Larry Slawson received his Master's Degree from UNC Charlotte. He specializes in early American History.
The Constitution of the United States Explained
The Constitution of the United States was first written in the 18th century and is often cited as one of the most important documents to have emerged in the modern world. Although relatively short, the U.S. Constitution is renowned for its clarity, concepts, and prose. This article explores this remarkable document in greater detail, examining both its contents and amendments that have emerged over the last two centuries. What follows is a synopsis of the Constitution itself; a study guide for both students and newcomers alike.
- Who Wrote the U.S. Constitution?
- Preamble to the Constitution
- Article I of the Constitution
- Article II of the Constitution
- Article III of the Constitution
- Article IV of the Constitution
- Article V of the Constitution
- Article VI of the Constitution
- Article VII of the Constitution
- What Is the Bill of Rights?
- Other Amendments to the Constitution
- How Are Amendments Made to the Constitution?
- What Were the Articles of Confederation?
Who Wrote the U.S. Constitution?
The United States Constitution was designed by America’s best and brightest leaders on 25 May, 1787, in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Dubbed the “Constitutional Convention,” fifty-five separate delegates convened to discuss the direction of their new nation in the wake of the Revolutionary War.
As each of the delegates debated over the Constitution’s scope and magnitude, New York lawyer and future diplomat, Gouverneur Morris was tasked with penning each of the “resolutions reached by the convention” (Hile, 53). To accomplish this tremendous feat, Morris relied greatly on the notes and records kept by James Madison, who personally oversaw each of the debates and compromises reached by the delegates present. Due to Madison’s position of authority in the Convention (as well as his remarkable insight and expertise in crafting reasonable compromises), Madison is often referred to as the “father of the constitution.”
After being ratified on 21 June, 1788, by nine different states (nearly a year after the Convention was first held), the Constitution went into effect the following year, replacing the original Articles of Confederation that were penned in 1781. The original Constitution penned by Morris remains preserved in the National Archives of the United States in Washington, D.C. Despite being amended on multiple occasions by the American Congress, the United States Constitution remains a key component of the country’s democratic principles. For more than two centuries the Constitution has stood the test of time, proving that a document that outlines the “principles and purposes of its government is necessary” for a proper government to function (and to be accountable to its people).
Preamble to the Constitution
“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.”
Although the Preamble to the Constitution possesses “no force in law,” the opening helps to establish the overall purpose of the document, as well as the desires of the Framers to ensure a just and beneficial government that would be responsible (and benevolent) to its people (usconstitution.net). As its first three words, “We the People,” implies, the Framers sought to emphasize that the United States was to be ruled by the people, and not a king, President, or despotic leader.
Article I of the Constitution
Article I, Section 1
In the first section of the Constitution, the document establishes the precepts governing the first of three branches of the United States government. Section 1 establishes the Legislative Branch (known as Congress), to be a bicameral (two-part) body.
Article I, Section 2
The second section goes into greater detail with its discussion on the Legislative Branch, and provides a thorough definition of the lower house of Congress (House of Representatives). Section 2 provides minimum requirements for representatives, stating that individuals must be at least 25 years old to serve, and that each elected member (elected by the people of their respective states) serves two years for each term.
To compensate for population discrepancies in the country, Section 2 also states that the number of representatives (for each state) is determined by population size with larger states gaining more representatives than smaller ones. It specifies that one leader for the House of Representatives will also be chosen by its members, known as the Speaker of the House.
Article I, Section 3
The third section of Article I defines the upper house of Congress, known as the Senate. Similar to Section 2, this portion of the Constitution provides minimum requirements for Senators, including a minimum age of 30 (to serve), as well as a service period of six years. Although Senators were originally appointed by the legislatures of their state, this was later changed (allowing Senators to be selected by the constituents of their states instead).
Unlike the House of Representatives, however, the Senators for each state are limited to two individuals regardless of their state’s population size. It is also in this section that the concept of a Vice President is introduced, who serves as leader of the Senate (also known as the “President of the Senate”). Although the Vice President has no voting power in normal cases, he/she is allowed to vote in the case of a senatorial matter involving a tie in votes (thus, ending the deadlock with a tiebreaker vote).
Article I, Section 4
The fourth section of Article I is relatively brief, but provides states with the ability to establish their “own methods for electing members of the Congress” (usconstitution.net). This section also mandates that Congress will meet—at minimum—once a year.
Article I, Section 5
The fifth section of Article I provides rules governing the actions of Congress. Section 5 establishes that a minimum number of Congressmen must be present during meetings and that members who fail to appear can suffer fines (to be determined by the active participants). This section also provides grounds for members to be expelled, and explicitly states that each house of Congress must maintain elaborate notes and records of each proceeding (or series of votes). Section 5 also prohibits the houses from adjourning without permission of the other.
Article I, Section 6
The sixth section of Article I establishes that members of Congress will be paid for their service to the country. It also prohibits their detainment by local authorities while traveling to (and from) Congress, and that Congressional members are prohibited from holding other offices in government.
Article I, Section 7
The seventh section of Article I provides details pertaining to the enactment of laws. Bills concerning taxes are required to begin in the House of Representatives. If passed by the House, the bill then goes to the U.S. Senate. If both houses pass the bill, it is then sent to the President who can either sign it into law (pass) or veto (decline). If rejected by the President, this section states that the bill will be sent back to Congress. If both houses choose to pass the bill into law (by a two-thirds majority), the President’s veto is overridden.
In cases where the President chooses to ignore the bill after passing through Congress, the bill automatically becomes law after ten days. “Pocket vetoes” can also occur with bills, and occasionally happen when Congress passes a bill but adjourns shortly after. In these cases, the President can effectively ignore the bill if he/she desires. Doing so allows the bill to expire in ten days.
Article I, Section 8
The eighth section of Article I enumerates specific powers of Congress, including the ability to maintain an army (or navy), the power to create courts, regulate commerce, establish post offices, declare war, and to levy taxes. This section also describes a clause known as the “Elastic Clause,” which allows the Legislative Branch to pass necessary laws for the purpose of carrying out these specific powers.
Article I, Section 9
The ninth section of Article I places limits on Congressional power, and prohibits Congress from suspending habeas corpus, bill of attainders, as well as passing ex post facto laws. This section also states that no laws can be passed that provide benefits to one state over another, and that “no money can be taken from the treasury” unless stated by law. Finally, Section 9 also prohibits titles of nobility from being established in the United States government.
Article I, Section 10
The final section of Article I deals with the powers of the state. Although part of the United States, this section posits that no state can print their own money, declare war, tax commercial goods from other states, or raise their own navy. Section 10 also declares that states are prohibited from the items outlined in Section 9.
Article II of the Constitution
Article II, Section 1
The first section of Article II deals with the establishment of the second branch of government, known as the Executive. This section declares that both a President and Vice President will lead this branch, with terms of four years each. Election to the office of President requires votes by the Electoral College. States are given one electoral vote for each member of Congress they possess. This section also designates the minimum requirements for President, including a 35-year minimum age, and that all candidates must be natural-born citizens of the United States to be eligible for office. Section 1 explicitly states that Presidents will be paid salaries that are inflexible during their time in office (i.e. cannot be changed, up or down).
Article II, Section 2
The second section of Article II provides the President with his/her powers. It establishes the President as “Commander-in-Chief” of the armed forces, and gives the Executive power to make treaties with other nations, and pick judges or members of the government (with approval of the U.S. Senate). Section 2 also allows the President to maintain a Cabinet of advisors to aid in the day-to-day operations of the government, and gives the Executive power to pardon criminals.
Article II, Section 3
The third section of Article II elaborates on the duties of the President, and states that the Executive must give a “State of the Union Address,” make suggestions to the Legislative Branch, and serve as the head of state (i.e. receiving ambassadors or leaders from other nations). Finally, Section 3 establishes that the President must ensure that all laws of the United States are carried out.
Article II, Section 4
The fourth section of Article II provides a brief discussion on the issue of impeachment. It states that the President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States are to be removed from their position of power (through impeachment) in the event of treason, bribery, or other high crimes.
Article III of the Constitution
Article III, Section 1
The first section of Article III deals with the establishment of the third branch of government known as the Judiciary (or Supreme Court). Section 1 establishes the Supreme Court as the highest court in the United States, and provides a basic understanding of the terms surrounding the lower courts of the federal government. In both cases, this section states that judges may serve as long as they exhibit “good behavior” (implying lifelong terms). It also establishes that judges are to be paid for their service to the country.
Article III, Section 2
The second section of Article III establishes the type of cases that may be heard by federal courts. In this portion of the Constitution, the Framers describe two different types of cases that can be heard by the Supreme Court, including “original jurisdiction” (where the case is first heard by the Supreme Court), and cases involving appeals. Finally, this section guarantees “trial by jury” in cases involving criminal court.
Article III, Section 3
The third section of Article III describes the crime of “treason.” According to the Constitution, treason involves individuals going to war against the United States, or providing aid (or comfort) to America’s enemies. To be convicted of this high crime, Section 3 states that two witnesses must provide testimony to an individual’s treasonous action, or that an individual may openly confess to the crime in court.
Article IV of the Constitution
Article IV, Section 1
The first section of Article IV deals with the states. It establishes that all states must honor the laws of other states (including court orders, marriages, divorces, and the adoption of children). This section also provides Congress with the authority to pass federal laws dealing with the manner in which states recognize and enforce laws from other states.
Article IV, Section 2
The second section of Article IV establishes that all citizens are to be treated fairly (and equally) regardless of the state they enter. It also describes how states are to proceed with individuals fleeing from other states that are accused of a crime. These individuals are to be returned to the state they fled from to stand trial.
Article IV, Section 3
The third section of Article IV deals with the admittance of new states to the union. This section of the Constitution provides Congress with the authority to admit new states, while prohibiting individual states from creating separate ones within their own borders. Since many of the lands during this time were owned by the federal government (and weren’t states), Section 3 also gives Congress the power to regulate federal territories, including the selling or granting of “independent status” to U.S. territories.
Article IV, Section 4
The fourth and final section of Article IV establishes that the United States will follow a “Republican Form of Government” (opposed to the concept of a monarchy or dictatorship). It also states explicitly that Congress has the power and obligation to protect the United States from invasion by a foreign country and to protect its citizens against uprisings. In cases dealing with riots or violence, states are given the ability in this section to request federal assistance to put an end to hostilities.
Article V of the Constitution
Article V of the U.S. Constitution is relatively brief, but it provides clear instructions pertaining to the amendment process. The process is lengthy and requires substantial support from the states to be passed.
Amendments can be proposed in two separate ways:
- When two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives (both) call for an amendment collectively.
- When two-thirds of the states (34 out of 50 states) call for a national “Constitutional Convention” involving the gathering of representatives of each state.
Following the proposed amendment, three-fourths of the state legislatures (or conventions) must vote to ratify (or approve) the changes; making the amendment effective and part of the Constitution thereafter.
This section also deals with three types of amendments that are explicitly forbidden. They include:
- Changes that deny states a vote in the Senate.
- Changes before the year 1808 that would allow Congress to prohibit the slave trade.
- Changes before 1808 that would allow direct taxation.
Article VI (Supremacy Clause)
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution (also known as the “Supremacy Clause) deals with the United States, and it states that in matters involving conflict between federal and state laws, the federal law must always prevail. The priority of federal over state law is known as the “Doctrine of Preemption.”
Article VI also establishes that all debts and contracts entered into by the United States under the former “Articles of Confederation” are to be assumed by the newly established government, and that all officers and representatives of the United States government (both state and federal) must swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and Constitution before they take office.
Article VII of the Constitution
Article VII of the U.S. Constitution is extremely brief, and describes the ratification (acceptance) process of the Constitution. It details how nine of the original 13 states had to accept the new Constitution before it officially went into effect. Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution in 1787, with New Hampshire becoming the ninth state to ratify it on 21 June, 1788.
What Is the Bill of Rights?
The Bill of Rights refers to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution that were officially passed by Congress on 15 December 1791. Taken together, the Bill of Rights outline individual liberties that are guaranteed to American citizens.
The First Amendment outlines one of the most cited (and important) series of rights for citizens of the United States. It states that five separate freedoms, including the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition are guaranteed to all Americans.
The Second Amendment protects (and guarantees) the right for Americans to keep and bear arms. The original purpose of this amendment was to protect citizens of the United States from a repressive government, referring to the fact that “a well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free State.”
The Third Amendment forbids the quartering of troops in private homes during times of peace without the explicit consent of the homeowner. During Colonial times, this was a major issue for early Americans as British troops would routinely use private dwellings for their own needs. After securing victory over the British, representatives wished to avoid repeats of the past; thus, providing an extra layer of security to its citizens from oppressive actions.
The Fourth Amendment provides protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” from the government.
The Fifth Amendment provides protection for individuals who are charged with crimes in the United States. Under the statutes underlined in this portion of the Constitution, citizens are guaranteed the right to a grand jury, freedom from double jeopardy (being tried for the same charge twice), freedom from self-incrimination, the right of due process, and for just compensation.
The Sixth Amendment is similar to the Fifth as it guarantees numerous freedoms to individuals who are charged with crimes. The freedoms outlined in this amendment (also known as the fair-trial rights) include the right to a speedy (and public) trial, the right for an impartial jury, the right of confrontation, right of compulsory process, and the right to counsel (representation) during trial.
The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right for a trial by jury in civil-based cases.
The Eighth Amendment provides additional rights for individuals charged with crimes, including prohibitions on excessive bails (or excessive fines that aren’t comparable to the crime committed), as well as a ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Ninth Amendment is special in that it affirms that the Bill of Rights provides extra protections for “unenumerated rights.” In other words, the Ninth Amendment states that just because a right is not enumerated in the Bill of Rights (or Constitution) “does not mean that the people do not retain that right” (Hile, 54).
The Tenth Amendment (and final portion of the Bill of Rights) provides additional powers to the states in areas not granted to the federal government (or denied to the states). The Tenth Amendment, in other words, provides greater power to the states in an attempt to limit the overall power and authority of the federal government.
Benjamin Franklin Quote
"Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom - and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech."
— Benjamin Franklin
Other Amendments to the Constitution
The Eleventh Amendment was passed in 1798, and prohibits federal courts from hearing cases involving states being sued by an individual from another state (or country). The amendment is important as it helps to define the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
The Twelfth Amendment was approved by Congress on 9 December 1803 and officially ratified on 15 June 1804. The amendment modified the way in which Electoral College votes chose the President and Vice President, respectively. Prior to this amendment, the Presidential candidate with the most electoral votes won the presidency, with second place being awarded the vice presidency. The problem with this idea was that the President and Vice President were often from two different parties, making the Executive Branch less-effective. The Twelfth Amendment remedies this issue by allowing each Presidential candidate the opportunity to nominate their own candidate for Vice President. The “Inhabitant Clause” discussed in the Twelfth Amendment, however, specifies that the President and Vice President should be from separate states, and that the Vice President must be eligible to become President in the future (meeting all of the position’s minimum requirements).
The Thirteenth Amendment was perhaps one of the greatest amendments adopted by Congress, and was officially ratified on 18 December 1865. The amendment effectively bans all forms of slavery in the United States.
The Fourteenth Amendment was officially ratified on 9 July, 1868, and granted U.S. citizenship to former slaves. The amendment also changed the rules originally located in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution which stated that slaves could only be counted as three-fifths of a person (during census taking) due to their social status. In doing so, the amendment placed limits on state power, and helped to ensure that all U.S. citizens, regardless of skin color or status, were equal under the law.
Designed in the wake of the American Civil War, the amendment also declares that the United States government would not take on the debts of former rebel states, and that Congress has the power to pass laws that protect civil rights.
The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, and provides all U.S. citizens, regardless of race, the ability to vote. Although many states were able to sidestep this amendment by imposing literacy tests, poll taxes, and restrictions that prevented African-American voters from voting, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevented these measures from occurring in the future (guaranteeing citizens of color a right to vote).
The Sixteenth Amendment was passed in 1913, and provides the United States government with the ability to collect income tax.
The Seventeenth Amendment was passed in 1913, and allows for the direct election of Senators by their constituents (rather than being appointed by state legislatures).
The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in 1919, and served to effectively abolish the sale (or manufacture) of alcohol in the United States. The amendment was later repealed due to its unpopularity.
The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, and effectively granted women the right to vote (abolishing gender as a criterion for voting).
The Twentieth Amendment was passed in 1933, and is often referred to as the “Lame Duck Amendment.” The amendment changed the starting date for Presidential and Congressional terms so that newly elected officials could start their term soon after their election. It also helped to clarify how the deaths of Presidents (before being sworn into office) would be handled, providing the Vice President with Executive power.
The Twenty-First Amendment was passed on 5 December 1933, and effectively repealed the Eighteenth Amendment (prohibition on alcohol sales or manufacture).
The Twenty-second Amendment was passed in 1951, and provides a limit on Presidential terms. In the wake of President Roosevelt and his three terms in office, Congress believed it was necessary to limit Presidents to two terms in office (for a total of eight years, with the possibility of ten years in extraordinarily rare circumstances).
The Twenty-Third Amendment was ratified by the United States on 29 March 1961. The amendment granted the District of Columbia with the right to vote in presidential elections, with three electoral votes.
The Twenty-Fourth Amendment was ratified in 1964. It outlaws the use of poll taxes in all federal elections or primaries.
The Twenty-Fifth Amendment was passed in 1967, and provides guidelines concerning the line of succession to the Presidency (in the event of removal, death, or resignation from office).
The Twenty-Sixth Amendment was passed in 1971, and lowered the minimum voting age to eighteen for both state and federal elections.
The Twenty-Seventh Amendment is currently the last amendment made to the Constitution and was passed in 1992. The amendment prevents Congress from passing immediate salary increases for itself. Any changes made to salary, according to the amendment, must take place after the next Congressional election is held.
How Are Amendments Made to the Constitution?
Amendments to the Constitution were designed to be neither easy or quick. The Founders purposely designed the Constitution in this manner to protect it from arbitrary or uniformed decisions by Congress. There are two different ways that amendments can become law:
- Congressional Proposal (First Option): In this option, an amendment may be proposed by Congress, requiring a two-thirds majority vote to approve it. Upon passing both houses of the U.S. Congress, the proposed amendment is then sent to the legislatures of each state, where three-fourths of all the state legislatures must then approve or deny the changes. If approved, the amendment is allowed to go into effect.
- Proposal by State Legislatures (Second Option): In the second option, an amendment may be proposed if two-thirds of the state legislatures “ask for an amendment to be made to the U.S. Constitution (Hile, 55). After the proposal is made, Congress is required to hold a special constitutional convention, whereby three-fourths of the state legislatures must agree to the proposed changes before it can be officially ratified.
It should be noted that this second option has never been taken in the United States. Nevertheless, the provisions for this type of amendment (found in Article 5 of the Constitution) are important as they allow for popular (state-based) proposals to be heard and considered.
What Were the Articles of Confederation?
The Articles of Confederation served as a forerunner to the U.S. Constitution of 1788, and was first drafted by the Continental Congress on 15 November 1777 in York, Pennsylvania. After going into effect on 1 March 1781 (following Maryland’s decision to ratify the document that year), the Articles provided the states with a greater sense of authority than the central government that was in place at this time, and forced Congress to rely heavily on the states for both taxes and acts (laws) that were passed. Realizing the weak position of the national government (and its potential for dire consequences), Alexander Hamilton helped persuade many of the Founding Fathers to throw out the Articles of Confederation in favor of a Constitution that strengthened the position of the central (Federal) government.
In closing, the Constitution of the United States is a remarkable document that has stood the test of time for several centuries. Its simple yet elegant design has paved the way for numerous freedoms disallowed by foreign governments throughout history; affording Americans with a unique and beneficial form of government that is responsive (and benevolent) towards its people. Although the Framers recognized that the Constitution would never be perfect, its promises of freedom have offered countless generations of Americans (and immigrants) hope for a secure and peaceful future.
- Hile, Kevin. The Big Book of Answers. Detroit, Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 2017.
- Murrin, John. Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People. Boston, Massachusetts: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
- “The Constitution Explained - The U.S. Constitution Online.” The Constitution Explained - The U.S. Constitution Online - USConstitution.net. Accessed October 21, 2019. https://www.usconstitution.net/constquick.html.
- United States Government. United States Constitution. 21 June 1788.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Larry Slawson
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 13, 2019:
Very informative. Thanks.
A B Williams from Central Florida on October 25, 2019:
One of my favorite subjects!
It's a shame that the Constitution has become overlooked for what it is, a document which protects we the people from overreaching, power-hungry politicians, into an accommodating tool politicians are selectively using, to their full advantage.
Very thorough and well done.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on October 25, 2019:
Thank you Eric, Cheryl, and Pamela! I apologize for the delayed reply (hectic schedule lately haha). I'm so glad you guys enjoyed :)
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 23, 2019:
This is a great article as so many people know very little about the constitution. I learned a lot in school. Also, I belong to the DAR and we say the preamble at every meeting.
Congress on both sides of the aisle have managed to change some of the procedures. Thank you for increasing my awareness of some of the details.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on October 22, 2019:
You are helping me he my grandson with home school. He will love this. Thank you for writing this.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 22, 2019:
Yahoo, what a wonderful piece. I just love my constitution and will be back to read some of this with my son. You got your Bible and you got your constitution. They are living. "Obedience to the law is the greatest freedom" Lincoln wrote. How true.