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The US Constitution

What's its history and meaning?


Updated December 30, 2012

A constitution is a document that determines how a state or nation should be governed. It sets up the organization of the government and the principles that form the basis of the government. Many people believe that constitutions are a relatively modern creation, but they aren't. Evidence has been found of a Sumerian constution that is around 2300 years old!

The American Constitution isn't nearly that old, but it is the oldest national constitution still in use. It was ratified in 1788 and put into effect in 1789. It is also the world's shortest constitution. It has only 7 articles and 27 amendments.

1. Basic Foundation of the American Constitution

The principles on which the U.S. Constitution is based come from the great thinkers of "The Enlightenment". The view of many of these thinkers toward government was that it was a social contract, an agreement between the government and the people. Many of the Founding Fathers were influenced by John Locke's view of the social contract, which kept the power in the hands of the people and focused on the rights of the individual.

2. Natural Rights

It is often difficult for people to understand the concept of Natural Rights, particularly today when we hear so much about Human Rights. These may seem the same, but they aren't. Human Rights include things that people cannot always provide for themselves, like health care or education. But many believe that all humans should have access to these things. Natural Rights, however, are those things that exist in the natural world. The Founding Fathers believed in Natural Rights, which include life, liberty, and property, and the right to protect those rights. They were deeply influenced by men like John Locke and Thomas Paine.

3. First Continental Congress - 1774

In 1774, most of the American colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia to meet at what came to be known as the Continental Congress. They met to discuss their grievances, which included the Intolerable Acts. This First Congress created a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" to send to King George III and agreed to meet again the next year if the grievances were not met. They were not met and so the delegates met again in 1775 and continued to meet as it functioned as government of the "united" colonies.

4. Second Continental Congress - 1775

The Second Continental Congress convened in 1775. Many had hoped for a reconciliation with England, but in 1776, the members signed the Declaration of Independence authored by Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration clearly set forward the principle that we have natural, inalienable rights: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." After some debate, the phrase "pursuit of happiness" was substituted for John Locke's "property" so that the slave-owning colonies could not claim a right to slaves as their property.

5. Articles of Confederation

In 1781, the Continental Congress developed the first governing document of the newly named United States of America. This document was "The Articles of Confederation" and was in effect from 1781 to 1789. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783, so the country was governed for some time with this document. The colonists were afraid of what they believed to be the "corruptibility" of a strong federal government, so they gave very little power to the Congress, keeping most of it in the hands of the states, each of which considered itself a sovereign state. However, the articles gave their federal government so little power that the articles were a failure. John Hanson was the first president of the Continental Congress under the Articles.

6. Philadelphia Convention (later known as the Constitutional Convention)

The Articles of Confederation were such a problem that delegates agreed to meet in Philadelphia on the pretext of revising them. However, they really wanted to create a new Constitution that would give the federal government more power. They knew how people would react to granting a federal government more powers, so they met in secret, even though it meant sitting in a closed room during the hot summer months. There were many heated debates ending in several compromises, but their view on the role of the Constitution was clear from Jefferson's words: The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.

7. Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights is not part of the original Constitution. It makes up the first ten of the 27 amendments. At the Constitutional (Philadelphia) Convention, listing rights was not one of the delegates' concerns. This was probably due to the view of the Founding Fathers that mankind has inalienable rights that come, not from the government, but from a creator, from nature. When the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, the issue of guaranteeing rights arose. There was quite a bit of debate, not only on which rights to include, but whether to name any at all. The fear was that people would come to believe that only the rights listed would be those due to the people and they would be seen as rights granted by the government.

8. Conclusion

While constitutions may have existed for more than 2000 years, the United States Constitution was the first (and only) constitution to create a government designed to protect rights people have by virtue of being human. It was not designed to determine which rights it would grant to its citizens. Even the Bill of Rights does not actually grant rights; it states which rights "may not be infringed" by the federal government. Although the Constitution replaced the weak Articles of Confederation, it was not intended to create an all-powerful government. It was meant to prevent the federal government from becoming so powerful that it would not only fail to protect the inalienable rights of its citizens, but would begin to restrict the rights.

9. Sites for Kids

Ben's Guide to the Constitution of the United States
This site has great information for kids about the Constitution and more. It also has information on the government and American history.

Congress for Kids
This is good for very basic information.

The USConstitution.net site is an absolutely wonderful site. It has almost everything you could want about the Constitution, including the Constitution itself (with annotations to explain some definitions, meanings, and changes) and many of the other founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence. It also has special sections for kids.

Bill of Rights Institute
This site has some fun activities for kids.

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