Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Advertisement - Guide continues below
The Constitution of the United States is a written document that lays out the structure of the American government. It explicitly grants certain powers to each of the three branches of the federal government, while reserving other powers exclusively to the states or to the people as individuals. It is, in its own words, the "supreme Law of the Land."
The Constitution was written (over the summer of 1787, in Philadelphia) because many of the country's leaders at the time had become dissatisfied with the structure of government created by the Articles of Confederation, which had been in effect since 1781. The Articles, many early American leaders felt, had created a national government that was far too weak to allow the new country to deal effectively with the many challenges it was facing. The goal of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was to create a new federal government that would be more powerful while still protecting the individual rights and liberties that had been won in the Revolutionary War.
Yes. The Framers set up a process to allow the passage of formal amendments—official changes to the Constitution. Since the Constitution went into effect in 1789, it has been formally amended 27 times.
The principle of popular sovereignty is the idea that a government's power derives only from the consent of the people being governed. The Constitution's first three words—"We the People…"—establish from the very start that the United States government draws its authority and legitimacy directly from the people. The concept of popular sovereignty differs from the old monarchical belief in the divine right of kings (in which the monarch was said to draw his right to rule directly from God) and also from the British principle of parliamentary sovereignty (in which ultimate authority rested with Parliament rather than with the people directly).
The Constitution grants the federal government many important powers, but it also explicitly restricts the government from exercising many kinds of powers. The Bill of Rights, in particular, restricts the government's ability to infringe upon certain rights of the people, and the Ninth and Tenth Amendments are quite direct in restricting the government's ability to exercise powers not explicitly listed in the Constitution.
The Framers of the Constitution worried greatly about the dangers of concentrated power. Their experiences dealing with the British king and parliament before and during the Revolutionary War led them to believe that concentrated power led inevitably toward tyranny. Thus they were careful, when designing the Constitution, to create a system of government in which no one individual or institution could acquire tyrannical power. They designed the United States government with three coequal branches— legislative, executive, and judicial—each of them with the power to check and balance the others.
Federalism is the division of power between a centralized national government and the various state governments. The Constitution established the United States as a federal system of government; the document grants certain powers and responsibilities to the national government, and reserves others exclusively to the states.
Article I of the Constitution lays out the structure of the Legislative Branch. At the Constitutional Convention, the Framers spent more of their time hashing out the design of Congress than they spent on any other subject. Article I is longer than all the rest of the articles combined!
Check out our complete analysis of Congress here, or our blow-by-blow, clause-by-clause breakdown of Article I here:
Article II of the Constitution lays out the structure of the Executive Branch, headed by the President of the United States. Though today we often describe the President as the most powerful individual in the world, it's not at all clear that the Framers would have foreseen such a development... they tended to worry more about the threat of Congress overpowering the President than vice versa!
Check out our complete analysis of the presidency here, or our blow-by-blow, clause-by-clause breakdown of Article II here:
Article III of the Constitution lays out the structure of the Judicial Branch, headed by the United States Supreme Court. Surprisingly, what we now understand to be the Supreme Court's most important power—the power of judicial review—is not explicitly named in Article III at all.
Check out our complete analysis of the judiciary here, or our blow-by-blow, clause-by-clause breakdown of Article III here:
Article IV is where the Framers of the Constitution laid out the crucial principles of federalism, creating a blueprint to structure the relationships between the various states, and between the federal government and the states.
Check out our blow-by-blow, clause-by-clause breakdown of Article IV here:
Article V sets up a system for changing the Constitution itself through the proposal and ratification of formal amendments. The process is difficult but not impossible to accomplish; over the course of American history, the Constitution has been amended 27 times.
Check out our detailed breakdown of the full text of Article V here.
Article VI is a little bit of a grab-bag; you might think of it as the Article of "important points that didn't exactly fit anywhere else in the Constitution." Its most important element was the declaration that the Constitution would be considered the "supreme Law of the Land," meaning that no conflicting law passed by Congress or the state legislatures could override the provisions of the Constitution itself. Article VI also included a guarantee that the new national government would take on the financial debts that had been racked up by the old government under the Articles of Confederation, as well as a ban on any religious tests for holding government office. See, we told you it was a bit of a grab-bag!
Check out our blow-by-blow, clause-by-clause breakdown of Article VI here.
Article VII, only 24 words long, described the process by which the Constitution itself would be ratified. Rather than requiring the unanimous approval of all thirteen original states, Article VII declared that the new government under the Constitution would take effect as soon as nine states ratified the document. That was important, since Rhode Island had boycotted the entire Constitutional Convention and the prospect of unanimous ratification from all 13 states looked dim.Check out breakdown of the full text of Article VII (all glorious 24 words of it!) here.