United States Constitution facts
|This article is part of a series on the|
|Constitution of the
United States of America
|Preamble and Articles
of the Constitution
|Amendments to the Constitution|
|Full text of the Constitution and Amendments|
The United States Constitution is the highest law of the United States of America. It was signed on September 17, 1787 by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Later, it was put into effect, or ratified, by representatives of the people of the first 13 states. When nine of the states ratified the document, they created a union of sovereign states, and a federal government for that union. That government started on March 4, 1789, taking the place of the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitution of the United States is the oldest federal constitution now in use.
- Articles of the Constitution
- Related pages
Articles of the Constitution
When it was signed in 1787, the Constitution had a preamble and seven main parts, called articles.
The Preamble states:
- We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.
The Preamble is not a law. It gives the reasons for writing the Constitution. The Preamble is one of the best-known parts of the Constitution. The first three words, "We the people," are used very often. The six intentions that are listed are the goals of the Constitution.
Article One says that the United States Congress (the legislative branch) will make the laws for the United States. Congress has two parts, called "Houses": the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. This Article says who can be elected to each part of Congress, and how they are elected.
The House of Representatives has members elected by the people in each state. The number of members from each state depends on how many people live there. Each member of the House of Representatives is elected for two years.
The Senate has two members, called Senators, from each state, no matter how many people live there. Each Senator is elected for six years. The original Constitution allowed the state legislatures to choose the Senators, but this was changed later by the Seventeenth Amendment.
Article One also says how the Congress will do its business and what kinds of laws it can make. It lists some kinds of laws the Congress and the states cannot make.
Article Two says that the President, Vice President, and executive offices (the executive branch) will carry out the laws made by Congress. This article says how the President and Vice President are elected, and who can be elected to these offices. The President and Vice President are elected for four years by a special Electoral College chosen by the states. The Vice President takes over as President if the President dies, resigns, or is unable to serve.
Article Two also says that the President is the Commander-in-Chief in charge of the United States military. He can make treaties with other countries, but these must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate. He appoints judges, ambassadors, and other officers, but the Senate also must approve these appointments. The President can also veto bills. However, Congress can override the veto and make the bill into a law anyway.
Article Three says there will be a court system (the judicial branch), including the Supreme Court. The Article says that Congress can decide which federal courts, besides the Supreme Court, are needed.
States' powers and limits
Article Four is about the states. It says that all states must give "full faith and credit" to the laws of the other states. It also says that state governments must treat citizens of other states as fairly as they treat their own citizens, and must send arrested people back if they have been charged with a crime in another state and fled.
Article Four also says that Congress can make new states. There were only 13 states in 1787. Now there are 50 United States. It says Congress can make rules for Federal property and can govern territories that have not yet been made into states. Article Four says the United States must make sure that each state has a republican form of government, and protect the states from invasion and violence.
Process of amendment
Article Five gives two ways to amend, or change, the Constitution.
- Congress can write a change, if two-thirds of the members in each House agree.
- The state governments can call a convention to write changes, although this has not happened since 1787.
Any change that is written by Congress or by a convention must be sent to the state legislatures or to state conventions for their approval. Congress decides whether to send a change to the legislatures or to conventions. Three-fourths of the states must approve a change for it to become part of the Constitution.
An amendment can change any part of the Constitution, except one—no amendment can change the rule that each state has an equal number of Senators in the United States Senate.
Article Six says that the Constitution, and the laws and treaties of the United States, are higher than any other laws. It also says that all federal and state officers must swear to "support" the Constitution.
Article Seven says that the new government under the Constitution would not start until conventions in at least nine states approved the Constitution.
Since 1787, Congress has written 33 amendments to change the Constitution, but the states have ratified only 27 of them.
The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights. They were argued over during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but it wasn't until 1791 that they were ratified by two-thirds of the states. These ten additions or changes all limited the power of the federal government. They are:
|1st||1791||Congress must protect the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of petition. Congress cannot create a national religion.|
|2nd||1791||"A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." - People have the right to keep and carry weapons, such as guns.|
|3rd||1791||The government cannot send soldiers to live in private homes without the permission of the owners.|
|4th||1791||The government cannot get a warrant to arrest a person or search their property unless there is "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed.|
|5th||1791||The government cannot put a person on trial for a serious crime until a grand jury has written an indictment. If a person is found not guilty in a trial, they cannot be put on trial again for the same crime. The government must follow due process of law before punishing a person or taking their property. A person on trial for a crime does not have to testify against himself in court.|
|6th||1791||Any person who is accused of a crime should get a speedy trial by a jury. That person can have a lawyer during the trial. They must be told what they are charged with. The person can question the witnesses against them, and can get their own witnesses to testify.|
|7th||1791||A jury trial is needed for civil cases.|
|8th||1791||The government cannot require excessive bail or fines, or any cruel and unusual punishment.|
|9th||1791||The listing of individual rights in the Constitution and Bill of Rights does not include all of the rights of the people and the states.|
|10th||1791||Anything that the Constitution does not say Congress can do should be left up to the states, or to the people.|
After the Bill of Rights, there are 17 more changes to the Constitution that were made at different times.
|11th||1795||Citizens cannot sue states in federal courts. There are some exceptions.|
|12th||1804||Changed the way the President and Vice President are elected.|
|13th||1865||Ended slavery in the United States.|
|14th||1868||Every person born in the United States is a citizen. States must follow due process of law before taking away any citizen's rights or property.|
|15th||1870||A citizen's right to vote cannot be taken away because of race, the color of their skin, or because they used to be slaves.|
|16th||1913||Congress can put a tax on income.|
|17th||1913||The people will elect Senators. Before this, Senators were elected by state legislatures.|
|18th||1919||Made a law against drinking alcohol, called Prohibition.|
|19th||1920||Gave women the right to vote.|
|20th||1933||Changed the days for meetings of Congress and for the start of the President's term of office.|
|21st||1933||Ended the Prohibition law of the Eighteenth Amendment. States can make laws about how alcohol is used in each state.|
|22nd||1951||A person may not be elected President more than two times.|
|23rd||1961||Gave the people in the District of Columbia the right to vote for President.|
|24th||1964||Made it illegal to make anyone pay a tax to have the right to vote.|
|25th||1967||Changes what happens if a President dies, resigns, or is not able to do the job. Says what happens if a Vice President dies or resigns.|
|26th||1971||Makes 18 years old the minimum age for people to be allowed to vote|
|27th||1992||Limits how Congress can increase how much its members are paid.|
- Mayflower Compact
- Fundamental Orders of Connecticut
- Massachusetts Body of Liberties
- English Bill of Rights
- Federalist Papers
- United States Bill of Rights
Official U.S. government sources
Non-government web sites
- Audio narration (mp3) of The United States Constitution at Americana Phonic
Activist/advocacy web sites
United States Bill of RightsCurrently housed in the National Archives.
United States Constitution Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.