Have you ever heard someone say, "That's unconstitutional!" or "That's my
constitutional right!" and wondered if they were right? You might be surprised
how often people get it wrong. You might also be surprised how often people get
it right. Your best defense against misconception is reading and knowing your
A lot of people presume a lot of things about the Constitution. Some are true, some are not. This page
will detail some of the things that people think are in the Constitution, but
One critique of this page is that it is full of nit-picks. Slavery, for
example, may not be "in" the original Constitution, but it is in the
original Constitution — the word may not have been there, but the concept
was. This is absolutely true. But by studying the words and coming to know them
intimately, we gain a better understanding of our history and how some
arguments about the Constitution endure.
The Constitution was ratified in 1787, long, long before the advent of the
airplane. It provides, specifically, for a navy and an army in Article 1, Section 8. Though they were aware of
lighter-than-air flying craft, the Framers could not have reasonably provided
for an Air Force. It should be noted at the outset that the Constitution does
not provide, specifically, for the other uniformed services, the Marines and
Coast Guard. The Marines, however, as an arm of the Navy, could be excepted;
and the Constitution does provide for "naval forces," and the Coast Guard could
thus be excepted. How, then, do we except the Air Force? The first way is via
common sense — the Framers certainly did not intend to preclude the use
of new technology in the U.S. military, and because of the varied roles of the
Air Force, it makes sense for it to be a separate branch. The second (and less
desirable) way is historical — the Air Force originated as the Army Air
Corps, an arm of the Army, similar to the Navy/Marine relationship. Basically,
unless your interpretation of the Constitution
freezes it in 1789, the Air Force is a perfectly constitutional branch of the
U.S. military. Thanks to James Severin for the idea.
Congressional Districts divide almost every state in the United States into
two or more chunks; each district should be roughly equal in population
throughout the state and indeed, the entire country. Each district elects one
Representative to the House of Representatives. The number of districts in each
state is determined by the decennial census, as mandated by the Constitution.
But districts are not mentioned in the Constitution. The United States Code
acknowledges districting, but leaves the "how's" to the states (gerrymandering,
however, is unconstitutional [as seen in Davis v Bandemer, 478 U.S. 109
(1986), though, the intent of gerrymandering is difficult to prove]). Thanks to Marko Liias for the idea.
The Electoral College
The concept of the presidential elector is certainly in the Constitution,
but never is the group of people collectively referred to as "The Electoral
College." Article 1, Section 2 speaks of
"Electors," as do several of the Amendments, but never the college itself. The
term comes from common usage in the early 1800's, in the same way that the
"College of Cardinals" elects a pope, and is based on the Latin word
collegium, which simply refers to a body of people acting as a unit.
The term "College of Electors" is used in U.S. law, at 3 USC 4. For more on the
Electoral College, see the topic page.
Executive Orders have two main functions: to modify how an executive branch
department or agency does its job (rule change) or to modify existing law, if
such authority has been granted to the President by Congress. Executive orders
are not mentioned by the Constitution, but they have been around a long, long
time. George Washington issued several Presidential Proclamations, which are
similar to EO's (Proclamations are still issued today). EO's and Proclamations
are not law, but they have the effect of statutes. A typical modern
Proclamation might declare a day to be in someone's honor. Historically, they
have had broader effect, such as the Emancipation
Proclamation. A typical EO might instruct the government to do no business
with a country we are at war with. Executive orders are subject to judicial
review, and can be declared unconstitutional. Today, EO's and Proclamations are
sequentially numbered. The average president issues 58 EO's a year. As of March
13, 1936, all EO's must be published in the Federal Register. The first to have
been so published was #7316, by President Roosevelt. Thanks to Richard Barr for the idea.
Executive privilege is a right to withhold information from the legislative
and judicial branches by the President or by one of the executive departments.
There is question of whether the right exists at all, a question that has
lingered since the very first President, George Washington, asserted executive
privilege in his very first term. Most times, executive privilege is asserted
for purported national security reasons. Washington, however, asserted the
privilege when the House requested details of the Jay Treaty — his
rationale was that the House has no role in treaty-making and hence no right to
request the documents. In modern times, Bill Clinton refused to simply comply
with an order to appear before a grand jury, and instead negotiated terms under
which he would appear. Richard Nixon's is the most infamous use of executive
privilege, and while the Supreme Court, in U.S. v Nixon, 418 U.S. 683
(1974), recognized that there exists a need for some secrecy in the executive
branch, but that the secrecy cannot be absolute. The Court ordered Nixon to
turn over tapes and documents that a special prosecutor had subpoenaed. More
recently, the minutes and records of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task
force were requested and denied based on executive privilege. This case made
its way to the Supreme Court, where the Court deflected the case and sent it
back to a lower court for further adjudication. Thanks to Pat Roche for the idea.
Freedom of Expression
It is often said that one of the rights protected by the 1st Amendment is the freedom of expression. This
site, in fact, uses that term in its quick description of the amendment:
"Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression." But "expression" is not used in the
amendment at all. This term has come to be used as a shorthand, a term of art,
for three of the freedoms that are explicitly protected: speech, petition, and
assembly. While the use of "freedom of expression" is ubiquitous in this area
of 1st Amendment study, it is important to note exactly what "freedom of
expression" refers to — let this be such a note. Thanks to baf for the idea.
(Absolute) Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution does protect the freedom of speech of every citizen,
and even of non-citizens — but only from restriction by the Congress
(and, by virtue of the 14th Amendment, by state legislatures, too). There are
plenty of other places where you could speak but where speech can and is
suppressed. For example, freedom of speech can be and often is restricted in a
work place, for example: employers can restrict your right to speak in the work
place about politics, about religion, about legal issues, even about
Desperate Housewives. The same restrictions that apply to the government
do not apply to private persons, employers, or establishments. For another
example, the government could not prohibit the sale of any newspaper lest it
breech the freedom of the press. No newsstand, however, must carry every paper
against its owners' wishes. Thanks to Dave Pullin for the idea.
From each according to his ability, to each according
to his needs
According to a 2002
Law School study, nearly two-thirds of persons polled thought that this
phrase came from the Constitution or might have been crafted by the Framers.
This phrase, however, originates from Karl Marx, and was written in 1875's
Critique of the Gotha Program. It is considered by many to be a brief
summation of the principles of communism. Thanks to Heinrich Patenfleisch for the idea.
It has often been seen on the Internet that to find God in the Constitution,
all one has to do is read it, and see how often the Framers used the words
"God," or "Creator," "Jesus," or "Lord." Except for one notable instance,
however, none of these words ever appears in the Constitution, neither the
original nor in any of the Amendments. The notable exception is found in the
Signatory section, where the date is written thusly: "Seventeenth Day of
September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven".
The use of the word "Lord" here is not a religious reference, however. This
was a common way of expressing the date, in both religious and secular
contexts. This lack of any these words does not mean that the Framers were not
spiritual people, any more than the use of the word Lord means that they were.
What this lack of these words is expositive of is not a love for or disdain for
religion, but the feeling that the new government should not involve itself in
matters of religion. In fact, the original Constitution bars any religious
test to hold any federal office in the United States. For more information,
see the Religion Topic Page. Thanks to James MacDonald for the idea.
Impeachment Means Removal From Office
The word "impeachment" and the phrase "removal from office" are not
synonymous. For a President, judge, or other federal official to be removed
from office against their will (because resignation is always an option), they
must be impeached. Impeachment consists of three phases — the passage of
the impeachment by the House, a trial by the Senate, and the imposition of a
penalty if the Senate convicts. For members of the executive branch, removal
from office is automatic upon conviction. The Senate may also decide to prevent
the person from holding any other public office (see Article 2, Section 4). For any other impeachable
officer (including judges), there are basically two punishments, which provide
four options: the Senate can do nothing; they can remove the person from their
office; they can prevent the person from ever holding any office in the federal
government again, or both (see Article 1, Section
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
First, it should be pointed out that if you did it, you're guilty, no matter
what. So you're not innocent unless you're truly innocent. However, our
system presumes innocence, which means that legally speaking, even the
obviously guilty are treated as though they are innocent, until they are proven
The concept of the presumption of innocence is one of the most basic in our
system of justice. However, in so many words, it is not codified in the text
of the Constitution. This basic right comes to us, like many things, from
English jurisprudence, and has been a part of that system for so long, that it
is considered common law. The concept is embodied in several provisions of the
Constitution, however, such as the right to remain
silent and the right to a jury.
It's a Free Country
A commonly heard mantra is, "Read your Constitution — it's a free
country, you know!" Well, read your Constitution — it never says it is a
free country. The implication of the aphorism is that in the United States, you
can do whatever you want to do, and the Constitution is there to ensure that.
It is certainly true that the Constitution protects many civil rights. The 1st Amendment ensures freedom of religious choice
and freedom of speech, but those things are not without limit. You cannot
create a religion that allows you to kill someone without civil punishment; you
cannot use libelous or slanderous words without recourse. There are other
things that restrict freedom — from the ability to suspend habeas corpus
to the issuance of patents. Certainly the United States is a very free country,
but it is not totally free — which is actually a good thing, unless you
actually like anarchy. It is interesting to note that in his confirmation
hearings in 2005, John Roberts said several times, "It's a free country." It
will be interesting to see how this enters into his judicial philosophy on the
Court. Thanks to John Powers and Brad Cottel for the idea.
We often hear about the Supreme Court striking down a law or a provision in
a law, or, more often, reaffirming some law or provision. Take a look in the
Constitution — judicial review, as this is known, is nowhere to be found.
It seems like a perfectly normal action — after all, what kind of check does the Judicial Branch have on the other
two branches if laws and orders cannot be declared unconstitutional. But
judicial review is not specifically mentioned. So how did judicial review come
to be? In the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803),
Chief Justice John Marshall declared a federal law, the Judiciary Act of 1789,
to be unconstitutional, and thus null and void. This was the first time a
Supreme Court ruling overturned a law. Thanks to Spooky for the idea.
Jury of Peers
People often say "I have a right to have my case heard by a jury of my
peers!" when there is no such right in the Constitution. The Constitution does
take up the issue of juries, however. It is the nature of the jury which is not
in the Constitution. In Article 3, Section 2,
the Constitution requires that all criminal trials be heard by a jury. It also
specifies that the trial will be heard in the state the crime was committed.
The 6th Amendment narrows the definition of the
jury by requiring it to be "impartial." Finally, the 7th Amendment requires that certain federal civil
trials guarantee a jury trial if the amount exceeds twenty dollars.
Note that no where is a jury "of peers" guaranteed. This is important for
some historical and contemporary reasons. Historically, the notion of a peer is
one of social standing — in particular, in a monarchy such as the one the
United States grew up from, commoners would never stand in judgement of lords
and barons. Along these same lines, since suffrage and jury service have always
been closely tied (and in the beginnings of the United States it was typical
for only white, male, property-owners to be allowed the vote), any combination
of gender, race, and economic status would be judged by only one kind of jury,
hardly by "peers."
Today, the American ideal dictates that we are all peers of one another, that
regardless of gender, race, religion, social status, or any other division
(except age), we are all equal. In this ideal, since we are all peers, a
guarantee of a jury of ones peers would be redundant. While some argue with
this ideal, it is the most democratic way to approach the subject. Juries need
only be impartial, and not made up of one's peers, else the jury system would be
unworkable. Thanks to James Bishop for the idea and to Clive Wilson for
ideas for further explanation.
"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness"
This phrase is commonly attributed to the Constitution, but it comes from
the Declaration of Independence. The 5th Amendment does offer protections to our "life,
liberty, or property," noting we cannot be deprived of any of them without due
process of law.
In 2004, a lot of controversy began to swirl around the topic of marriage as
homosexual marriage entered the news once again. In 1999, the Vermont Supreme
Court ordered that the state must make accommodations for gay unions, bringing
the issue into the public eye. Vermont created civil unions as a result. In
2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court went a step further, and ruled that the
state must accommodate not just an institution equal to marriage, as civil
union was designed to be, but that gay marriage itself must be offered in the
state. Subsequently, mayors in New York and California began to offer gay
marriage in their towns and cities, citing civil rights concerns. Those opposed
to gay marriage began to urge that an amendment to the Constitution be created
to define marriage as being between a man and a woman only. Opponents of the
amendment pointed to the failed Prohibition
Amendment as a reason why such social issues should stay out of the
Constitution. In the absence of any such amendment, however, marriage is not
mentioned in the Constitution at any point. More information is available on
the Marriage Topic Page.
The terms "martial law" or "law martial" are not mentioned anywhere in the
Constitution, but a key aspect of martial law, the suspension of habeas corpus certainly is — Congress
cannot suspend habeas corpus except when public safety is in jeopardy in times
of rebellion or invasion. This clause, found at Article 1, Section 9, is often taken as shorthand
for martial law, but in reality, martial law can exist while habeas corpus is
in place — the two are commonly linked, but not mutually exclusive. More
details can be found on the Martial Law Topic
No Taxation Without Representation
The battle cry "No taxation without representation!" was a great political
slogan coined to counter the Sugar Act of 1764. In
order to help recoup the debt it incurred during the French and Indian War (or
the Seven Years' War), the British Parliament passed the act, which taxed all
manner of foodstuffs imported into the colonies. The Americans, in the midst of
economic depression following the war, were not particularly enamored of a new
tax. Some have written that the Americans were simply whining tax evaders. The
slogan was good for rallying the troops with an easy issue for every one to
discern: that since they were not represented in Parliament, the tax should not
be levied. However, the ultimate goal of most of the agitators was not
representation in Parliament, but independence.
The concept of "no taxation without representation" may be present in
general in the United States. But those who are unrepresented (such as convicts
and immigrants who cannot vote) are still subject to taxation. Notably, the
citizens of Washington, DC, do not have any voting representation in Congress
(though it does send a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives).
Since 2000, DC license plates have included the phrase "Taxation Without
Representation" in an effort to raise awareness of the issue, especially among
tourists visiting the city. By virtue of the 23rd
Amendment, however, DC does have at least three electoral votes. Thanks to Ntech for the idea.
Number of Justices in the Supreme Court
Article 3, Section 1 specifies that there
will be a Supreme Court, Article 1, Section 3
mentions the Chief Justice, and Article 2, Section
2 mentions the "Judges of the Supreme Court", but aside from these small
mentions, the make-up of the Supreme Court is not defined in the Constitution.
There will be a Supreme Court, there will be a Chief Justice, and there will be
other Justices — but how many? Originally, there were six members, and
the number has fluctuated up to as many as ten. In 1869, the number was set in
the law at nine, and it has remained at nine ever since. The number of justices
is now set in the U.S. Code at 28 USC 1. Thanks to Dulce Siochi for the idea.
"Of the People, By the People, For the
This phrase is commonly attributed to the Constitution, but it comes from
the Gettysburg Address. Thanks to James Bishop for the idea.
The Constitution does not directly mention paper money, a staple of today's
economy. It does give the Congress the power to "coin money," however. The
Constitution does prohibit states from
issuing "bills of credit," but no such
prohibition is in place for the federal government. What does this mean? Is
paper money unconstitutional, but coins are okay?
See FAQ Question #154 for a discussion
of this topic. Thanks to Jon Williams for the idea.
Political parties are such a basic part of our political system today, that
many people might assume the Constitution must at least mention parties in one
way or another... but there is absolutely no mention of political parties
anywhere in the Constitution. In fact, in the times of the Articles of Confederation, there weren't even any
parties; factions, perhaps; regional blocs, yes; but no parties. Not until
the Jackson and Van Buren administrations did
organized parties really take hold in the American political system. Thanks to Lois for the idea.
The Primary Election season can be exciting and heady as candidates for the
presidency, and other national and state offices, vie for their party's
endorsement and spot on the ballot. Many people today assume that because the
process is second nature that it must be spelled out in the Constitution. No
where in the Constitution, however, will you find any mention of how elections
should be conducted. Since the Constitution is silent on the issue, we have
been free to develop any system we wished, and the result is the system of
primary elections we now use. Though the point of the party elections is to
select a single member of the party for the "real" election, the courts have
still exerted influence, reasoning that through primaries, disenfranchisement
can be effected. Party elections, then, must be open to anyone asserting party
affiliation — parties cannot, for example, bar any person of color solely
on the basis of race. Since they are party elections, however, the
Supreme Court has ruled that primary elections can bar voters not registered
with that party. Thanks to Jeff Winter for the idea.
Qualifications for Judges
Article 1, Section 2 specifies the
qualifications to be a Representative, Article 1,
Section 3 specifies those for Senators, and Article 2, Section 1 those for President. The 12th Amendment adds the Vice President. But no
where does the Constitution specify how federal judges are to be qualified.
There is no minimum age and no residency requirement. The primary reason for
this is that the Framers were well aware of how judges became judges —
they were appointed because they excelled at the law. To do that, you must have
had at least a minimum of knowledge in the law (though in the 18th and 19th
centuries, lawyers were often self-taught). Thanks to Marko Liias for the idea.
The Right To Privacy
The Constitution does not specifically mention a right to privacy. However,
Supreme Court decisions over the years have established that the right to
privacy is a basic human right, and as such is protected by virtue of the 9th Amendment. The right to privacy has come to the
public's attention via several controversial Supreme Court rulings, including
several dealing with contraception (the Griswold and Eisenstadt
cases), interracial marriage (the Loving case), and abortion (the
well-known Roe v Wade case). In addition, it is said that a right to
privacy is inherent in many of the amendments in the Bill of Rights, such as
the 3rd, the 4th's
search and seizure limits, and the 5th's
The Right To Travel
As the Supreme Court notes in Saenz v Roe, 98-97 (1999), the
Constitution does not contain the word "travel" in any context, let alone an
explicit right to travel (except for members of Congress, who are guaranteed the right to travel to and from
Congress). The presumed right to travel, however, is firmly established in
U.S. law and precedent. In U.S. v Guest, 383 U.S. 745 (1966), the Court
noted, "It is a right that has been firmly established and repeatedly
recognized." In fact, in Shapiro v Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969),
Justice Stewart noted in a concurring opinion that "it is a right broadly
assertable against private interference as well as governmental action. Like
the right of association, ... it is a virtually unconditional personal right,
guaranteed by the Constitution to us all." It is interesting to note that the
Articles of Confederation had an explicit
right to travel; it is now thought that the right is so fundamental that the
Framers may have thought it unnecessary to include it in the Constitution or
the Bill of Rights. Thanks to Marko Liias for the idea. Thanks to W.H. van
Atteveldt for the note about Congressional travel.
Note that in all of this, though, the Constitution never explicitly ensures
the right to vote, as it does the right to speech, for example. It does require
that Representatives be chosen and Senators be elected by "the People," and who
comprises "the People" has been expanded by the aforementioned amendments
several times. Aside from these requirements, though, the qualifications for
voters are left to the states. And as long as the qualifications do not
conflict with anything in the Constitution, that right can be withheld. For
example, in Texas, persons declared mentally incompetent and felons currently
in prison or on probation are denied the right to vote. It is interesting to
note that though the 26th Amendment requires that 18-year-olds must be able to
vote, states can allow persons younger than 18 to vote, if they chose to. Thanks to Roy Neale for the idea and to Brian Shaprio for
The Separation Of Church and State
The phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear anywhere in the
Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the 1st
Amendment erected a "wall of separation" between
the church and the state (James Madison said it "drew a line," but it is
Jefferson's term that sticks with us today). The phrase is commonly thought to
mean that the government should not establish, support, or otherwise involve
itself in any religion. The Religion Topic Page
addresses this issue in much greater detail. Thanks to Pat Roche for the idea.
The Separation Of Powers Clause
Though it may be implied or even directly stated in some news reports, blog
postings, or web sites, there is no clause of the Constitution that is called
the "Separation of Powers Clause." This is because there is no one clause that
says "separation of powers" or "checks and balances" or any other phrase that is
used synonymously. The concept of the Separation of Powers is written
into the first three articles of the Constitution, as detailed elsewhere. Thanks to Eric Zuesse for the idea.
Originally, the Framers were very careful about avoiding the words "slave"
and "slavery" in the text of the Constitution. Instead, they used phrases like
"importation of Persons" at Article 1, Section
9 for the slave trade, "other persons" at Article 1, Section 2, and "person held to service
or labor" at Article 4, Section 2 for slaves.
Not until the 13th Amendment was slavery
mentioned specifically in the Constitution. There the term was used to ensure
that there was to be no ambiguity as what exactly the words were eliminating.
In the 14th Amendment, the euphemism "other
persons" (and the three-fifths value given a slave) was eliminated. The Slavery Topic Page has a lot more detail. Thanks to ches04 for the idea.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal"
The Constitution never uses the word immigration, so how is it that
the rules for immigrants, and quotas for countries, are set by the federal
government and not by the state governments? After all, as the 10th Amendment states, are the powers not delegated
to the United States held by the states, or the people?
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Congressional power to regulate
naturalization, from Article 1, Section 8,
includes the power to regulate immigration (see, for example, Hampton v. Mow
Sun Wong, 426 U.S. 88 ). It would not make sense to allow Congress to
pass laws to determine how an immigrant becomes a naturalized resident if the
Congress cannot determine how, or even if, that immigrant can come into the
country in the first place. Just because the Constitution lacks the word
immigration does not mean that it lacks the concept of immigration.
There is also an argument that immigration is an implied power of any
sovereign nation, and as such, the federal government has the power to regulate
immigration because the United States is a sovereign nation. While it is true
that the United States is a sovereign nation, and it may be true that all
sovereign nations have some powers inherent in that status, it is not necessary
to determine if immigration is such a power that does not even require
constitutional mention, because the Naturalization Clause handles the
power. Thanks to Jason Potkanski for the idea, and Stephen Lush
for some clarification.
I get a lot of notes from people with topics not in the Constitution. I
expand on suggestions as time permits. Before time permits, here is a
bullet-list of the topics that have been sent to me, each of which I hope to
eventually add a few notes about:
Constraints on the people Thanks to Robert Dawes
Education Thanks to KateAlways
Student, Animal, Gay, Lesbian Rights Thanks to Jim