The U.S. Constitution

Members of the US military guard the original US Constitution
Historical U.S. Documents on Display. Alex Wong / Getty Images

In just four hand-written pages, the Constitution gives us no less than the owners' manual to the greatest form of government the world has ever known.

Key Takeaways: The U.S. Constitution

  • The United States Constitution, as the supreme law of the United States of America, establishes the framework of the U.S. federal government.
  • The Constitution was written in 1787, ratified in 1788, took effect in 1789, and today remains the world’s longest enduring written charter of government.
  • The Constitution was created to replace the largely inadequate 1781 Articles of Confederation.
  • The Constitution divides and balances power between three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.
  • The Constitution was created by the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in May 1787.



The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. Written in 1787, ratified in 1788, and taking effect in 1789, the U.S. Constitution remains the world’s longest enduring written charter of government. Originally made up of a brief Preamble and seven articles on just four hand-written pages, the Constitution delineates the framework of the U.S. federal government.

The Signing of the Constitution of the United States, with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The Signing of the Constitution of the United States, with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

The Constitution was created to address problems with its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation. Ratified in 1781, the Articles had established a “firm league of friendship” between the states and vested most power in a Congress of the Confederation. However, this power was extremely limited. Most critically, with no power to levy taxes, the central government could not raise any funds itself. Instead, it depended entirely on the states for the money necessary to operate. In addition, the requirement of a unanimous vote of Congress on any important decision led to a government that was often paralyzed and largely ineffectual.

The Constitutional Convention

In May of 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 States (Rhode Island sent no delegates) convened in Philadelphia to reform the Articles of Confederation and redesign the government. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention quickly began drafting a new charter for the United States. 

In drafting the Constitution the delegates to the Constitutional Convention sought to create a government with enough power to act on a national level, but not with so much power that the fundamental individual rights of the people would be threatened. Their solution was to separate the powers of government into three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—with a system of checks and balances on those powers to make sure that no one branch could gain supremacy. The Constitution spells out the powers of each branch, with powers not specifically assigned to them reserved to the States.

Much debate focused on how the people were to be represented in the new legislature. Two competing plans were considered: the Virginia Plan, which proposed a system of apportionment basing representation on the population of each state, and the New Jersey plan, which gave each state an equal vote in Congress. The larger states supported the Virginia Plan while the smaller states favored the New Jersey Plan. After hours of negotiation, the delegates agreed on the Great Compromise under which the Legislative Branch would be made up of the House of Representatives, which would represent the people of each state as apportioned according to its population; and the Senate in which each state would be represented equally. The Executive Branch would be headed by the President of the United States. The plan also called for an independent Judicial Branch, consisting of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts

The Preamble

Also known as the “Enacting Clause,” of the Constitution, the Preamble summarizes the Framers’ intent that the national government exists to ensure that the people live safe, peaceful, healthy, and free lives. 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 defence, 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’s first three words—“We the People”—affirm that the United States government exists to serve its citizens. James Madison, one of the main architects of the Constitution, may have put this best when he wrote:

 “[T]he people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived . . .”

Its first three articles of the Constitution embody the doctrine of the separation of powers, whereby the federal government is divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.

Article I: The Legislative Branch

The longest part of the Constitution, Article I enforces the supremacy of the people through their popularly elected representatives by creating a bicameral legislature consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Article I grants Congress the power to make laws. “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States…” The framers intended that Congress would overshadow the executive and judicial branches, and in Article I, Section8, spelled out the specific powers of Congress in great detail. Among these powers are collecting taxes, borrowing money, coining money, regulating commerce, establishing post offices, and declaring war. To balance the power of Congress against the other branches, Article I places explicit limits on its powers. It also grants Congress the broad power to make all laws deemed “necessary and proper” for carrying out the specifically granted powers, a source of authority rarely found in the constitutions of other modern nations. 

Article II: The Executive Branch

The executive branch, consisting of the president, vice president, cabinet officers, and millions of federal employees is assigned the powers needed to properly enforce the laws passed by Congress. The primary responsibility of the president and the executive branch is expressed in Article II, Section 3: “He shall take care that the law are faithfully executed.” Article II sets forth how the president is to be elected through the Electoral College. It also describes a few specific powers of the president, including commanding the armed forces, negotiating treaties, and appointing justices of the Supreme Court, subject to the approval of the Senate. Article II also provides that the president can be impeached and removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Article III: The Judicial Branch

Under Article III, the judicial branch must interpret the laws. Or as Chief Justice John Marshall famously put it, “to say what the law is.” While it does not spell out the nature of the judicial power, Article III has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as giving the judiciary the power to declare acts of Congress or the president unconstitutional. Known as “judicial review,” this provision bestows the U.S. federal courts with far more power than in other countries. However, the power of unelected judges to legally nullify laws in a democracy remains one of the most controversial issues in American government and politics.

Article IV: Full Faith and Credit

In Article IV, the founders took care in establish the legal relationship between the states. The Constitution requires the states to give “full faith and credit” to the laws, contracts, and judicial proceedings of the other states. States are barred from discriminating against citizens of other states in any way, and cannot enact tariffs or taxes against each other. The states must also agree to reciprocal extradition of those accused of crimes to stand trial in other states. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states treated each other as independent sovereign nations. Under the Constitution, however, the states have to recognize and respect each other’s laws, even when their laws might be at odds. One of the most controversial issues in the history of the Full Faith and Credit Clause is whether a state must recognize the legality of same-sex marriage or civil union performed in another state. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that all states must recognize same-sex unions and that no state may prohibit same-sex couples from marrying.

In Article V, the founders specified a process for amending the Constitution. To prevent arbitrary changes, the amendment process was made quite onerous. Amendments may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress, or, if two-thirds of the states request one, by a convention called for that purpose. Amendments must then be ratified by three-fourths of the State legislatures or three-fourths of conventions called in each state for ratification. To date, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times, including the first 10 amendments comprising the Bill of Rights. One amendment, the 21st Amendment, repealed the 18th Amendment, which had ushered in the period of prohibition in the United States by banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. 

Article V: Amendment Process

In Article V, the founders specified a process for amending the Constitution. To prevent arbitrary changes, the amendment process was made quite onerous. Amendments may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress, or, if two-thirds of the states request one, by a convention called for that purpose. Amendments must then be ratified by three-fourths of the State legislatures or three-fourths of conventions called in each state for ratification. To date, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times, including the first 10 amendments comprising the Bill of Rights. One amendment, the 21st Amendment, repealed the 18th Amendment, which had ushered in the period of prohibition in the United States by banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. 

Article VI: Supreme Law of the Land

Article VI emphatically declares the Constitution and the laws of the United States to be the “supreme law of the land.” All federal and state officials, including judges, must swear to support the Constitution, even in cases where it contradicts state law. Unlike the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution trumps state powers. However, the Constitution goes to great lengths to protect the powers of the states. The system of federalism, under which the national and state governments share power remains a fundamental feature of the American government.

Article VII: Ratification

Even after the framers signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, they still faced the difficult task of convincing the American people to accept it. Not even all of the framers agreed. Only 39 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the final document. The people were divided between two early political factions: the Federalists, who supported ratification of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who opposed it. The Federalists eventually prevailed, but only after they promised that a bill of rights would be added to the Constitution as soon as the first Congress convened. 

The framers specified that the new Constitution would take effect only after nine of the then 13 states had ratified it. The framers also stipulated that ratification would not be up done by the state legislatures, but by state convention assembled specifically for that purpose. Each state was given six months to convene a convention and vote on the proposed Constitution. On December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify, it. New Hampshire became the ninth state to accept the Constitution on June 21, 1788, officially ending government under the Articles of Confederation. The new Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789.

Bill of Rights and Amendments

Collectively known as the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution provide specific protections of individual liberty and justice and place limits on the powers of government. Most of the later 17 amendments, such as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, expand protections of individual civil rights. The other amendments address issues related to federal authority or modify government processes and procedures. For example, the 22nd Amendment specifies that no person may be elected President of the United States more than twice, and the 25th Amendment established the current process and order of presidential succession.

Replica of the United States Bill of Rights, documenting the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution.
Replica of the United States Bill of Rights, documenting the first 10 amendments to the US Constitution.

Leezsnow / Getty Images

Sources

  • “The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription.” National Archives: America's Founding Documents, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript.
  • “The Constitution.” The White House: Our Government, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/our-government/the-constitution/.
  • Billias, George. “American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776–1989: A Global Perspective.” New York University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8147-9107-3.
  • Bowen, Catherine. “Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787.” Blackstone Audio, 2012, ISBN-10: 1470847736.
  • Bailyn, Bernard, ed. “The Debate on the Constitution: Federalist and Antifederalist Speeches, Articles, and Letters During the Struggle for Ratification.” The Library of America, 1993, ISBN 0-940450-64-X.
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Longley, Robert. "The U.S. Constitution." ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2022, thoughtco.com/the-us-constitution-articles-amendments-and-preamble-3322389. Longley, Robert. (2022, January 2). The U.S. Constitution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-us-constitution-articles-amendments-and-preamble-3322389 Longley, Robert. "The U.S. Constitution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-us-constitution-articles-amendments-and-preamble-3322389 (accessed January 26, 2022).