U.S. Constitution For Dummies
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The US Constitution was written and signed by men who craved independence from Britain but who were nonetheless steeped in its history and ideals.

The document starts with some basic precepts of English governance, but then adds some uniquely American twists — three branches of government that act to check and balance each other, for example.

Although much thought went into the Constitution, the framers left it open to amendment. The first ten amendments were ratified just four years after the Constitution itself and are known as the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution and the establishment of government

The U.S. Constitution, as adopted by the Philadelphia Convention on September 17, 1787, sets out three distinct branches of national government and provides powers to each that serve as a check on the others. The following sections offer key facts about each branch.

The Executive Branch: The President

The highest elected official in the United States, the President

  • Is Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces. However, only Congress can actually declare war.

  • Has the power to veto legislation passed by both houses of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate). Congress can override the veto only with a two-thirds majority.

  • Appoints Cabinet officers, Supreme Court justices, and many other officials — subject to confirmation by the Senate.

The Legislative Branch: Congress

The Constitution provides for two houses of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The population of a state determines how many people it elects to the House of Representatives. Each state elects two Senators, so the Senate offers an equal playing field for small states and large states.

Congress has the power to make all federal laws, and only the House can introduce tax legislation. The Senate has the power to confirm or deny the President’s appointments to the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and other key positions.

The Judicial Branch: The Supreme Court

Each justice is nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and has the opportunity to serve in that position for life as long as he or she demonstrates what the Constitution calls “Good Behaviour.” The Supreme Court effectively determines what the Constitution means.

The first ten amendments: The Bill of Rights

Some of the signers of the U.S. Constitution felt the need to spell out the rights of individual citizens in contrast to the establishment of the powers of the federal government enumerated in the Constitution itself. Thus, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights, were ratified as a group by December 15, 1791. They are:

  • Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

  • Amendment II: 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.

  • Amendment III: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

  • Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

  • Amendment V: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

  • Amendment VI: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

  • Amendment VII: In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

  • Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

  • Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

  • Amendment X: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Who signed the US Constitution?

The 38 signers of the U.S. Constitution were delegates from the original states who gathered several times and in several places, first drafting the Declaration of Independence, and then, after the colonists defeated the British army and won independence, writing the U.S. Constitution. The signers of the two documents have some overlap — Benjamin Franklin signed both, but John Hancock wrote large only on the Declaration of Independence. The delegates are here grouped by the states they represented:

  • Connecticut: William Samuel Johnson, Roger Sherman

  • Delaware: George Read, Gunning Bedford Jr., John Dickinson, Richard Bassett, Jacob Broom

  • Georgia: William Few, Abraham Baldwin

  • Maryland: James McHenry, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, Daniel Carroll

  • Massachusetts: Nathaniel Gorham, Rufus King

  • New Hampshire: John Langdon, Nicholas Gilman

  • New Jersey: William Livingston, David Brearley, William Paterson, Jonathan Dayton

  • New York: Alexander Hamilton

  • North Carolina: William Blount, Richard Dobbs Spaight, Hugh Williamson

  • Pennsylvania: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Mifflin, Robert Morris, George Clymer, Thomas FitzSimons, Jared Ingersoll, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris

  • South Carolina: John Rutledge, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Pierce Butler

  • Virginia: George Washington (President and deputy), John Blair, James Madison Jr.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

As a lawyer who consults with various U.S. firms on constitutional issues and as author of a text on British constitutional law, Dr. Michael Arnheim is uniquely qualified to present an unbiased view of the U.S. Constitution, what it says, what it means, and how it's been interpreted in a variety of situations.

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