The U.S. Constitution
America is a country that bases its political system on three equally important governing bodies: the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch.
This arrangement comes directly from the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution has been the supreme law of the U.S. since September 17, 1787. This was eleven years after the U.S. got its independence from England.
Why Create a U.S. Constitution?
Before the U.S. Constitution existed, the country had a system based on a document called the Articles of Confederation. This document set up rules that limited the power of the federal government and instead gave the states more power in matters of money, defense and trade.
Commander-in-Chief George Washington, who led the fight for independence from England, didn't think the Articles of Confederation was good enough. He once said the Articles of Confederation were "little more than the shadow without substance."
The federal government was interested in overseeing the dealings of the states, so in February 1787, Congress called for a meeting with chosen representatives of the thirteen states. Those representatives had to look over the Articles of Confederation so that they could make them work better for the country as a whole.
The Constitutional Convention finally took place in May 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Only 12 of the 13 states showed up. The delegates from Rhode Island chose not to attend because Rhode Island did not want to revise the Articles of Confederation. They did not want to lose their power as a state.
Creating the Constitution
In total, there were more than fifty delegates in attendance at the Constitutional Convention. The Convention took place over the course of five months.
Instead of just revising the Articles of Confederation, they began creating a brand new document. The delegates decided that the country would need a strong central government if it was to be unified.
Their solution was to create three separate branches of the government. Each branch would have a specific role in government but each one would also make sure the other branches were doing their jobs. When the different parts of government are doing their jobs, they are checking one another’s jobs. That’s why the relationship between the branches is called "Checks and Balances."
The delegates had to decide on how each branch would work. For the legislative branch, the delegates decided on a Congress with two parts, called houses. The houses are the House of Representatives and the Senate. These two houses would create and pass laws.
The reason they decided on two houses is because they couldn’t decide which king of house was better.
Larger states wanted more representation because they had more people. Smaller states wanted equal representation regardless of population size. Because both ways of thinking made sense, the delegates decided to reach a compromise.
In the House of Representatives, the number of representatives from a state depends on the population of the state. In the Senate, there are only two Senators per state, making them equal in power.
For the executive branch, the delegates decided that the U.S. would have a president who would carry out federal laws and create new ones. Presidents would also be in charge of national defense and other jobs.
For the judicial branch, the delegates decided that there would be a Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s jobs would be to review laws and to make sure they are constitutional.
Approving the Constitution
The delegates signed the finished Constitution on September 17, 1787. The delegates forwarded the document to Congress in the next few days. Congress then organized the ratification process. Ratification is when states vote on whether or not something should be a law.
It wasn't just Congress who was looking over the Constitution. It was the whole country.
The debates went on everywhere. The newspaper reporters wrote about it. Families spoke about it over dinner. People would meet in public places and have discussions. And many singers and songwriters created songs during this time in support or opposition of the Constitution.
In order to adopt the Constitution, 9 of the 13 states had to ratify it. Delaware was the first state to ratify it. After Delaware, ratifications came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut. Massachusetts ratified it, but they did want there to be changes to the Constitution. Other states also wanted changes, also known as amendments. The most important set of amendments created were the Bill of Rights. James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights. He was a congressman from Virginia who went on to become the fourth president of the U.S. and is considered the father of the Constitution.
After the writing of the Bill of Rights, Maryland, South Carolina and New Hampshire ratified the Constitution. The document then finally received all the necessary ratifications. New York and Virginia ratified it after that, and with those two powerful states behind it, the government took shape.
The new legislative branch, the House and the Senate elected George Washington to head the executive branch as the nation’s first president.
How long is the Constitution?
The Constitution is the oldest and shortest constitution in the world. The Constitution consists of the Preamble, 7 articles and 27 amendments. The Preamble is the introduction to the Constitution. The articles set-up the three-branch framework of the government, the relationship between the states and the federal government and it establishes that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
The amendments list the freedoms and rights given to Americans, as well as laws Americans and the U.S. government must follow. The first 10 amendments are the Bill of Rights.
Read lyrics to poems and songs written about the Constitution
Read more about George Washington
See images from the time of the Constitution
Solve fun puzzle on The Preamble.
Read the Bill of Rights
Read all 7 Articles and 27 Amendments of the Constitution
Read more about the Constitutional Convention
Read more about the Delegates