is the base for all laws in the United States.
The Constitution is the highest law in the United States. All other laws
come from the Constitution. It says how the government works. It creates the
Presidency. It creates the Congress. It creates the Supreme Court. Each state
also has a constitution. The constitutions of the states are their highest law
for that state — but the United States Constitution is higher.
The Constitution can be changed. The Constitution is changed by an
"amendment." Among the amendments is a list of the rights of the people. By
listing these rights, they are made special. It is illegal for the government
to violate those rights. As of 2006, there are 27 amendments. Not all of them
involve rights, but many do. The first ten amendments are special. They are
called the Bill of Rights.
worked for four months over the course of a hot summer in Philadelphia to
craft the Constitution.
The Constitution was written in 1787. Yes, it is over 200 years old. We
actually have old copies of what was created. The master copies are stored at
the National Archives in Washington D.C.
We also have pictures of the Constitution on this
From May to September 1787 a group of men known as the Framers met. The
Framers talked about what should be in the Constitution. The United States was
a brand new country. The United States had a government that did not work very
well. The Framers met to find a new way of running the country. This meeting
is called The Convention. Some of the Framers are famous to us today. They
include James Madison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington.
At that time there were only 13 states. The men came from all the states
except Rhode Island. Each state had ideas for the new government. The Framers
had many debates. They talked a lot. They make a lot of speeches. By talking
about it, they came up with a plan that everyone could agree with. They had to
have a lot of compromises. Only by agreeing could all the arguments be worked
out. Ben Franklin said the he was not sure if the plan was perfect. He said
that it was probably as perfect as it could be.
This map of the
United States was published in 1784 by William Faden.
After the Convention, the Constitution had to be approved. Actually, only
nine states had to agree to, or ratify, the Constitution. But everyone wanted
all 13 states to agree. Two states took a long time to decide to agree. These
states were Rhode Island and North Carolina. In the end, they did agree. Once
the first nine states agreed, we say the Constitution was "ratified." New
Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify.
When the Constitution was written, the Framers knew their creation was not
perfect. They knew that other people would have good ideas for the
Constitution. They wanted to be sure that it wasn't too hard to make changes.
They also wanted to be sure that it wasn't too easy.
The Framers added an amendment process. An amendment to the Constitution is
a change that can add to the Constitution or change an older part of it.
Originally, some people did not want to ratify the Constitution. One big
reason was that it did not have a bill of rights. A bill of rights is a list of
rights that belong to the people. The government is not allowed to break these
rights. Some of these rights might sound familiar: the right of free speech;
the right to practice your own religion; the right to be silent if you are
arrested. The original Constitution had no bill of rights. Many of the Framers
did not think it was needed. But many people wanted one. So, promises were made
to add one, using the amendment process.
Soon, the new government started meeting. Congress proposed the Bill of
Rights. A list of twelve changes was sent to the states. In 1791, ten of those
changes were agreed to by the states. The ten changes were added to the
Constitution. These ten changes are called the "Bill of Rights."
Other changes to the Constitution are discussed below. The last change to
the Constitution was made in 1992. The 27th Amendment is actually one of the
two left-over amendments from 1791. It is very unusual for an amendment to
take that long to be accepted, but it is possible. Some, like the 26th
Amendment, are accepted very quickly, in just 100 days. Most, though, take a
little over a year to be ratified.
This image of a
black slave appealed to the humanity of free whites, asking, "Am I not a man
and a brother?" The image accompanied the antislavery poem "Our Countrymen in
Chains" by John Greenleaf Whittier, published in 1837.
In 1787, most of the black people in America were slaves. A slave is
someone who is owned by someone else. Today, there are no legal slaves in America.
It was common in 1787. As time went by, more people thought that slavery was
wrong. Most of the people who wanted to end slavery were from the states in the
north. They were called abolitionists. Most of the people who wanted to keep
slavery were from the states in the south. Slavery was important in the South.
A lot of how the people in the south made money involved slaves. Slaves were
worth money. Slaves picked their crops, like cotton and tobacco.
The people in the North wanted to end slavery. They said it was an
important step for America. The people of the South were afraid of losing
slavery. They were afraid of losing business. They thought that having
slavery was important for each state choose on its own. When President Lincoln
was elected, the South got very angry. Lincoln had said he didn't like
slavery. Most of the Southern states decided to break away from the United
States. They created their own country. It was called the Confederate States
of America. The USA did not agree that the states of the CSA could break away.
The Civil War followed. The USA won that war. It was a terrible war. Many
people died. Many buildings were destroyed.
Something good did happen, though. Slavery ended. With the 13th Amendment,
slavery was made illegal. The 14th Amendment said that every person born in the
United States was a full citizen. Even former slaves were full citizens. The
15th Amendment made sure that black people could vote.
These changes protected many freedoms. But it took a long time to change
peoples' minds. Many people still did not like black people. They thought
that white people were better. For 100 years, some laws reflected this
feeling. Today, these laws are also gone. Most people do not think that
anyone is better than someone else just because of their color.
A portrait of
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Stanton and Anthony were leaders
in the "suffragette" movement, the movement to give the vote to
At the beginning, we talked about the men who were the Framers. For a long
time, most of the people who shaped the country were men. This is not because
women could not help. It is not because women did not want to help. Instead,
men held all the positions of power. Men were the Presidents. Men were the
members of Congress. Men were the mayors. Men were the owners of companies.
Women had very little chance to advance in life. Today, many women like taking
care of the home. Today, though, this is a choice. Before, this was the only
option for a woman.
Women had no role in government. They had no role in politics. They
were homemakers. They took care of their husbands or fathers. They took care
of kids. Most men did not feel that women should vote. There were actually
laws that said women could not vote. Many people decided this was wrong and many
women and some men fought against it. Finally, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was
passed. It says that women can vote in all elections.
Today, women are active in government and politics. Being able to vote is a
big part of that. Without the ability to vote, women had no voice. Without a
voice, there was no reason for politicians to care what women think. They did
not care about issues that are important to women. Once women could vote, some
got very interested in politics. Some women ran for office. There have not yet
been any women as President. However, it is only a matter of time before the
first woman President is elected.
The Bill of Rights
protects the freedom of, and from, religion.
The Bill of Rights
We already talked about the Bill of Rights. It was passed because some
people were afraid that the government would have too much power. They were
afraid that some important things could be made illegal. They wanted to be
sure to keep those things legal.
For example, you can say whatever you want about the President. You can say
that you don't like his hair. You can say you don't like his voice. You can
say you don't like the war in Iraq. You can say you don't like his tax ideas.
It seems normal to us to be able to say these things. We can criticize the
President. We can criticize a member of Congress. We can criticize a mayor. We
can say what things they do that we don't like. This is only possible because
of the Right of Free Speech. The Bill of Rights protects Free Speech.
The freedom to
express yourself, in speech, in writing, and in protest, is also protected by
the Bill of Rights.
Imagine if there was no right to free speech. A law could be passed that
says that if you criticize the President's hair, you can spend a day in jail.
Or worse, criticizing the President's taxes can get you a year in jail.
These are the kinds of laws that the Framers were afraid of. The Bill of Rights
protects us from such laws. We cannot be put in jail because of our
The Bill of Rights protects a lot of other freedoms. For example, you can
believe in any religion you want. The government cannot force you to believe
in something. You cannot be forced to house soldiers in your home. The police
cannot come into your home without a good reason. The police may not take your
papers without reason. The police cannot force you testify against yourself in
court. In fact, the police cannot force you to tell them anything at all.
This is called the "right to remain silent". And you cannot be given unusual
punishments. You cannot be given twenty years in jail for speeding.
An interior view
of the House of Representatives, the "lower" house of the United States
Congress. The House is known as the "peoples' house" because since the
beginning, the members were elected by the people.
How it all works
The Constitution sets up the government. It is split into three branches.
The first is the Legislative. The second is the Executive. The third is the
Judiciary. Each one has its own role in how the law is made and used.
The Legislature makes the law. The legislature is called the Congress. It
is split into two parts. The first is the House of Representatives. The
second is the Senate.
Each Representative comes from a district in one of the states. That
person's job is to represent the people in that district. The people elect the
Representative. They have the right to tell him or her how they feel about
issues. There are 435 Representatives. Bigger states have more
Representatives. Every state has at least one.
The Senate is made up of 100 Senators. There are two Senators from each
state. The people elect Senators. Senators should represent the interests of
all of the people.
When the Congress wants to pass a law, both the House and the Senate must
agree to the exact same law. If they cannot agree, then the law cannot
bill-signing ceremony. In this image, Lyndon Johnson is signing the Medicare
Bill in 1965, as former President Harry Truman looks on.
The role of the Executive is mainly to make sure the law is carried out. The
President heads the Executive. The Executive also includes the Vice President.
The Secretaries of all the departments are also in the Executive. One department
is the Department of Homeland Security. Another is the Department of
Education. And one more is the Department of Defense.
Before a law becomes a law, the President must agree to it. If he does not
agree, he rejects, or vetoes, the law. When he vetoes a law, he sends it back
to the Congress. Congress can then try to pass the law again. The President
can also refuse to sign a law — if he does, it will become a law any way.
The government has lots of checks and balances. This is one example of the
checks and balances. The Congress must pass laws the President will agree to.
The President is accountable for his decisions regarding laws.
The last branch is the Judiciary. This includes all the federal courts, all
the way up to the Supreme Court. States have their own court systems, too. The
state courts are under the national courts. The role of the Judiciary is to
interpret the law.
The law might say, "It is illegal to break into someone's home." If someone
is caught breaking into a home, the courts will ask several questions. First,
can the government make this illegal? If it cannot, the law is called
"unconstitutional." Such laws are invalid. Next, the court will ask
if the person is actually guilty. Usually, a jury will find someone guilty or
not guilty. Sometimes just a judge decides this.
A trial by jury is a right. It means that other people from your area will
decide if you broke the law. Sometimes juries, and courts, make mistakes. If
someone is found guilty, they can "appeal." There is a set of special courts
set up for appeals. The last court of appeal is the Supreme Court. Whatever the
Supreme Court says is the end. There is no appeals court higher than the
This page is a very basic introduction to the Constitution. It also talks
about some of the topics that surround it. There are lots of good books in
your local library, too. They will let you get a lot more detail. This site
also has a lot of good pages that have more detail. See the list of links
below for some of these pages.