United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. The Constitution is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.
The Constitution creates the three branches of the national government: a legislature, the bicameral Congress; an executive branch led by the President; and a judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court. The Constitution specifies the powers and duties of each branch. The Constitution reserves all unenumerated powers to the respective states and the people, thereby establishing the federal system of government.
The Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ratified by conventions in each U.S. state in the name of “The People”. The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times; the first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.
The United States Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in use by any nation in the world, although the Statutes of 1600, the principal part of San Marino’s Constitution, is older.
The Constitution holds a central place in United States law and political culture. The handwritten original document penned by Jacob Shallus is on display at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
History of the United States Constitution
The First ConstitutionThe Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were the first constitution of the United States of America. The problem with the United States government under the Articles of Confederation was, in the words of George Washington, “no money”.
Congress could print money, but by 1786, it was useless. It could borrow money, but it could not pay it back. Under the Articles, Congress requisitioned money from the states. But no state paid all of their requisition; Georgia paid nothing. A few states paid the US an amount equal to interest on the national debt owed to their citizens, but no more. Nothing was paid toward the interest on debt owed foreign governments. By 1786, the United States was about to default on its contractual obligations when the principle came due.
Most of the US troops in the 625-man US Army were deployed facing British forts on American soil. They had not been paid; they were deserting and the remainder threatened mutiny. Spain closed New Orleans to American commerce. The US protested but did not threaten. The Barbary States of North Africa began seizing American commercial ships. The US had no funds to pay their extortion demands. States such as New York and South Carolina violated the peace treaty with Britain by prosecuting Loyalists for wartime activity. The US had no more credit if another military crisis required action. In Massachusetts during Shays Rebellion, Congress had no money; General Benjamin Lincoln had to raise funds among Boston merchants to pay for a volunteer army.
Congress was paralyzed. It could do nothing significant without nine states, and some legislative business required all thirteen. By April 1786, there had been only three days out of five months with nine states present. When nine states did show up, if there were only one member of a state on the floor, that state’s vote did not count. If a delegation were evenly divided, the division was duly noted in the Journal, but there was no vote from that state. The vision of a “respectable nation” among nations seemed to be fading in the eyes of such men as Virginia’s George Washington and James Madison, New York’s Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin and George Clymer, and Massachusetts’ Henry Knox and Rufus King. The dream of a republic, a nation without hereditary rulers, with power derived from the people in frequent elections, was in doubt.
Calling and conveningIn September 1786, commissioners from five states met in the Annapolis Convention to discuss adjustments to the Articles of Confederation that would improve commerce. They invited state representatives to convene in Philadelphia to discuss improvements to the federal government. After debate, the Congress of the Confederation endorsed a plan to revise the Articles of Confederation on February 21, 1787. It called on each state legislature to send delegates to a convention “’for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation’ in ways that, when approved by Congress and the states, would ‘render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.’”
Twelve states, Rhode Island being the only exception, accepted this invitation and sent delegates to convene in May 1787. While the resolution calling the Convention specified that its purpose was to propose amendments to the Articles, through discussion and debate it became clear by mid-June that, rather than amend the existing Articles, the Convention decided to propose a rewritten Constitution. The Constitutional Convention voted to keep the debates secret, so that the delegates could speak freely. They also decided to draft a new fundamental government design. The Convention that met in Philadelphia had ten members who would also number in the 33 chosen by their states to represent them in Congress that September.
Current knowledge of the drafting and construction of the United States Constitution comes primarily from the diaries left by James Madison, who kept a complete record of the proceedings at the Constitutional Convention.
Work of the Constitutional Convention
The Virginia Plan was the unofficial agenda for the Convention, and was drafted chiefly by James Madison, considered to be “The Father of the Constitution” for his major contributions. It was weighted toward the interests of the larger states, and proposed among other points:
- A powerful bicameral legislature with a House and a Senate
- An executive chosen by the legislature
- A judiciary, with life-terms of service and vague powers
- The national legislature would be able to veto state laws
The Philadelphia ConventionAn alternative proposal, William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan, includes the following points that countered the previous proposal that favored the larger states, among others:
A unicameral legislature with all states represented in equal numbers in order to insure fairness
An executive branch appointed by the legislature
A judicial branch appointed by the executive.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut brokered The Great Compromise whereby the House would represent the people, a Senate would represent the states, and a president would be elected by electors.
The contentious issue of slavery was too controversial to be resolved during the convention. As a result, the original Constitution contained four provisions tacitly allowing slavery to continue for the next 20 years. Section 9 of Article I allowed the continued “importation” of such persons, Section 2 of Article IV prohibited the provision of assistance to escaping persons and required their return if successful and Section 2 of Article I defined other persons as “three-fifths” of a person for calculations of each state’s official population for representation and federal taxation. Article V prohibited any amendments or legislation changing the provision regarding slave importation until 1808, thereby giving the States then existing 20 years to resolve this issue. The failure to do so contributed to the Civil War.
- Ratification and Inauguration of the Constitution
|1||December 7, 1787||Delaware||30||0|
|2||December 11, 1787||Pennsylvania||46||23|
|3||December 18, 1787||New Jersey||38||0|
|4||January 2, 1788||Georgia||26||0|
|5||January 9, 1788||Connecticut||128||40|
|6||February 6, 1788||Massachusetts||187||168|
|7||April 26, 1788||Maryland||63||11|
|8||May 23, 1788||South Carolina||149||73|
|9||June 21, 1788||New Hampshire||57||47|
|10||June 25, 1788||Virginia||89||79|
|11||July 26, 1788||New York||30||27|
|12||November 21, 1789||North Carolina||194||77|
|13||May 29, 1790||Rhode Island||34||32|
On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was completed, followed by a speech given by Benjamin Franklin, who urged unanimity, although the Convention decided that only nine states were needed to ratify. The Convention submitted the Constitution to the Congress of the Confederation.
Massachusetts’ Rufus King assessed the Convention as a creature of the states, independent of the Articles Congress, submitting its proposal to Congress only to satisfy forms. Though amendments were debated, they were all defeated, and on September 28, 1787, the Articles Congress resolved “unanimously” to transmit the Constitution to state legislatures for submitting to a ratification convention according to its new procedure. Several states enlarged the numbers electing ratification delegates, beyond the Constitutional provision for the most voters for the state legislature for “We, the people”.
Following Massachusetts’ lead, the Federalist minorities in both Virginia and New York were able to obtain ratification in convention by linking ratification to recommended amendments. A minority of the Constitution’s critics continued to oppose the Constitution. Maryland’s Luther Martin argued that the federal convention had exceeded its authority; he still called for amending the Articles. Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation stated that the union created under the Articles was “perpetual” and that any alteration must be “agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State,”
But the unanimous requirement under the Articles made all attempts at reform impossible. Martin’s allies such as New York’s John Lansing, Jr., deserted obstruction of the process to take exception to the Constitution “as it was”, seeking amendments. Several conventions saw supporters for “amendments before” shift to a position of “amendments after” for the sake of staying in the Union. New York’s Anti’s “circular letter” to each state legislature for a second constitutional convention failed. Ultimately, only North Carolina and Rhode Island would wait for amendments to be proposed by Congress before ratifying.
Article VII of the proposed constitution stipulated that only nine of the thirteen states would have to ratify for the new government to go into effect (for the participating states). After a year had passed in state-by-state ratification battles, on September 13, 1788, the Articles Congress certified that the new Constitution had been ratified. The new government would be inaugurated with eleven of the thirteen. It called the ratifying states to choose presidential electors under the new regime on the first Wednesday of January, 1789. The Articles Congress directed the new government to begin in New York City on the first Wednesday in March and on March 4, 1789, the government duly began operations.
George Washington, who had earlier been reluctant to go the Convention for fear the states “with their darling sovereignties” could not be overcome,was elected president unanimously, including the vote of Virginia’s presidential elector Patrick Henry.  The new government would be a triumph for the Federalists. The Senate of eleven states would be 20 Federalists to two Virginia (Henry) anti-federalists. The House would seat 48 Federalists to 11 anti’s from only four states: Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and South Carolina.
Anti’s fears of personal oppression by the national legislature would be allayed by what was to become known as the Bill of Rights.  Fears of a remote federal judiciary would be reconciled with 13 federal courts (11 states, Maine and Kentucky), and three Federal riding circuits out of the Supreme Court: Eastern, Middle and South. Fears of an oppressive federal executive was answered by Washington’s appointment of once-Anti-Federalists Edmund Jennings Randolph as Attorney General and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. What Constitutional historian Pauline Maier calls a national “dialogue between power and liberty” had begun anew.
Historical influencesSeveral ideas in the Constitution were new, and a large number were drawn from the literature of republicanism in the United States, the experiences of the 13 states, and the British experience with mixed government. The most important influence from the European continent was from Montesquieu, who emphasized the need to have balanced forces pushing against each other to prevent tyranny. (This in itself reflects the influence of Polybius’s 2nd century BC treatise on the checks and balances of the constitution of the Roman Republic.) British political philosopher John Locke was a major influence, and the due process clause of the Constitution was partly based on common law stretching back to Magna Carta (1215).
Native American InfluenceThe Iroquois nations’ political confederacy and democratic government have been credited as influences on the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. Historians debate how much the colonists borrowed from existing Native American governmental models. Several founding fathers had contact with Native American leaders and had learned about their styles of government. Prominent figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were more involved with leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy, based in New York. John Rutledge of South Carolina in particular is said to have read lengthy tracts of Iroquoian law to the other framers, beginning with the words, “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order…” In October 1988, the U.S. Congress passed Concurrent Resolution 331 to recognize the influence of the Iroquois Constitution upon the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Influences on the Bill of RightsThe United States Bill of Rights consists of the ten amendments added to the Constitution in 1791, as supporters of the Constitution had promised critics during the debates of 1788. The English Bill of Rights (1689) was an inspiration for the American Bill of Rights. Both require jury trials, contain a right to keep and bear arms, prohibit excessive bail and forbid “cruel and unusual punishments.” Many liberties protected by state constitutions and the Virginia Declaration of Rights were incorporated into the Bill of Rights.