Chapter 2: The U.S. Constitution
by Ross C. Alexander
The Constitution is a revered, enduring document that provides the framework for our democratic republic, but it is not without controversy. It is brief, flexible, and open to interpretation, just as the framers intended. As a result, the document has been able to remain largely intact in its original form for over 220 years. The Constitution provides both the theoretical and practical framework for our government, providing insight into the intentions of the framers after the during the Revolutionary and Founding periods In a practical sense, the document provides a framework for our branches of government, means by which they check and balance each other, and the scope and limits of the power of the national government. The Constitution was a product of events and forces culminating throughout the colonial and Revolutionary War eras, not something that was produced in a vacuum in 1787. This chapter not only describes and analyzes the Constitution itself, but also the historical events leading up to it. It also examines the legacy of the document and the reasons for the controversy it has caused.
Chapter 2: The U.S. Constitution
The Legislative Branch: The most powerful (with express and implied powers) Branch. Primary purpose is to legislate (make laws). The necessary and proper clause has spurred a debate of Enumerated Powers v. Implied Powers and the power or role of the federal government in relations to state governments.
To read Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, click here.
The Executive Branch: Single executive elected by electoral college. Primary purpose is to execute laws.
To read Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, click here.
The Judicial Branch: Judiciary appointed for life by the President (and confirmed by the Senate). Least powerful branch with an ambiguous purpose. Marbury v Madison is the landmark Supreme Court Case that set the precedence for judicial review solidifying the place on the Supreme Court in the separation of powers.
To read Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution, click here.
Relations among the States: All states are required to respect one another’s laws, records, and lawful decisions.
To read Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution, click here.
Amendments: Article 5 details how to amend the Constitution. There are 2 stages to amend the Constitution, and each stage has requirements that must be met.
- 2/3 Vote in the House and the Senate (common)
- Request of 2/3 of all States (34 states-Rare)
- 3/4 of all State Legislatures (38 states must accept amendment-common)
- Constitutional Convention in ¾ of all States (Very Rare)
Constitutional Change: Interestingly, since 1791, only 17 new amendments have been adopted despite obvious and vast political and social changes since the drafting of the Constitution.
It is very difficult to amend the Constitution. The main reason is the requirement of two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate, which means that any proposal for an amendment can be killed by only 34 Senators or 146 members of the House.
To read Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution, click here.
Federal Powers: Provided that all national laws and treaties shall be the “Supreme Law of the Land”. This meant that all laws adopted under the “Authority of the United States” would be superior to all laws adopted by any state and that all states would be expected to respect all treaties made under that authority.
To read Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, click here.
Ratification: Only nine states were required to ratify the Constitution. Special state conventions were to be called for the purpose of ratifying the Constitution.
To read Article 7 of the U.S. Constitution, click here.
The Anti- Federalists were very concerned that the proposed Constitution weakened State governments and would eventually lead to the loss of local Authority.
Federalists (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison) believed that elites were best to govern and feared an “excessive democracy”. The Federalists favored a strong national government; believed in “filtration” so that only elites would be able to obtain government power.
Anti-Federalists (Patrick Henry, George Mason and George Clinton) believed that government should be closer to the people and feared concentration of power in the hands of elites. The Anti-Federalists favored preserving the rights of state government and the protection of individual rights.
The Federalist Papers (a collection of over 85 essays) were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay as articles in the New York newspapers in an effort to get New Yorkers to support the new Constitution.
The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution at the first meeting of Congress to appease the anti-Federalists.
From Annenberg Classroom: The story of the Bill of Rights: the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Please feel free to select any desired subtitles.
Test Your Knowledge
Articles of Confederation
Checks and balances
Constitutional powers that allows each of the three branches of government to check some acts of the others
mechanism for choosing the president based on state population
Formal accusation by the House of Representatives against a public official for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors".
New Jersey (Patterson) Plan
Proposal at the Constitutional Convention for a national government with a single-house legislature in which favored small states.
Separation of powers
Constitutional division of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
The Federalist Papers
Essays promoting ratification of the Constitution, published anonymously by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.
The Great (Connecticut) Compromise
Agreement by states at the Constitutional Convention for a two house legislature with a lower house in which representation would be based on population and an upper house in which each state would have equal representation.
agreement between northern and southern states at the Constitutional Convention that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for representation in the House of Representatives.
Virginia (Randolph) Plan
Proposal at the Constitutional Convention made by the Virginia delegation for a strong central government with a two house legislature which benefited larger states.
For Further Reading
Please see Chapter 2 References on pages 30-31 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.
The Constitutional Amendmentitis by Kathleen M. Sullivan.
Kathleen M. Sullivan is Stanley Morrison Professor of Law at Stanford University.
How Does the Electoral College Work, And Is It Fair? by Ron Elving.
Ron Elving is the Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, as well as an adjunct professor at American University.