Study Guide

Constitution

Constitution Introduction

The Constitution of the United States is the highest law in the land, a written statement of the core principles of the American government. It lays out the structure of the federal government, clarifies the relationship between that government and the states, explains which powers the government does (and does not!) have, and guarantees certain rights and freedoms to the people.

The Constitution is, in short, the blueprint for America's democracy. It is, in many ways, the blueprint for America itself.

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What is Constitution About and Why Should I Care?

Four handwritten pages.

That's all they produced, after 116 days of hard work. That's right, it took 55 men—55 of America's most intelligent, powerful, and influential men—an entire summer to put together a document about as long as most freshman English papers.

Not too impressive, you might think.

But you'd be wrong. Because those four handwritten pages contained the Constitution of the United States. For more than 220 years now, those four handwritten pages have organized our government, protected our freedoms, perhaps even defined us as a people.

Today the handwriting has faded badly, and the parchment itself is in danger of disintegrating into dust. But the ideas contained in that centuries-old document—the core ideas of American democracy—are as vital today as they were the day they were written down during that hot Philadelphia summer of 1787 The Constitution remains a living document—exactly as its authors intended it to be.

But it can only stay alive as long as We the People continue to take it seriously—as long as We the People understand its principles and force our own leaders to follow them. The Constitution belongs to all of us.

Constitution Trivia

The oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention was Benjamin Franklin, who was 81 years old in 1787. The youngest was 27-year-old Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, perhaps the two most critical figures in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, were 30 and 36, respectively.

During the 1920s and '30s, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were kept on public display at the Library of Congress. In 1952, after negotiations were completed between the Librarian of Congress and the Archivist of the United States, the Constitution and the Declaration were both transferred to a more suitable location in the newly built National Archives building. The transfer itself had become considerably more complex than it was back in 1920 when the Librarian of Congress simply drove the founding documents across Washington in his Ford Model T truck. By 1952, by contrast, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence "were placed in helium-filled cases, enclosed in wooden crates, laid on mattresses in an armored Marine Corps personnel carrier, and escorted by ceremonial troops, two tanks, and four servicemen carrying submachine guns down Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues to the National Archives."

On 6 August 1787, the Constitutional Convention's Committee of Detail proposed a draft of the Constitution in which the president would serve a seven-year term without possibility of reelection, to be elected by a majority of both legislative houses. It added that the executive should be addressed as "Your Excellency," since there was no small amount of anxiety over how to address this unprecedented phenomenon in Western society: a democratically elected leader who was neither royalty ("Your Highness") nor deity ("Your Holiness").

About half of the Constitutional Convention's delegates were slaveowners.

During World War II, the original copy of the Constitution was moved for safekeeping to the famous federal gold depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

The Constitution is about 4,400 words long. The original handwritten copy fit on four big sheets of paper. The document is both the oldest and shortest constitution used by any representative government in the world today. By way of comparison, the Constitution of India, the world's longest, has about 117,000 words; that means it's more than 25 times as long as the Constitution of the United States.

Constitution Resources

Books

Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913)
This book had a major impact on the historical profession and the reading public at large when it was published during the Progressive Era. Though many people have challenged its central contentions regarding the economic self-interest and motivations of the Founding Fathers, it remains a powerful argument that has retained at least a partial degree of veracity.

Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2003)
Berkin brilliantly debunks the romanticized notions circulated about the founders; she explains that they did not know whether their experiment would work, they were almost paralyzed by the daunting nature of the task before them, and they were terrified of possible conspiracies against the government when the Convention convened in 1787.

Don Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery (2001)
The famous historian's posthumously published work sought to weave the Constitution's legacy through the decades of politics and sectional tumult that followed in the nineteenth century.

James H. Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1608-1870 (1978)
A classic exposition of how citizenship was initially defined in North America and how that definition shifted and changed over time, from the Revolution to the Early Republic and through most of the nineteenth century.

Robert A. McGuire, To Form A More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution (2003)
This book does not seek to resurrect Beard entirely, but it certainly defends his economic interpretation as valid, even if Beard failed to appreciate the complexities between his overly simplified distinction of "personalty" and "realty" interests.

Gary Nash, Race and Revolution (1990)
A social history that charts slavery's survival beyond the Revolution and its protection by the newly strengthened national government after 1787. Nash argues that the framers made a critical mistake by compromising on the institution that so many of them knew to be inhumane and sinful. He focuses the blame on the northerners, not the southerners, for failing to capitalize on what he argues was an opportunity to end slavery by compensating the slaveowners, and for fearfully running away from the possibility of a biracial society.

Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996)
Rakove, a historian at Stanford, traces the social and political context in which the Constitution was framed. In so doing, he argues that the institutional framework that the Constitution created is far more important to contemporary or future society and jurisprudence than the question of the framers' "original meaning," which is difficult if not impossible to ascertain.

Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969)
Although Wood controversially side-stepped the topic of slavery in this otherwise large and comprehensive history, his work focuses upon the various social strata (from farmers to merchants to lawyers) and both men and women in its analysis of the Revolution and its effects on everyone; and the ways in which all of these groups actually helped to bring about a new nation themselves.

Images

The Law of the Land
The United States Constitution.

Signing the Constitution
Howard Chandler Christy, "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States," George Washington presiding, in Philadelphia on 17 September 1787, on display in the U.S. Capitol.

The Site of the Convention
Nicholas Scull and George Heap, A Map of Philadelphia and Parts Adjacent (1752); the first published view of Independence Hall (known then as the Philadelphia State House) where the Constitutional Convention was held.

The Father of the Constitution
James Madison, "Father of the Constitution" and fourth president of the United States. Philada. (Philadelphia): W.H. Morgan, [between 1809 and 1817].

Elder Statesman of the Convention
Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790. Portrait by Chas. Wilson Peale.

The Champion of the Aristocracy
Gouverneur Morris, 1752-1816, etching by Albert Rosenthal after a copy by Marchant from painting by T. Sully.

Know Your Rights
The American Civil Liberties Union: Illustrated guide to the Bill of Rights.

Movies & TV

John Adams (2008)
HBO made major waves in 2008 with this well-produced, Emmy-nominated miniseries on the life of John Adams during the Revolutionary period and the early years of the republic.

Slavery and the Making of America (2005)
Presented by PBS, this four-part television series uses archival sources and individual stories to trace the long and complex history of American slavery, from its beginnings in the colonies to its solidification with the signing of the U.S. Constitution to the post-Civil War years.

Founding Fathers (2000)
This television documentary originally presented by the History Channel is divided into four cleverly titled parts. First, "Rebels… With A Cause" traces the early stages of the American Revolution by focusing on the men who triggered it. "Taking Liberties" focuses on Benjamin Franklin's diplomacy in the days leading up to the outbreak of war. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington take center stage in "You Say You Want a Revolution." Finally, "A Healthy Constitution" charts the complex political negotiations led by James Madison and George Washington in solidifying the work of the revolution.

Founding Brothers (2002)
Another offering from the good people at the History Channel, this television mini-series compliments Founding Fathers by exploring the post-Revolutionary political careers of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

Websites

Forms of American Justice and Government
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: 18th Century Documents Contains several important primary-source documents, including the Articles of Confederation, Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, state constitutions, etc. Includes the Massachusetts Charter of 1691, several other charters, and the English Bill of Rights (1689), among others.

American Inspirations
One of very few Magna Carta manuscripts to leave Britain is on display alongside the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in the rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. Admission is free! But reservations are recommended. You can also get gratis (free) admission to the National Art Gallery (around the corner) and the Smithsonian (also walking distance). You should definitely go if you haven't been already.

Founding Documents
The U.S. government has posted a very helpful scanned copy and transcript of one hundred important American documents on-line, including the U.S. Constitution and two of the most famous Federalist Papers.

Convention Documents
The Library of Congress also has a digitized collection of Constitutional Convention of 1787 broadsides.

Primary Sources

The Constitution in Original Form
In this special presentation on the Constitution from the Library of Congress, the background of the Constitution is presented along with the text of the original document.

The Process of Constitution-Making
Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, published in 1911, compiled the documentary records of the Constitutional Convention into four volumesÑthree of which are included in this online collection.

A Republic in Transition
Jonathan Elliot compiled Elliot's Debates, a five-volume collection, in the mid-nineteenth century. The volumes are the best source for understanding the federal government's transitional period between the closing of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 and the opening of the First Federal Congress in March 1789.

Broadsides Announcing the Constitution
You can search the broadsides and printed ephemera collection in the Library of Congress for the public announcements concerning the Constitution.

National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center offers a number of interactive tools and resources for understanding the context and significance of the U.S. Constitution.

Assessing the Constitution: Uses and Abuses
The American Antiquarian Society has hosted a roundtable (in 2002) on the uses and abuses of the Constitution through history, featuring a number of very prominent scholars.