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Understanding the US Constitution

A Nutshell, Plain-English, Version of the Constitution and Amendments

The U.S. Constitution is described as a "living document", which essentially means it a dynamic document that is broad enough to grow as the nation has grown and continues to grow.

In 1787 George Washington presided over a convention of delegates from 12 of the 13 original states. No delegate from Rhode Island was present. The session, which began in May and ended in September, resulted in a draft of the Constitution. That draft consisted of the preamble and seven articles.

The document would go into effect in after it had been ratified by 9 or the 13 states. New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the document (June, 1788); and the Constitution went into effect in March, 1789.

Text of the brief preamble follows:

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The 7 Articles: Each Article involves a different part of the government, and each is broken down into sections, which address sub-topics under a main topic.

Article I addresses the powers of the Legislative branch of the US government, as well as laws governing its make-up and structure.

Article II address the powers of the Executive branch of the US government, as well as laws governing the office of the presidency, election to that office, and "all things Executive Branch".

Article III addresses the Judicial branch of the government. This includes Federal courts, the Supreme Court, and matters relating to the Federal government, such as the dealing with the crime of treason.

Article IV addresses the states. It is the Article that covers "full faith and credit" among the states, privileges of citizens, establishment of new states, laws governing extradiction, and other individual-state-related issues.

Article V addresses ways that the Consitution can be amended.

Article VI addresses the following three points, relating to the Federal government and the Constitution, itself.

1. Debts contracted under the confederation secured. (Relates to debts that occurred before the Constitution went into effect.)

2. Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States to be supreme.

3. Who shall take constitutional oath; no religious test as to official qualification.

Article VII relates to the ratification of the Constitution.

Amendments I through X were ratified in 1791. Commonly thought of as the Bill of Rights, the ten amendments include:

I: Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to petition.

II. Right to bear arms.

III. Quartering of troops.

IV. Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures of homes and individuals.

V. Trials for crimes and compensation when the government takes private property for public use.

VI. Civil rights for trials in crimes enumerated.

VII. Civil rights in civil suits.

VIII. Prohibits excessive bail, fines, and punishments.

IX. Reserved rights of the people.

X. Powers not delegated ( "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people")

Brief summaries of what is addressed by Amendments XI through XXVII follow. More complete information is available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html (or by searching, "list of amendments to US Constitution):

XI: Amends Article III, Section II and involves judicial power

XII: Amends a portion of Article II, Section I and involves electing the president and vice president.

XIII: Amends a portion of Article IV, Section II and prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for those tried and convicted of crimes).

XIV: Section 1 involves citizenship and rights, and states that no state shall deprive any citizen of rights, liberty, or property without due process.

Section 2 involves the apportioning of representation and voting, as well as laws relating

Section 3 relates to government officials engaging in insurrection or rebellion against US government.

Section 4 relates to the public debt and essentially states that debt incurred to suppress insurrection or rebellion shall not be questioned; but that debts incurred in the aid of insurrection or rebellion; or debts claimed as a result of emancipation of slaves; would be considered illegal and void.

XV: States that no citizen will be denied the right to vote because race, color, or previous servitude and that Congress has the right to enforce this amendment by appropriate legislation.

XVI: Amends Article I, Section 9 and relates to the power to collect taxes on income or other sources.

XVII: Amends Article I, Section 3 and relates to electing/appointing senators, terms, and having two senators per state, each having one vote.

XVIII: Prohibits the manufacture, sale, and transportation (within, to, and from) the US of intoxicating lliquors. Repealed by the 21st amendment.

XIX: States that the right to vote shall not be abridged because of a person's sex.

XX: Involves the start and end of the president's term, as well as how it is handled when a president has died.

XXI: Repeals the prohibition of intoxicating liquors

XXII: Relates to limiting the number of terms a president can serve

XXIII: Relates to appointing electors of the president and vice president.

XXIV: Relates to the right to vote in a primary election and failure to pay poll or other taxes.

XXV: Amends Article II, Section 1 and addresses removal of, resignation by, or death of a president and the process by which a vice president assumes the role of president.

XXVI: Modifies Amendment XIV, Section 2 and addresses and relates to the rights of citizens 18 years of age and older, not being prohibited from voting because of age.

XXVII: Addresses the process by which changes in compensation of members of Congress may be made.


 Last updated on September 10, 2012

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