The Constitution provides the basic framework for American government. It also guarantees the rights and freedoms that we, as Americans, sometimes take for granted. The Constitution is a three-part document, consisting of the Preamble, the articles, and the amendments. Adopted as the “law of the land” in 1788, it is the oldest written constitution still in use anywhere in the world. The Constitution serves as both a practical outline for government and a symbol of our national way of life. Learning about the Constitution not only helps us understand the rights and freedoms we enjoy as Americans, but also gives us tools to defend those freedoms.
The Preamble is a single, long sentence that defines the broad purposes of the republican government created by the Constitution. It begins with the phrase “We the people,” signifying that power and authority in our system of government come from the people, not the states. The Preamble goes on to set various goals for the nation under the Constitution. These goals are expressed in a series of key phrases. “Form a more perfect union.” The framers of the Constitution wanted to ensure cooperation among the states, and between the states and the national government. “Establish justice.” The framers hoped to create a system of government based on fair laws that apply equally to all people. “Ensure domestic tranquility.” The framers wanted government to ensure peace and order. “Provide for the common defense.” The framers wanted the government to protect the nation against foreign enemies. “Promote the general welfare.” The framers hoped the government would ensure the well-being of the citizens. “Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” The framers hoped to guarantee freedom for Americans, then and in the future.
The main body of the Constitution consists of seven articles. These seven articles are further divided into sections and clauses. The first three articles establish the three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial – and define their powers. These articles lay out the basic structure of the national government. The four remaining articles of the Constitution cover various subjects, including relations among the states, the supremacy of national law, and the amendment process.
The first article sets up Congress as the lawmaking body in government. It describes the two chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as the election, terms, and qualifications of their members. It also sets guidelines for rules and procedures in each chamber. This is the longest article in the Constitution, reflecting the founders’ belief in the importance of the legislature in a representative democracy.
Article II establishes the executive branch. The executive branch is led by the president and vice president. The Constitution describes the election, terms of office, and qualifications of these executive officers. It also defines the powers of the president, which include the power to command the armed forces, to make treaties, and to appoint other executive officials.
Article III creates the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, while leaving Congress to create the lower courts. It defines the jurisdiction of the federal courts, specifying the types of cases that can be tried. It also guarantees the right to trial by jury in criminal cases and defines the crime of treason.
Article IV concerns relations among the states. It has four sections, which make the following key points: “Full faith and credit.” Each state must honor the laws and court decisions of other states. “Treatment of citizens.” No state may discriminate against the residents of another state. It must treat them as it treats its own residents. States must return suspected criminals to the states in which they are wanted. “New states and territories.” Only Congress can authorize the creation of new states. It also has power over territories and other jurisdictions of the United States. “Protection of states.” The national government guarantees each state a republican form of government. It also promises to protect states from outside attack and, if requested, to help states put down internal rebellions.
Article V describes the amendment process. The framers understood that it might be necessary to make changes to the Constitution from time to time. Article V spells out the ways such amendments can be proposed and ratified.
Article VI covers several topics. It states that the national government agrees to repay all of the debts that were incurred under the Articles of Confederation. This was critical to ensure support for the new government. It also states that the Constitution is the “supreme Law of the Land.” This section, known as the Supremacy Clause, means that federal law supersedes all state and local laws. When the laws conflict, federal law reigns supreme. In addition, it stipulates that all federal and state officials must take an oath swearing their allegiance to the Constitution. Also, no religious standard can be imposed on any official as a qualification for holding office.
Article VII stipulates that the Constitution would not take effect until ratified by at least nine states. Although the Constitution was signed by the framers on September 17, 1787, ratification did not occur until the following year.
The framers never meant for the Constitution to provide a complete and detailed blueprint for government. In general, the framers made broad statements and left it to political leaders to work out many of the specific details of governing. They also built in an amendment process, in Article V, that would allow for formal changes to the Constitution. They hoped that this flexibility would allow the Constitution and the government to endure.
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