An Overview of the Constitution (Download Included)


Below is a summary of the Constitutution. It is available to download as a PDF copy for yourself. If you need a digital copy there is a Google link provided, too.

We have LOTS of other U.S. summaries available for download on this site. This is an ongoing project, so stop back frequently and see what we’ve added. When I say “we” I mean my  brother and I. I’m a veteran social studies teacher and my brother, Joe, is an historian. Between the 2 of us we create these reading passages. 

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The Constitution

Introduction


A constitution is a document that provides the basics of government for an institution or political body.  There are a range of constitutions, from that of a private organization to that of each state of the United States.  Only one is known as “the” Constitution.


Our concern here is the U.S. Constitution, the document that sets forth the framework of the government of the nation as a whole. Those who crafted the document are thus known as “the Framers.” 

It was ratified (passed officially) in 1787 with ten amendments (Bill of Rights) added soon afterwards. Then, over a span of two hundred years, seventeen more amendments were added.  More might be added in the future. 


Seven Articles


The Constitution starts with a “Preamble,” a type of introduction that summarizes its basic goals.  The Constitution is then split into seven parts (Articles) which are further divided into sections. Each section has many clauses, which are not individually numbered, but often are referenced.  For example, “the Commerce Clause.” 


The first article deals with the powers and limits of Congress, including how members of Congress are chosen. This covers the Legislative Branch. 

The second article does the same with the executive (President).

The third article of the Constitution covers the federal judiciary (courts). 

The fourth article deals with interstate relations.

The fifth spells out how the Constitution could be amended (changed). 

The sixth article deals with matters of debts and declares that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land (Supremacy Clause).  It also requires that no religious tests should be in place for federal offices.

The seventh and last article spells out how the Constitution would be ratified. 


Structural Principles 


A simple breakdown of the components of the Constitution does not fully allow one to understand its full nature. The various components also provide overall structural principles.  A basic duo is checks and balances plus separation of powers.  


The first three articles separate the various aspects of governing  (enacting, carrying out and interpreting laws) into three separate institutions. This strengthens the federal government, including having a separate executive to carry out the laws and run the military.

But, in the process, the three “branches” of government check and balance each other.  So, the executive is subject to impeachment by Congress and the courts also check its power (“judicial review”).  This is just an example of the principle in action. 


Meanwhile, there is a split of state and federal power, promoting the interests of federalism.  Congress is divided by state delegations, states equally represented in the Senate, while each state has a right to at least one member in the House of Representatives. And, the states have wide control over their own governments. Nonetheless, limits on states promote national interests and individual rights.  


There is also an overall concern for “republican government,” power being found in the people themselves (popular sovereignty or “people power”), expressed by representatives that they choose. The Preamble itself speaks of “We the People” authorizing the Constitution.  Republican principles also assume basic rights of the people, including courts with the power of judicial review that authorizes courts to reject even popularly passed laws if it is determined that the Constitution is being violated.   


Amendments


The fifth article of the Constitution provides a means to amend (add to) the document when it is deemed necessary.  There are twenty-seven amendments, but they basically can be grouped together into certain categories with a few others tossed in. 


The first ten were collectively ratified and are known as the “Bill of Rights,” being a list of rights in response to concern of the expanded new federal government.  The next two dwelt with lingering issues, immunity to states for certain lawsuits and how to appoint the vice president.  The next three are known as the “Reconstruction Amendments,” ratified after the Civil War, dealing with slavery, civil rights and voting rights for blacks.  


The next set (sixteenth to twenty-first) basically were various progressive (reform) developments: the income tax, popular (direct) election of senators, passing and overturning the prohibition of alcohol, women’s right to vote and updating when federal terms (“Lame Duck Amendment”) end.  Then, the twenty-second set a two term limit for presidents (after FDR was elected four times).  The next set provided a range of voting rights, with the exception of the twenty-fifth (presidential disability) and the (for now) final one (twenty-seventh) dealing with congressional pay.   


With twenty-seven amendments passed over a span of two hundred years, the best end of this section might be “to be continued.”  

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Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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