A Quick and Easy Guide to the United States Constitution
"Supreme Law of the Land"
The United States Constitution is the most basic part of the United States government and is a symbol of the American government in much the same way as a monarch is the symbol of a kingdom.
The Constitution is considered to be the "Supreme Law of the Land" which means that there are no people within the country, in government or otherwise, who are exempt from the laws in the Constitution. This makes it an essential document when discussing the government of the United States.
Preamble - The Establishment of Purpose
Governments aren't always established with a great amount of forethought. Often times they simply spring up out of the leadership of a particular person who happens to be relatively rich and powerful. These often lead to kingdoms or similar governments.
However, when the people of the United States began to think about becoming their own country, they put a great deal of thought into what exactly government was supposed to do. Much of their inspiration came from thinkers during the period of the Enlightenment.
The Preamble of the Constitution, the brief introduction to the larger text, sets out to establish the philosophical purpose of the United States government. It famously begins, "We the people of the United States..." Unlike many other governments of the time, the United States was to come into being to serve the people of the United States primarily.
Articles of the Constitution
There are seven original Articles of the Constitution. Each one describes a different part of the government:
- Article One: Congress.
- Article Two: The Executive branch of government, the President.
- Article Three: The Judiciary, the courts.
- Article Four: The separation of the States
- Article Five: Amendments to the Constitution.
- Article Six: Makes the federal government and the Constitution the Supreme Law of the Land.
- Article Seven: Starts the new government through a process called ratification.
"Checks and Balances"
One of the fundamental attributes of the United States government is the stability it has, made possible by a system called "checks and balances".
This system works thus: there are three branches to the government (the executive, the legislative and the judiciary) and each one of them examines the others to make sure that one branch is not overstepping its bounds.
The executive branch can veto bills from Congress and appoint judges to the Supreme Court; but Congress can also impeach the President and the judiciary can examine the President for legality.
Judicial review is an important part of this system as well (even though it wasn't really established until the 1800s) and says that the Supreme Court can examine a law, passed by Congress and the President, to see if it is in conflict with the Constitution. If the judiciary finds that it is in violation, it will no longer be a law.
The Bill of Rights
Amendments are changes to the Constitution. The first ten Amendments are called the Bill of Rights because they enumerate certain rights to all Americans. Below are some of the more important and frequently cited Amendments:
- Free Press, First Amendment.
- Religious institutions and governmental institutions should be separated, First Amendment (often called the "separation of church and state" or Establishment Clause).
- Right to a fair trial, Sixth Amendment.
- During and after the civil war the 13th, 14th and 15th amendment were ratified which abolished slavery, defined what citizenship is and gave voting rights to all people regardless of race, respectively.
- Women were explicitly granted the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.
While there are quite a few rights described in the amendments to the Constitution, not all amendments have to do with rights. Some of the amendments simply describe how certain governmental actions are supposed to take place.
A Simple Document? Interpretation Options
When the Constitution is interpreted in popular discourse the arguments often fall within one of two interpretations: a literal interpretation and a "living document" interpretation. Literal interpretations are often considered to be conservative and in-line with contemporary Republicans; whereas, Living Document interpretations are generally seen as liberal and conforming to modern Democrat values.
Literal interpretations state that law should be interpreted by the courts according to the exact wording of the text of the Constitution.
Living Document adherents believe that the "spirit" of the original document should be preserved, since it was impossible for the original writers to anticipate every potential issue of judicial review.
Links for more information:
History of the Constitution
The Articles of the Confederation
Text of the Constitution
The Constitution Simplified
The Executive Branch
The Supreme Court
Analysis and Interpretation