Unknown US Constitution Facts

1. The Living Document

The Constitution has evolved significantly due to Supreme Court decisions and legal interpretations. These alterations extend beyond the familiar 27 amendments, showcasing how legal minds have shaped its application through reinterpretation in response to changing societal needs.

Initially, the Constitution did not contain a Bill of Rights because it was not considered necessary by its framers. They conceived it as a functional outline for government operations, believing that specific rights did not need enumeration. This view later faced a strong rebuttal, leading to the Bill of Rights' adoption after much debate and hesitation during the ratifying process.

A clerical error could have derailed the ratification of the Constitution. During the signing process, an inadvertent pen stroke threatened to alter the document's meaning significantly. Fortunately, it was corrected by a vigilant clerk before the final version was approved, thus avoiding potential disaster.

While many assume the number of justices on the Supreme Court is fixed by the Constitution, it actually empowers Congress to determine this figure. Over the years, the number of justices has varied before settling on the current nine in 1869, reflecting this flexibility within the constitutional framework.

2. Missing Bill of Rights

The founding goals of the United States prominently feature the pursuit of various freedoms, but many might be surprised to learn that these were not solidified in the original text of the Constitution in 1787. The notion of adding a Bill of Rights was born out of a necessity highlighted during the ratification debates across the states. The Constitution, as signed at the Philadelphia Convention, established the framework for government and its powers but stopped short of enumerating individual rights. The framers believed such protections were inherent and didn't need explicit listing, or that they should be reserved for state constitutions.

As the ratification process progressed, it became clear that more concrete assurances were needed to protect individuals from potential government overreach. This adjustment marked a pivotal shift from viewing rights as implied or secondary to explicitly stating them—a concept that was critical in persuading a cautious public to accept the new government structure. Figures such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were instrumental in fostering this addition, eventually leading to the adoption of a well-defined Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison engaged in a passionate debate about the necessity of including a Bill of Rights in the Constitution

3. A Penmanship Crisis

During the Constitutional Convention, a misstroke of a pen almost positioned the entire document, and consequently the nation's future, on the edge of invalidation. The involved clause was crucial enough that its unintended alteration via a stray pen mark could have fundamentally changed the phrasing, thus altering its legal effectiveness or interpretation.

Amidst the charged atmosphere, a single stroke of a quill threatened to derail the monumental efforts of crafting a Constitution. However, this potential calamity was averted through the diligence of an attentive clerk. With a careful correction, this clerk secured the legal wording as intended by the framers.

This episode underscores the spirit of careful attention necessary for such a historic drafting and also highlights a certain fragility in the process. What today stands as a cornerstone of governance was, in that moment, susceptible to falling apart from something as minor as a slip of the hand.

A dramatic reenactment of the moment a clerical error nearly derailed the signing of the Constitution, with a vigilant clerk rushing to correct the mistake

4. Supreme Flexibility

The Constitution, decidedly silent on the precise number of justices to preside over the Supreme Court, delegated this determination to Congress. This allowance for modification has enabled the judicial branch to adapt to the nation's varying needs across different eras, underscoring a dynamic framework of checks and balances integral to the Constitution's enduring relevance.

The Congress, vested with this authority, has adjusted the number of Supreme Court justices multiple times, reflecting the socio-political climate and legislative requirements of various periods.

  • Initially established with six justices in 1789 to align with the number of judicial circuits
  • Expanded to seven in 1807 as new states joined the Union
  • Further increased to nine in 1837 to accommodate further national expansion
  • Peaked at ten justices in 1863 during the Civil War
  • Scaled back to nine in 1869, where it has since remained1

This element of structural flexibility within the Constitution reflects the adaptability of American governance and serves as a testament to the understanding of the framers regarding the complex, evolving nature of a republic. By leaving the composition of the highest judicial body susceptible to legislative determination, the framers endorsed a perennial balancing act, finely attuned to the nation's needs and the essential equilibrium of power among the governmental branches.

  1. Forte DF. Marbury's Travail: Federalist Politics and William Marbury's Appointment as Justice of the Peace. Catholic University Law Review. 1996;45(2):349-402.