Summary of the US Constitution

 

Delegates came to the Constitutional Convention from every state but Rhode Island on May 25, 1787, and decided to draft an entirely new framework of government, which would give greater powers to the central government. This document became the Constitution. Once approved by the Constitutional Congress in 1787, the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification.

 

The US Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation (written in 1776-77 and ratified March 1, 1781) in 1789 . The Constitution created a strong central government with broad judicial, legislative, and executive powers. However, the extent of these powers, were purposely reined in by the Constitution itself. The Constitution laid out the framework for the new United States government. It reconciled the differences between the states on the subject of representation, and represented, ultimately, a balance between the delegates' knowledge that the national government had to be strengthened, and their fear of tyranny. Congress was granted the power to impose and collect taxes, to regulate interstate commerce, and to conduct diplomacy as the single voice of the people in international affairs.

 

Congress is a bicameral (having two chambers) legislative body. The two houses of Congress were assembled differently. The House of Representatives membership was determine by state population, while the Senate were fixed at two per state.

 

States were disallowed to coin money and tax interstate commerce, and the national government had the power to invoke military action against the states. The Constitution declared all acts and treaties made by Congress to be binding on the states.

 

The Constitution set forth a government composed of three branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch was given certain powers over the others to ensure that no one branch acquired a dangerous amount of power. This system, known as “checks and balances”, was the cornerstone of the new framework of government. The system of checks and balances represented the solution to the problem of how to empower the central government, yet protect against corruption and tyranny.


The President was granted the power to veto acts of Congress deemed unnecessary or unjust, and would be responsible for appointing federal and Supreme Court judges. The Senate had to ratify treaties proposed by the President, and had to approve the President's cabinet appointments. Congress as a joint body was given the power to impeach, try, and remove the President from office, as well as Supreme Court justices, should it become necessary.


The judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, had the responsibility and power to interpret the laws passed by Congress.

 

The Constitution set forth a form of federalism that balanced the authority of the state and national governments. At that time, the state legislatures would elect the members of the Senate, as well as select delegates to the Electoral College, which selected the President. Furthermore, the Constitution could be amended by a vote in favor of amendment by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The writers of the Constitution intended to increase the power of the federal government, but they were wary of taking too much power from the states.


One debate that was resolved by the Constitution was that of whether slaves should be considered persons or property for reasons of representation. Southern delegates argued that slaves should count toward representative seats, whereas the representatives of northern states, most of which had already or would soon abolish slavery, argued that to count slaves as members of the population would grant an unfair advantage to the southern states. The result of this debate was the adoption of the “Three-Fifths Clause” which allowed three-fifths of all slaves to be counted as people. The Constitution further required a state to return runaway slaves to the states from which they came. Under the Constitution, Congress was permitted to ban the importation of slaves after 1808, but there was no explicit mention of the framers feelings about the legality of slavery.

SUMMARY OF THE CONSTITUTION

The main body of the Constitution is divided into seven articles. The first three establish and describe the three branches of government, thereby embodying the concepts of separation of power and checks and balances. Article I is the longest. It deals with the legislative branch of government and conveys to the casual reader the intent of the Founding Fathers that Congress would be the central organ of government. The powers of Congress are listed in 18 clauses of Section 8 of Article I. The powers listed in Article I, Section 8, are called the enumerated powers of the federal government. The federal government would not have authority in any areas not on the list. Later, the Supreme Court changed this original premise by judicial interpretation.

Article I, Section 9 lists the powers denied to the federal government, while Article I, Section 10 lists the powers denied to the states.

Article II establishes the executive branch of government and prescribes the earliest method of electing the President. There is a brief description of executive powers and provision to remove members of the executive branch by Senate conviction on House impeachment charges.

Article III establishes the judicial branch of government and specifies there shall be one Supreme Court. The jurisdiction of the court is partially spelled out, and what constitutes treason is described. Relationships among the states are designated in Article IV. The procedure to admit new states is described and the United States obligation to protect the states is stated.

Article V describes the procedure to amend the Constitution.

Article VI asserts the supremacy of the United States government over the states.

Article VII specifies the ratification procedure among the states to institute the Constitution.