United States Constitution
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|United States Constitution|
Page one of the original copy of the Constitution
|Created||September 17, 1787|
|Ratified||June 21, 1788|
|Location||National Archives, Washington, D.C.|
|Authors||Delegates of the Philadelphia Convention|
|Signatories||39 of the 55 Philadelphia Convention delegates|
|Purpose||National constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation|
|United States of America|
This article is part of the series:
|Original text of the Constitution|
|Amendments to the Constitution|
|Bill of Rights
I · II · III · IV · V
VI · VII · VIII · IX · X
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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 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.
The First Constitution
The 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 Pirates 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 towards a nine-count. States, in violation of the Articles, laid embargos, negotiated unilaterally abroad, provided for armies and made war.  Once influential, the Articles Congress had “virtually ceased trying to govern.”
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 convening
In 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 would propose a Constitution with a fundamentally new design. The Constitutional Convention voted to keep the debates secret, so that the delegates could speak freely. Of those participating, ten members would also number in the 33 chosen by their state legislatures for the Articles 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
- 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.
The contentious issue of slavery was too controversial to be resolved during the Convention. As in many of its issues, there was a compromise. The Articles of Confederation did not allow for the abolition of slavery, but the Convention would provide for its regulation and eventual extinction. On the other hand, the cost of keeping Georgia and South Carolina agreeable to the Constitution eventually required that the original Constitution contain 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.
Just as in the Convention debates, where George Mason refused to sign the Constitution, in the ratification conventions of Massachusetts and Virginia, the anti-slavery delegates began as anti-ratification votes. But those opposed to slavery were persuaded that the evils of a broken Union would bring worse consequences than allowing the fate of slavery to be determined gradually over time.  Virginia’s Federalist George Nicholas dismissed fears on both sides. Objections to the Constitution were inconsistent, “At the same moment it is opposed for being promotive and destructive of slavery!”  (See fugitive slave and abolitionism) But the contradiction was never resolved peaceably, and the failure to do so contributed to the Civil War.
Ratification and Inauguration of the new government
|Ratification 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 the Consitutional procedure.  Several states enlarged the numbers qualified just for electing ratification delegates. In this they went beyond the Constitution's provision for the most voters for the state legislature to make a new social contract among, more nearly than ever before, “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., dropped moves to obstruct the Convention's process. They began 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 Anti’s “circular letter” was sent to each state legislature proposing a second constitutional convention for "amendments before". It failed in the state legislatures. Ultimately, only North Carolina and Rhode Island would wait for amendments from 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. 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 had earlier been reluctant to go the Convention for fear the states “with their darling sovereignties” could not be overcome. But he was elected the Constitution's President unanimously, including the vote of Virginia’s presidential elector, the Anti-federalist Patrick Henry.  The new Congress 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 Antis from only four states: Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and South Carolina.
Antis' fears of personal oppression by Congress would be allayed by Amendments passed under the floor leadership of James Madison in the first session of the first Congress. These first ten Amendments ratified by the states were to become known as the Bill of Rights.  Objections to a potentially 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. Suspicion of a powerful federal executive was answered by Washington’s cabinet appointments of once-Anti-Federalists Edmund Jennings Randolph as Attorney General and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State.
Several 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 Influence
The 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 Rights
The 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.
Articles of the Constitution
The Constitution consists of a preamble, seven original articles, twenty-seven amendments, and a paragraph certifying its enactment by the constitutional convention.
Preamble: Statement of purpose
|“||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.||”|
—United States Constitution, Preamble
Article One: Legislative Power
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Article One describes the Congress, the legislative branch of the federal government. The United States Congress is a bicameral body consisting of two co-equal houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The article establishes the manner of election and the qualifications of members of each body. Representatives must be at least 25 years old, be a citizen of the United States for seven years, and live in the state they represent. Senators must be at least 30 years old, be a citizen for nine years, and live in the state they represent.
Article I, Section 1, reads, "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives." This provision gives Congress more than simply the responsibility to establish the rules governing its proceedings and for the punishment of its members; it places the power of the government primarily in Congress.
Article I Section 8 enumerates the legislative powers. The powers listed and all other powers are made the exclusive responsibility of the legislative branch:
The Congress shall have power... To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.
The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause in Article One to allow Congress to enact legislation that is neither expressly listed in the enumerated power nor expressly denied in the limitations on Congress. In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the United States Supreme Court fell back on the strict construction of the necessary and proper clause to read that Congress had "[t]he foregoing powers and all other powers..."
Article Two: Executive power
Section 1 creates the presidency. The section states that the executive power is vested in a President. The presidential term is four years and the Vice President serves the identical term. This section originally set the method of electing the President and Vice President, but this method has been superseded by the Twelfth Amendment.
- Qualifications. The President must be a natural born citizen of the United States, at least 35 years old and a resident of the United States for at least 14 years. An obsolete part of this clause provides that instead of being a natural born citizen, a person may be a citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. The reason for this clause was to extend eligibility to Citizens of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, regardless of their place of birth, who were born under the allegiance of a foreign sovereign before the founding of the United States. Without this clause, no one would have been eligible to be president until thirty-five years after the founding of the United States.
- Succession. Section 1 specifies that the Vice President succeeds to the presidency if the President is removed, unable to discharge the powers and duties of office, dies while in office, or resigns. The original text ("the same shall devolve") left it unclear whether this succession was intended to be on an acting basis (merely taking on the powers of the office) or permanent (assuming the Presidency itself). After the death of William Henry Harrison, John Tyler set the precedent that the succession was permanent; this practice was followed when later presidents died in office. Today the 25th Amendment states that the Vice President becomes President upon the death or disability of the President.
- Pay. The President receives "Compensation" for being the president, and this compensation may not be increased or decreased during the president's term in office. The president may not receive other compensation from either the United States or any of the individual states.
- Oath of office. The final clause creates the presidential oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
Section 2 grants substantive powers to the president:
- The president is the Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces, and of the state militias when these are called into federal service.
- The president may require opinions of the principal officers of the federal government.
- The president may grant reprieves and pardons, except in cases of impeachment (i.e., the president cannot pardon himself or herself to escape impeachment by Congress).
Section 2 grants and limits the president's appointment powers:
- The president may make treaties, with the advice and consent of the Senate, provided two-thirds of the Senators who are present agree.
- With the advice and consent of the Senate, the President may appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not otherwise described in the Constitution.
- Congress may give the power to appoint lower officers to the President alone, to the courts, or to the heads of departments.
- The president may make any of these appointments during a congressional recess. Such a "recess appointment" expires at the end of the next session of Congress.
Section 3 opens by describing the president's relations with Congress:
- The president reports on the state of the union.
- The president may convene either house, or both houses, of Congress.
- When the two houses of Congress cannot agree on the time of adjournment, the president may adjourn them to some future date.
Section 3 adds:
- The president receives ambassadors.
- The president sees that the laws are faithfully executed.
- The president commissions all the offices of the federal government.
Section 4 provides for removal of the president and other federal officers. The president is removed on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Article Three: Judicial power
Article Three describes the court system (the judicial branch), including the Supreme Court. The article requires that there be one court called the Supreme Court; Congress, at its discretion, can create lower courts, whose judgments and orders are reviewable by the Supreme Court. Article Three also creates the right to trial by jury in all criminal cases, defines the crime of treason, and charges Congress with providing for a punishment for it. This Article also sets the kinds of cases that may be heard by the federal judiciary, which cases the Supreme Court may hear first (called original jurisdiction), and that all other cases heard by the Supreme Court are by appeal under such regulations as the Congress shall make.
Article Four: States' powers and limits
Article Four outlines the relation between the states and the relation between the federal government. In addition, it provides for such matters as admitting new states as well as border changes between the states. For instance, it requires states to give "full faith and credit" to the public acts, records, and court proceedings of the other states. Congress is permitted to regulate the manner in which proof of such acts, records, or proceedings may be admitted. The "privileges and immunities" clause prohibits state governments from discriminating against citizens of other states in favor of resident citizens (e.g., having tougher penalties for residents of Ohio convicted of crimes within Michigan). It also establishes extradition between the states, as well as laying down a legal basis for freedom of movement and travel amongst the states. Today, this provision is sometimes taken for granted, especially by citizens who live near state borders; but in the days of the Articles of Confederation, crossing state lines was often a much more arduous and costly process. Article Four also provides for the creation and admission of new states. The Territorial Clause gives Congress the power to make rules for disposing of federal property and governing non-state territories of the United States. Finally, the fourth section of Article Four requires the United States to guarantee to each state a republican form of government, and to protect the states from invasion and violence.
Article Five: Amendments
An amendment may be ratified in three ways:
- The new amendment may be approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress, then sent to the states for approval.
- Two-thirds of the state legislatures may apply to Congress for a constitutional convention to consider amendments, which are then sent to the states for approval.
- Congress may require ratification by special convention. The convention method has been used only once, to approve the 21st Amendment (repealing prohibition, 1933).
Regardless of the method of proposing an amendment, final ratification requires approval by three-fourths of the states.
Today Article Five places only one limit on the amending power: no amendment may deprive a state of equal representation in the Senate without that state's consent. The original Article V included other limits on the amending power regarding slavery and taxation; however, these limits expired in 1808.
Article Six: Federal power
Article Six establishes the Constitution, and the laws and treaties of the United States made according to it, to be the supreme law of the land, and that "the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the laws or constitutions of any state notwithstanding." It also validates national debt created under the Articles of Confederation and requires that all federal and state legislators, officers, and judges take oaths or affirmations to support the Constitution. This means that the states' constitutions and laws should not conflict with the laws of the federal constitution and that in case of a conflict, state judges are legally bound to honor the federal laws and constitution over those of any state.
Article Six also states "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Article Seven: Ratification
Article Seven sets forth the requirements for ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution would not take effect until at least nine states had ratified the Constitution in state conventions specially convened for that purpose, and it would only apply to those states that ratified it. (See above Drafting and ratification requirements.)
The way the Constitution is understood is influenced by court decisions, especially those of the Supreme Court. These decisions are referred to as precedents. In the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of judicial review. Judicial review is the power of the Court to examine federal legislation, executive agency rules and state laws, to decide their constitutionality, and to strike them down if found unconstitutional. Judicial review includes the power of the Court to explain the meaning of the Constitution as it applies to particular cases. Over the years, Court decisions on issues ranging from governmental regulation of radio and television to the rights of the accused in criminal cases have changed the way many constitutional clauses are interpreted, without amendment to the actual text of the Constitution.
Legislation passed to implement the Constitution, or to adapt those implementations to changing conditions, broadens and, in subtle ways, changes the meanings given to the words of the Constitution. Up to a point, the rules and regulations of the many federal executive agencies have a similar effect. If an action of Congress or the agencies is challenged, however, it is the court system that ultimately decides whether these actions are permissible under the Constitution.
The framers of the Constitution were aware that changes would be necessary if the Constitution was to endure as the nation grew. However, they were also conscious that such change should not be easy, lest it permit ill-conceived and hastily passed amendments. On the other hand, they also wanted to ensure that a rigid requirement of unanimity would not block action desired by the vast majority of the population. Their solution was a two-step process for proposing and ratifying new amendments.
Amending the Constitution is a two-part process: amendments must be proposed then ratified. Amendments can be proposed one of two ways. To date, all amendments, whether ratified or not, have been proposed by a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress. Over 10,000 constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress since 1789; during the last several decades, between 100 and 200 have been offered in a typical congressional year. Most of these ideas never leave Congressional committee, and far fewer get proposed by the Congress for ratification.
Alternatively, if two-thirds of the state legislatures demand one, Congress must call for a constitutional convention, which would have the power to propose amendments. As no such convention has been called, it is unclear how one would work in practice.
Regardless of how the amendment is proposed, it must also be ratified by three-fourths of states. Congress determines whether the state legislatures or special state conventions ratify the amendment. The 21st Amendment is the only one that employed state conventions for ratification.
There are currently only a few proposals for amendments which have entered mainstream political debate. These include the Federal Marriage Amendment, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and the Flag Desecration Amendment. All three proposals are supported primarily by conservatives, but failed during periods of Republican control of Congress to achieve the supermajorities necessary for submission to the states. As such, none of these are likely to be proposed under the current Congress, which includes a Senate controlled by the more liberal Democratic Party.
Unlike amendments to most constitutions, amendments to the United States Constitution are appended to the body of the text without altering or removing what already exists. (However, in cases where newer text clearly contradicts older text, the newer text is given precedence. For instance, the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment.) Technically, nothing prevents a future amendment from actually changing the older text, rather than simply appending text to the end.
The Constitution has twenty-seven amendments. The first ten, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified simultaneously by 1791. The following seventeen were ratified separately over the next two centuries.
The Bill of Rights (Amendments 1 to 10)
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It is commonly understood that originally the Bill of Rights was not intended to apply to the states; however, there is no such limit in the text itself, except where an amendment refers specifically to the federal government. One example is the First Amendment, which says only that "Congress shall make no law...", and under which some states in the early years of the nation officially established a religion. A rule of inapplicability to the states remained until 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, which stated, in part, that:
|“||No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.||”|
The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to extend most, but not all, parts of the Bill of Rights to the states, a process known as incorporation of the Bill of Rights. The balance of state and federal power under the incorporation doctrine is still an open question and continues to be fought separately for each right in the federal courts.
The amendments that became the Bill of Rights were the last ten of the twelve amendments proposed in 1789. The second of the twelve proposed amendments, regarding the compensation of members of Congress, remained unratified until 1992, when the legislatures of enough states finally approved it; as a result, after pending for two centuries, it became the Twenty-seventh Amendment.
The first of the twelve, which is still technically pending before the state legislatures for ratification, pertains to the apportionment of the United States House of Representatives after each decennial census. The most recent state whose lawmakers are known to have ratified this proposal is Kentucky in 1792, during that commonwealth's first month of statehood.
- First Amendment: addresses the rights of freedom of religion (prohibiting Congress from establishing a religion and protecting the right to free exercise of religion), freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of petition.
- Second Amendment: guarantees the right of individuals to possess weapons. The most recent Supreme Court decision interpreting the Second Amendment is McDonald v. Chicago.
- Third Amendment: prohibits the government from using private homes as quarters for soldiers during peacetime without the consent of the owners. The only existing case law directly regarding this amendment is a lower court decision in the case of Engblom v. Carey. However, it is also cited in the landmark case, Griswold v. Connecticut, in support of the Supreme Court's holding that the constitution protects the right to personal privacy.
- Fourth Amendment: guards against searches, arrests, and seizures of property without a specific warrant or a "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed. Some rights to privacy have been inferred from this amendment and others by the Supreme Court.
- Fifth Amendment: forbids trial for a major crime except after indictment by a grand jury; prohibits double jeopardy (repeated trials), except in certain very limited circumstances; forbids punishment without due process of law; and provides that an accused person may not be compelled to testify against himself (this is also known as "Taking the Fifth" or "Pleading the Fifth"). This is regarded as the "rights of the accused" amendment, otherwise known as the Miranda rights after the Supreme Court case. It also prohibits government from taking private property for public use without "just compensation", the basis of eminent domain in the United States.
- Sixth Amendment: guarantees a speedy public trial for criminal offenses. It requires trial by a jury, guarantees the right to legal counsel for the accused, and guarantees that the accused may require witnesses to attend the trial and testify in the presence of the accused. It also guarantees the accused a right to know the charges against him. The Sixth Amendment has several court cases associated with it, including Powell v. Alabama, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Crawford v. Washington. In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that the fifth amendment prohibition on forced self-incrimination and the sixth amendment clause on right to counsel were to be made known to all persons placed under arrest, and these clauses have become known as the Miranda rights.
- Seventh Amendment: assures trial by jury in civil cases.
- Eighth Amendment: forbids excessive bail or fines, and cruel and unusual punishment.
- Ninth Amendment: declares that the listing of individual rights in the Constitution and Bill of Rights is not meant to be comprehensive; and that the other rights not specifically mentioned are retained by the people.
- Tenth Amendment: reserves to the states respectively, or to the people, any powers the Constitution did not delegate to the United States, nor prohibit the states from exercising.
Subsequent amendments (11 to 27)
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Amendments to the Constitution after the Bill of Rights cover many subjects. The majority of the seventeen later amendments stem from continued efforts to expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787. Although the United States Constitution has been amended 27 times, only 26 of the amendments are currently in effect because the twenty-first amendment supersedes the eighteenth.
- Eleventh Amendment (1795): Clarifies judicial power over foreign nationals, and limits ability of citizens to sue states in federal courts and under federal law. (Full text)
- Twelfth Amendment (1804): Changes the method of presidential elections so that members of the Electoral College cast separate ballots for president and vice president. (Full text)
- Thirteenth Amendment (1865): Abolishes slavery and authorizes Congress to enforce abolition. (Full text)
- Fourteenth Amendment (1868): Defines a set of guarantees for United States citizenship; prohibits states from abridging citizens' privileges or immunities and rights to due process and the equal protection of the law; repeals the Three-fifths compromise; prohibits repudiation of the federal debt caused by the Civil War. (Full text)
- Fifteenth Amendment (1870): Prohibits the federal government and the states from using a citizen's race, color, or previous status as a slave as a qualification for voting. (Full text)
- Sixteenth Amendment (1913): Authorizes unapportioned federal taxes on income. (Full text)
- Seventeenth Amendment (1913): Converts state election of senators to popular election. (Full text)
- Eighteenth Amendment (1919): Prohibited the manufacturing, importing, and exporting of alcoholic beverages (see Prohibition in the United States). Repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment. (Full text)
- Nineteenth Amendment (1920): Prohibits the federal government and the states from forbidding any citizen to vote due to their sex. (Full text)
- Twentieth Amendment (1933): Changes details of congressional and presidential terms and of presidential succession. (Full text)
- Twenty-first Amendment (1933): Repeals Eighteenth Amendment. Permits states to prohibit the importation of alcoholic beverages. (Full text)
- Twenty-second Amendment (1951): Limits president to two terms. (Full text)
- Twenty-third Amendment (1961): Grants presidential electors to the District of Columbia. (Full text)
- Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964): Prohibits the federal government and the states from requiring the payment of a tax as a qualification for voting for federal officials. (Full text)
- Twenty-fifth Amendment (1967): Changes details of presidential succession, provides for temporary removal of president, and provides for replacement of the vice president. (Full text)
- Twenty-sixth Amendment (1971): Prohibits the federal government and the states from forbidding any citizen of age 18 or greater to vote on account of their age. (Full text)
- Twenty-seventh Amendment (1992): Limits congressional pay raises. (Full text)
Of the thirty-three amendments that have been proposed by Congress, six have failed ratification by the required three-quarters of the state legislatures, and four of those six are still pending before state lawmakers (see Coleman v. Miller). Starting with the proposal of the 18th Amendment in 1917, each proposed amendment has included a deadline for passage in the text of the amendment, except the 19th Amendment (women's voting), the 23rd Amendment (DC electoral votes), the 24th Amendment (poll taxes), the 25th Amendment (Presidential succession), the 26th Amendment (voting age), the Child Labor Amendment (proposed in 1924 and still unratified), and the Equal Rights Amendment (proposed in 1972 and still unratified). The following are the unratified proposals:
- The Congressional Apportionment Amendment, proposed by the 1st Congress on September 25, 1789, defined a formula for how many members there would be in the United States House of Representatives after each decennial census. Ratified by eleven states, the last being Kentucky in June 1792 during Kentucky's initial month of statehood, this amendment contains no expiration date for ratification. In principle it may yet be ratified, though as written, it became irrelevant when the population of the United States reached ten million.
- The "Titles of Nobility Amendment" (TONA), proposed by the 11th Congress on May 1, 1810, would have ended the citizenship of any American accepting "any Title of Nobility or Honour" from any foreign power. Some maintain that the amendment was ratified by the legislatures of enough states, and that a conspiracy has suppressed it, but this has been thoroughly debunked. Known to have been ratified by lawmakers in twelve states, the last in 1812, this amendment contains no expiration date for ratification and could still be ratified.
- The Corwin Amendment, proposed by the 36th Congress on March 2, 1861, would have forbidden any attempt to subsequently amend the Constitution to empower the federal government to "abolish or interfere" with the "domestic institutions" of the states (a delicate way of referring to slavery). It was ratified by only Ohio and Maryland lawmakers before the outbreak of the Civil War. Illinois lawmakers—sitting as a state constitutional convention at the time—likewise approved it, but that action is of questionable validity. The proposed amendment contains no expiration date for ratification and may yet be ratified. However, adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War likely means that the amendment would be ineffective if adopted.
- A child labor amendment proposed by the 68th Congress on June 2, 1924. It provides, "The Congress shall have power to limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age." This amendment is highly unlikely to be ratified, since subsequent federal child labor laws have uniformly been upheld as a valid exercise of Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause.
There are two amendments that were approved by Congress but were not ratified by enough states prior to the ratification deadline set by Congress:
- The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which reads in pertinent part "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Proposed by the 92nd Congress on March 22, 1972, it was ratified by the legislatures of 35 states, and expired on either March 22, 1979 or on June 30, 1982, following a controversial three-year extension of the ratification deadline passed by the 95th Congress in 1978. Of the 35 states ratifying it, four later rescinded their ratifications before the extended ratification period which began on March 23, 1979 and a fifth, while not going so far as to rescind its earlier ratification, adopted a resolution stipulating that its approval would not extend beyond March 22, 1979. There continues to be disagreement over whether such reversals are valid; no court has ruled on the question, including the Supreme Court. A precedent against the validity of rescission was first established during the ratification process of the 14th Amendment when Ohio and New Jersey rescinded their earlier approvals, but yet were counted as ratifying states when the 14th Amendment was ultimately proclaimed part of the Constitution in 1868.
- The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment was proposed by the 95th Congress on August 22, 1978. Had this amendment been ratified, it would have granted to Washington, D.C. two Senators and at least one member of the House of Representatives as though the District of Columbia were a state. Ratified by the legislatures of only 16 states (out of the required 38), the proposed amendment expired on August 22, 1985.
Criticism of the Constitution
Several academics have criticized the Constitution for specific shortcomings. University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato wants an amendment to organize primaries to prevent a "frontloaded calendar" long before the election to prevent a "race by states to the front of the primary pack" which subverts the national interest, in his view. Sabato details more objections in his book A More Perfect Constitution. Richard Labunski agrees with Sabato about the "incoherent organization of primaries and caucuses," and faults the Constitution for enabling presidents to continue unpopular wars, for requiring presidents to be "natural born citizens", for lifetime tenure for Supreme Court judges which "produces senior judges representing the views of past generations better than views of the current day." He writes "If the 26 least populated states voted as a bloc, they would control the U.S. Senate with a total of just under 17% of the country’s population."
University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson also wonders whether it makes sense to give "Wyoming the same number of votes as California, which has roughly seventy times the population". He thinks this imbalance causes a "steady redistribution of resources from large states to small states." Levinson is critical of the Electoral College since it allows the possibility of electing presidents who do not win the majority of votes. Three times in American history, presidents have been elected by the Electoral College despite failing to win the popular vote: 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison) and 2000 (George W. Bush). The current Constitution does not give the people a quick way to remove incompetent or ill presidents, in his view. Others have criticized the politically driven redistricting process popularly known as gerrymandering.
Yale professor Robert A. Dahl sees a problem with an American tendency towards worship of the Constitution itself, and sees aspects of American governance which are "unusual and potentially undemocratic: the federal system, the bicameral legislature, judicial review, presidentialism, and the electoral college system." Levinson and Labunski and others have called for a Second Constitutional Convention, although professors like Dahl believe there is no real hope this would ever happen.
The Constitution has been translated into many languages:
Professor James Chen has annotated the Spanish translation prepared by the U.S. State Department. His notes focus on the problems and nuances of this translation.
Nguyen Canh Binh has translated the Constitution into Vietnamese.
The Bill of Rights has been translated into Hawaiian.
The Federal Judicial Center has links to other materials about the United States government and judicial system. The site has materials in 16 languages besides English, such as Dari, Indonesian, Malay, Serb, and Turkish.
The Historical Society of Philadelphia lists translations of the United States Constitution into various foreign languages. One example is Armenian.
Elizabeth Claire has rewritten the Constitution into simplified English. 
Original pages of the Constitution
Commemoration on U.S. postage
In 1937 the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative postage stamp celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The engraving on this issue is after an 1856 painting by Junius Brutus Stearns of Washington and shows delegates signing the Constitution at the 1787 Convention.
- Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States by Joseph Story (three volumes)
- Congressional power of enforcement
- Constitution Day (United States)
- Federalist Papers
- History of democracy
- List of constitutions of the United States
- List of proposed amendments to the United States Constitution
- List of sources of law in the United States
- National Constitution Center
- Pocket Constitution
- List of national constitutions (world countries)
- Magna Carta (1215)
- Mayflower Compact (1620)
- Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639)
- Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641)
- English Bill of Rights (1689)
- United States Declaration of Independence (1776)
- Articles of Confederation (1777)
- Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779)
- United States Bill of Rights (1791)
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- ^ Section 2 of Article I provides in part: "Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states . . . by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons."
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- ^ Maier, Pauline. Op. Cit., p.284
- ^ See South Carolina Declaration of Causes of Secession (December 24, 1860), reprinted in Richard Hofstadter, Great Issues in American History. Volume II, Vintage Books (1958), p.76-7; Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress (July 4, 1861) reprinted in Hofstadter, supra.
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- ^ Maier, Pauline. op. cit. p. 134, Connecticut expanded electorate to add all town meeting voters; p.140, Massachusetts dropped property requirements; p.218, New Hampshire dropped some property requirements, and added town delegates; p.223, Rhode Island put the question to a referendum which rejected the ratification convention, the Federalist minority centered in Newport and Providence boycotted the election; p.228, Virginia dropped “legal and Constitutional requirements” to expand the freehold electorate; p.327, New York dropped property requirements, timed assembly elections at the same time, and allowed up to five sequential days of voting until the voting rolls were “complete”.
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- Sheldon, Charles H. Essentials of Constitutional Law: The Supreme Court and the Fundamental Law (2001) 208 pp
- Spalding, Matthew, & Forte, David F., eds. The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, Regnery Publishing, Washington, D.C., 2005. (A limited preview is available at Google Books.)
- Story, Joseph, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: Volume I, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: Volume II and Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States: Volume III, (3 vols., 1833), a work of profound learning which is still the standard treatise on the subject. Story published a One Volume Abridgment the same year.
- Story, Joseph, A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States, Boston, Marsh, Capen, Lyon & Webb, 1840.
- VanBurkleo, Sandra F.; Hall, Kermit L.; and Kaczorowski, Robert J., eds. Constitutionalism and American Culture: Writing the New Constitutional History. University Press of Kansas, 2002. 464 pp.
- Mazzone, Jason (2005). "The Creation of a Constitutional Culture". Tulsa Law Review 40 (4): 671. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=831927.
- Smith, Jean Edward; Levine, Herbert M. (1988). Civil Liberties & Civil Rights Debated. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
- Smith, Jean Edward (1989). The Constitution and American Foreign Policy. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company.
- White, G. Edward. The Constitution and the New Deal. Harvard University Press, 2000. 385 pp.
- Wiecek, William M., "The Witch at the Christening: Slavery and the Constitution's Origins," Leonard W. Levy and Dennis J. Mahoney, eds., The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution (Macmillan, 1987), 178-84.
- Willoughby, Westel Woodbury, Principles of the constitutional law of the United States New York, Baker, Voorhis & Company, 1912.
- Klos, Stanley L. (2004). President Who? Forgotten Founders. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Evisum, Inc.. p. 261. ISBN 0-9752627-5-0.
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- National Constitution Center
- The National Archives Experience—Constitution of the United States
- The National Archives Experience—High Resolution Downloads of the Charters of Freedom
- National Constitution Center's "Interactive Constitution"
Official U.S. government sources
- Constitution and related resources: Library of Congress
- Analysis and Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States: Annotated constitution, with descriptions of important cases (official publication of U.S. Senate)
Non-governmental web sites
- U.S. Constitution Online
- Mobile friendly version of the Constitution
- Audio reading of the Constitution in MP3 format provided by the University of Chicago Law School
- Annotated Constitution by the Congressional Research Service of the U.S. Library of Congress (hyperlinked version published by Cornell University)