Summary of the US Constitution
The people of the United States have joined together to establish this new improved form of government that will ensure domestic peace, protect the general welfare, establish a just legal system, and provide for a common defense for the current citizens and their heirs.
The legislative branch is bi-cameral. The House of Representatives consists of representatives sent from each state, the number of which is determined in proportion to the state's population. Population is determined by counting all free people and indentured servants, plus 3/5 of all slaves. The Senate consists of two representatives from each state. The two houses have different age, citizenship, and term requirements.
The vice president of the United States serves as president for the Senate, and the Senate tries all cases of impeachment. Although both houses of Congress propose new laws, laws related to spending money or taxation may only originate in the House of Representatives. The president must approve a proposed bill once it has passed in both houses of Congress. If he rejects it, a 2/3 majority in each house of Congress will still make the bill a law.
Members of both the Senate and House of Representatives govern their own administrative and procedural affairs, and must keep a public record of their proceedings and occasionally record their votes. They must meet in the same location, at least once each year. Neither branch may adjourn without the permission of the other.
Members of Congress receive a salary from the U.S. treasury, are immune to criminal proceedings while in Congress or when traveling to and from Congress, and have the right to freedom of speech while in Congress.
Congress has the right to coin money, levy taxes, regulate commerce, create rules for naturalization, establish post offices, govern patents and copyrights, pay debts and borrow money on U.S. credit, fix the standard of weights and measures, declare war, support and control the army and the navy, and utilize the state militias. States maintain the right to appoint officers in the militia and train the soldiers.
Congress is responsible for designing the court system beneath the Supreme Court, and for determining punishment for crimes on the high seas and those relating to international law.
Congress will manage the affairs of the capital district, once created, and the affairs of any other federal land reserved for buildings like forts and arsenals.
Congress has the authority to make any other law, not specifically listed above, that they deem necessary to carry out their responsibilities listed above.
Congress may not interfere with the slave trade prior to 1808, suspend the right to speedy trial by jury, place additional taxes not in proportion to the population count, impose export taxes, or give preferential treatment to one state over another.
Congress may not spend any money that was not previously voted on, and must publicize its spending. The United States will never grant titles of nobility, and people who work for the government cannot accept a gift from a foreign nation or government without congressional approval.
The states are not allowed to make treaties, coin money, authorize privateers, accept anything but gold and silver to repay debts, allow trial without jury, interfere with contractual obligations, or grant titles of nobility.
Only with congressional approval may states collect imposts, keep troops, declare war, enter into agreement with any other state or foreign power, or engage in war unless imminent danger requires them to do so.
The president and vice president of the United States make up the executive branch, and serve a four-year term. They are elected by the votes of electors from each of the states, which are counted in the Senate. In the case of a tie for president, the House of Representatives votes. In the case of a tie for vice president, the Senate votes.
The president must be at least 35 years old, American born, and a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years. If the president is unable to do the job, for whatever reason, the vice president steps in. Congress determines the procedure if both the president and the vice president are unable to execute the duties of the office.
The president must take an oath, serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the army and the navy, and is responsible for appointing ambassadors, members of the Supreme Court, and other officers of the United States. Congress must approve all presidential appointments.
The president presents information to Congress on the "State of the Union," and may be impeached and removed from office upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
The judicial branch of the government includes a Supreme Court, and other courts determined by Congress. Judges are appointed for life, salaried, and can only be removed for misbehavior. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over cases involving ambassadors, and in which a state is involved. In all other cases involving the U.S. Constitution, any state or any U.S. law, the Supreme Court serves as a court of appeals.
All trials, except for in the case of impeachment, require a jury, and will take place in the state in which the crime occurred.
Treason is defined as making war against the U.S. or giving aid or comfort to the enemy, and can only be proven upon confession of the convicted, or two identical testimonies by witnesses. Congress establishes the punishment for treason, but it may not extend to the convicted person's heirs.
Citizens in one state are guaranteed all the rights and privileges in all the states, and states are required to respect the laws and judicial proceedings of every other state. Fugitives, either criminal or slave, who escape to another state must be returned upon request.
New states are admitted into the union under the authority of Congress, and no new state can be created out of an existing state (or states) without the permission of Congress and the states involved. Congress controls the process by which new states are admitted. Every state must be a republican government, and the U.S. government will protect each state from invasion, insurrection or anarchy.
Amendments may be proposed to the U.S. Constitution by agreement of 2/3 of both the Senate and the House, or by agreement of 2/3 of the state legislatures. New amendments become part of the Constitution only by approval of 3/4 of all the state legislatures or by 3/4 of special state conventions. No amendments may change the law about the slave trade or taxation before 1808. New amendments can never reduce the number of senators for each state without that state's permission.
The U.S. government will take full responsibility for all debts incurred by the government since the beginning of the American Revolution.
The U.S. Constitution and any national laws lawfully made under it, represent the highest law in the land, and states may not make any law or decision which is not supported by the Constitution.
All government officials and representatives, at the state and national level are bound by oath to support the Constitution, but they can never be discriminated against for their religious beliefs.
The U.S. Constitution will go into effect when 9 of the 13 states ratify it in convention. The document is approved unanimously by all states present on September 17, 1787.
The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May 1787 for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. Almost immediately, delegates unanimously agreed on the need to replace the Articles with a new document that created a stronger central government. However, the delegates could agree on little else after that.
The crafting of the U.S. Constitution highlighted the intense conflicts that existed in 1787 between states large and small, between north and south, and between a variety of different political philosophies. But rather than defeating the process, the conflicts between delegates resulted in compromises that strengthened and improved the document. The process of compromise exhibited by the delegates was in many ways reflected in the flexibility the document allowed for continuous political debate, compromise, and adaptation.
The delegates based their initial design of government on political theories and their own experience with government under the Articles. The rest of the issues presented themselves in the form of debates over representation, the enumeration of slaves, the control of commerce, the protection of individual rights, and the amount of power granted to the people.
Delegates understood that the Articles of Confederation had been severely hampered by the inability to collect taxes and to enforce any of its laws. They also realized that without a strong central government to establish a line of credit, negotiate uniform trade laws, and guarantee domestic peace, they would gain no respect in the world arena and would become an easy target for invasion. The states had taken to petty arguments and jealous behaviors amongst themselves and showed no sign of mutual respect. Therefore, the power to tax, the power of enforcement of the law, and the creation of a national government that was superior to the government of the states became priorities at the Convention.
The concept of a strong central government comprised of three branches empowered to check each other came from the French philosopher Montesquieu. James Madison from Virginia was the first at the convention to propose a full plan of government drawing on Montesquieu's ideas.
Madison provided for the three branches, and for a system of "checks and balances." He also proposed a bi-cameral legislative branch similar to the Parliament of Great Britain. With the exception of the manner of electing representatives to the legislature, Madison's original plan of government almost completely resembles the final document.
Madison's plan instigated the most serious and divisive debate facing the Convention: the issue of representation. Representing the large state of Virginia, Madison argued for a legislative branch in which each state sent a number of delegates proportional to their population.
This did not impress the smaller states, which had been equally represented in the Confederation Congress, and did not intend to give that power up. For delegates like William Paterson, from New Jersey, it was absolutely necessary that states maintain equal representation in Congress despite their differences in population size.
The resolution came in the form of the Great Compromise, attributed to Roger Sherman of Connecticut. The bi-cameral legislative branch would consist of a lower house, in which representation was proportional to population, and an upper house, in which representation was equal for every state.
Having overcome the hurdle of representation, the Convention turned its attention to reaching compromise on the other divisive issues, and to drafting the final document.
On the issue of slavery, no mention was made about the legality of holding slaves. However, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation and taxation, and the slave trade would be legal until the year 1808. This managed to appease both North and South because slaves would be partially counted, but would be taxed by the same proportion.
On the issue of commerce, Congress gained the authority to tax and regulate all trade except exports. This also appeased southern plantation owners worried about the commercial power of the North.
On the issue of how much power is safely held by the people, the delegates acted conservatively to place many checks on the influence of the masses on the national government. Removing direct election power from the people in all cases, except for election of representatives the House of Representatives, the framers demonstrated their clear mistrust of their less-educated fellow citizens.
The delegates did not include a Bill of Rights to guarantee citizens protection of their rights in the face of a strengthened central government. The omission of the list perhaps resulted from a sense of expediency to get the new government in motion. However, this omission caused great debate and opposition to the U.S. Constitution during the period of ratification, and threatened to stall the process. Upon promising to include a Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution, however, the requisite nine of thirteen states complied, and the document went into effect in 1789.
The other issues that had served as points of debate during the Constitutional Convention did not cease to be divisive under the new government. In fact, the Civil War resulted from disagreements between North and South on the issue of slavery, commerce, and the equitable control of Congressional power. The checks on the power of the people also came under political attack over time. Amendments to the Constitution revised the method of election of senators, the president, and the vice president to place the power closer to the people. Because the delegates fully understood that drafting a perfect political system was impossible, they did what they could to reach compromises on the most divisive issues, and to provide the kind of flexibility that would allow for a constantly evolving, more perfect, government over time.