Introduction and History of the U.S. Constitution
The Constitution written for the United States of America is the oldest and shortest written Constitution of any prominent government in the world. Surprisingly, there are around 4500 words in the U.S. Constitution. There was a need to provide a plan or certain guidelines for how governments should run the United States of America. A universal approval for how the new government would operate was imperative while forming the country, forcing the Philadelphia Convention to write it down in 1787 which came into effect in 1789. Constitution Day is marked on September 17, the annual celebration of the signing of the document by the authors. Government leaders are expected to follow all the guidelines and ideas expressed in the Constitution. The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are ‘We The People’. This is a deliberate effort at emphasising the foundation of the country itself. The administration in the U.S. was expected to be for the people and by the people. This practice would embody the efforts of the freedom fighters when they fought the British colonists to get liberty and freedom for the people. The official phrase “The United States of America” was first used in the Declaration of Independence.
Important facts to know about the American Constitution
- The Highest Law in the Land
The American Constitution is nicknamed ‘The Highest Law in the Land’. It is a nickname that has full credibility as it is the most superior document when it comes to lawmaking in the country. Every other law within the borders of the nation had to adhere to the provisions and guidelines within the Constitution. In the event of a law being passed that goes against the provisions of the Constitution, it would immediately be removed from the legislature for being unconstitutional in nature. It is for this reason that all rights and guarantees to citizens are encompassed within this document – so that no action from the government can remove the basic rights granted to any citizen. The writers of the American Constitution held onto the philosophy of not having tyranny of the people or tyranny of the government and put efforts into preventing either situation via the Constitution itself. It is also expected of government leaders to ensure that no laws come into action if they go against the contents of the Constitution.
- Structure of the American Constitution
The capabilities of all branches of government are granted by the Constitution. The Constitution embodies both the American political structure and the core principles and concepts of liberty and freedom. The United States constitution is divided into three sections. The first is the Preamble, which introduces us to the government’s goals. Aside from that, there are seven key articles that define the government’s administrative organisation. The 27 amendments are the final portion of the constitution and are revisions, additions, or adjustments to the text that was signed almost two centuries ago. The wording in the Preamble have been carefully chosen to emphasise that the authority of the government originates from the people. The government derives its authority from the people and exists solely to serve them. The remaining part of the Preamble focuses on the other purposes of the government: “to form a perfect Union, to establish Justice, to ensure domestic tranquillity, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare and to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
- Articles in the U.S. Constitution
The seven articles that come after the Preamble elucidate how the government is expected to function.
Article I deals with the Legislative branch of the government as the Framers of the Constitution wished to entrust the legislature with the leading role in governing America. This article provided details about the bicameral legislature and its law-making authority and the importance of both houses. The powers and limitations of Congress are also specified in this Article.
Article II is about the Executive branch of government with the vice president and president as leaders and how they must be elected into and removed out of their office (post). The powers and duties of the president of the United States of America are also listed in Article II.
Article III gives us details about the judicial brand of the government which is responsible for interpreting the law and ensuring that they are applied in a fair manner. The idea of a single Supreme Court and then lower courts as deemed appropriate by Congress is also within article III.
Article IV focuses on the process of creating new states and the expectations of these states as well as the guarantee of protection for each of these states by the federal government.
Article V is all about amendments which we will discuss in the next point.
Article VI emphasises that the Constitution is the Law of the Land and if there were a conflict between state laws and federal laws, the federal laws would prevail.
Finally, article VII deals with practical matters related to the Constitution and that it would come into effect only after at least 9 states ratified it.
- Amendments and Rigidity of the U.S. Constitution
An amendment is any modification to the constitution. The first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights, and they are aimed at protecting individuals’ rights and liberties. Of course, different amendments address multiple aspects of administration. One such notable amendment is the 16th Amendment in 1913, which introduced the concept of personal income tax, which is today one of the country’s most important sources of revenue, allowing them to spend it on social programmes for the people themselves.
There have been over 11,000 proposed amendments in Congress over the U.S. history but only 27 have been passed and become laws. Framers of the Constitution designed the process to be very difficult as the balance of the Constitution was paramount and changing even the wording of a sentence could have large-scale implications throughout the 3 branches of government. Until and unless there was overwhelming support from the people, no amendments could be made. Article V of the constitution elaborates on the process of proposal and ratification of amendments. There are two ways of doing this: through congressional action with the voting of 2/3rds of both houses of Congress and the other is a national convention of states. Only one amendment has been passed through the latter method.
- Checks & Balances and Separation of Powers
The Separation of Powers goes hand in hand with the system of Checks and Balances, in the U.S. Administration. Each branch of the government has their own power and duty to keep the other branches in check, thereby disallowing one single branch from becoming too powerful and causing an imbalance within the administration. The Checks and Balances System also gives branches the authority to nominate or dismiss members from other branches. Congress has the authority to impeach and convict the president for serious crimes such as treason or corruption. The House of Representatives can pursue impeachment accusations against the President, while the Senate can convict and impeach the President from power. Furthermore, Supreme Court judges are selected by the President and ratified by the Senate. Invalidating laws is a prime example of how the three branches work in tande. The legislature or Congress has the authority to create laws and the President has the power to invalidate laws through their veto powers. The Supreme Court is the defender of the Constitution and upholder of the law and can hence declare any law that has been passed and ratified as unconstitutional. The Congress, which consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives, can also overturn a Presidential veto with a 2/3rds majority in both houses.
The system of voting with regards to who has the right to vote has been altered numerous times since the signing of the Constitution in the late 18th Century. Only in 1870 was an amendment passed eradicating the racial barriers to voting, but there were still some limitations to it. Only 50 years after this was the ratification of the 19th Amendment which allowed women to vote. Native Americans or “Indians” as they were referred to as were allowed to vote only from 1924. The Federal Civil Rights Act was established in 1964 to guarantee that all men and women of voting age (21), irrespective of race, religion, or education, have the right to vote. The Universal Suffrage age was lowered to 18 in 1971. All these changes through the years have had massive impacts in the administration of the United States as a nation and have only been possible through the numerous amendments passed by Congress.
- Bill of Rights
The first ten Amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. It outlines the rights of Americans with respect to their government. It safeguards civil rights and liberties, such as freedom of expression, press, and faith. It establishes principles for due process of law and allocates to the people or the states any powers not granted to the federal government. The first 10 Amendments of the Bill of Rights are as follows:
1st Amendment: Freedom: of Expression, of Press, to Assemble, to Protest and of Religion.
2nd Amendment: Right to keep and bear arms
3rd Amendment: Prevents soldiers from forcing homeowners to vacate.
4th Amendment: Prevent the government from unreasonable search and seizure of an individual or their private property
5th Amendment: Provides for the Judicial rights of an individual including right against self incrimination.
6th Amendment: Provides additional protections to people accused of crimes
7th Amendment: Extends the right to a jury trial in Federal civil cases
8th Amendment: Bars excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishment
9th Amendment: Indicates that the inclusion of particular rights in the Constitution does not imply that people do not have other rights that have not been explicitly stated
10th Amendment: States that the Federal Government has only the authority given to them by the Constitution. If it is not listed, it is the domain of the states or the people.
- Dual Citizenship
In the U.S. there is national citizenship as well as State citizenship. Although there is a federal law with rights granted to each individual, each state’s constitution may provide its residents as many civil rights and liberties as it sees fit, as long as they do not fall short of those granted by the federal government. States can decide for themselves what legal remedies their citizens will have, what legal relationships they will support (for example, marriage), and what benefits they are entitled to. This is not to be confused with the allowance of citizens to maintain passports of multiple nations at the same time.
- Bicameralism and Federal Structure
The Bicameral structure of the U.S Government is delineated in Article I of the constitution which says that Congress is made of two houses known as the Senate and the House of Representatives. The election process of these law-making individuals and the rules they need to follow are also within this article of the constitution. The Congress, for example, cannot in any way favour one state over the other.
Federalism is a governing system in which two levels of government control the same region. In general, an overarching national government governs greater geographical regions, whilst smaller subdivisions, states, and cities regulate problems of local interest. The Constitution of the United States created a framework of “dual sovereignty,” in which the states ceded several of their powers to the Federal Government while retaining some level of autonomy. The United States Constitution has examples of dual sovereignty to guide the government in complicated scenarios.
- Presidential Form and Spoils System
The head of state in the U.S. is the elected president, who maintains the post for a period of four years unless there are unforeseen circumstances. This is because the Constitution establishes a presidential form of government which places all executive powers in the hands of the President. The President is not only the head of state but also the head of government. In a presidential government, the president is constitutionally independent of the legislative branch.
The spoils system is where the new president appoints all important officials within the government and sacks the entire pre-existing administration. The name “spoils” comes from the phrase “to the victor belong the spoils” which translates to the winner of the elections is granted the privilege of choosing their favoured candidates for various official positions within the government regardless of merit.