Benjamin Franklin, at age 81,  was the oldest delegate. 

     Delegates disagreed and became angry with one another.  The summer of 1787 was one of the hottest ever in Philadelphia.  The delegates met all through the summer and worked behind locked doors and closed windows to keep their meetings secret.  Throughout the meetings, delegates threw temper tantrums, and insulted one another.  Some even stomped out of the meetings and never returned.

The Great Compromise

    All the delegates wanted to create a representative form of government.  People would elect representatives, and these representatives would make decisions for them.  

     All the delegates wanted to have a Congress  to make laws.  Each state would elect representatives to Congress.  But the delegates could not agree on how many representatives each state should have.  States with a lot of people thought that they should have more members than states with fewer people.  But states with fewer people didn't want the other states to have more power in Congress than they had, so they thought all states should have the same number of members.  

     A compromise, called the Great Compromise, settled the disagreement.  Congress would have two parts--a Senate and a House of Representatives.  In one part, the Senate, each state would have the same number of members.  In the other part, the House of Representatives,  states would have different numbers of members depending on how many people lived in each state.  States with more people would have more representatives.  


James Madison

This portrait was painted in 1816 when Madison was President. 
    More than anyone else, it was James Madison whose words and ideas slowly convinced delegates that a new constitution and a strong central government were needed.  Madison made more than 150 speeches during the Constitutional Convention and wrote much of the Constitution.  He is known as the "Father of the Constitution."

     In 1788, he wrote over a third of the Federalist Papers, which encouraged states to ratify the Constitution.  Madison was responsible for the first ten amendments to the Constitution and is also known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights.”

     In 1789, Madison  was elected to the First United States Congress, representing Virginia in the House of representatives.  He drafted many basic laws and  worked closely with President George Washington to organize the new federal government.   When Thomas Jefferson became  president  in 1801,  he asked Madison to serve as Secretary of State.  As  Secretary of State (1801–1809), he  supervised the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the size of the new nation.  In 1809, Madison became the fourth president of the United States and served two terms (1809-1817).  

Overview of the Constitution

     The Constitution is made up of 3 parts, the preamble, the articles, and the amendments.  When the delegates signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, it contained the preamble and 7 articles.  In 1791, the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, were added. Since 1791, 17 other amendments have been added to the Constitution. 

     The Constitution sets up a federal system of government which means power is shared between the national government and state governments.  Articles I, II, and III separate the power of the national government into 3 branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.   Other articles tell how to change and approve the Constitution and  how states will work with each other and the national government. 

     The Constitution does not go into lots of detail.  It tells the legislative branch (Congress) to make the laws.  It tells the executive branch (the president) to carry out the laws made by Congress.  And it tells the the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and other federal courts) to settle any arguments or disagreements that arise from the Constitution. 

Read more about the parts of the Constitution

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