The war on terror, government surveillance, weapons, and racial injustice are just some of the many crucial topics dividing the United States today. As Americans continue to deal with central questions about their own rights and about the extent of the government’s power, their constitutional foundations are as relevant today as ever. The Constitution of the United States is the oldest written constitution in force in the world today. An enduring symbol of American national identity and heritage, it remains the basis for facing the ongoing challenge of Uniting the States in a large and diverse country. This concise, readable commentary presents the Constitution in a way that is accessible for interested readers with little background knowledge about American law. Each section is explained clearly, while historical information and connections to recent and current controversies help make this ground-breaking document come to life.
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Introduction to the Constitution
The Framers of the Constitution
The Constitution and Slavery
The Purpose and Structure of the Constitution
The Bicameral Congress (Article I, Sections 1-7)
One Congress, Two Houses (Section 1)
The House and the Senate (Sections 2-3)
General Rules for Both Houses (Sections 4-6)
Making Laws (Section 7)
Congressional Powers (Article I, Sections 8-10)
Financial Powers (Section 8, Clauses 1-6)
Various Powers (Section 8, Clauses 7-18)
Limits on Congress (Sections 9)
Limits on the States (Sections 10)
The President and the Supreme Court (Articles II-III)
Electing the President (Article II, Section 1)
Presidential Powers (Article II, Sections 2-4)
The Supreme Court (Article III, Section 1)
Extent of Judicial Power (Article III, Sections 2-3)
American Federalism (Articles IV-VII)
The States (Article IV)
Amending the Constitution (Article V)
Constitutional Supremacy (Article VI)
Ratification (Article VII)
Basic Liberties of Citizens (Amendments I-IV)
Freedom of Religion (Amendment I, Clause 1)
Freedom of Expression (Amendment I, Clause 2)
Arms and the Security of a Free State (Amendment II)
Security and Privacy (Amendments III-IV)
Rights Under the Justice System (Amendments V-X)
Basic Rights of the Accused (Amendment V)
Further Rights of the Accused (Amendments VI-VII)
The Imprisoned and Convicted (Amendment VIII)
Rights not Mentioned Here (Amendments IX-X)
Early Reforms and American Reconstruction (Amendments XI-XV)
Early Governmental Reforms (Amendments XI-XII)
The End of Slavery (Amendment XIII)
Equally Protected Citizens (Amendment XIV, Section 1)
The Right to Vote (Amendments XIV, XV)
The Early 20
Century (Amendments XVI-XXI)
Power to the People (Amendments XVI-XVII)
Purchasing Alcohol (Amendments XVIII, XXI)
Voting Rights for Women (Amendment XIX)
Reforms in Governmental Procedure (Amendment XX)
Further Modifications (Amendments XXII-XXVII)
Presidential Elections (Amendments XXII, XXIII)
Abolishing the Poll Tax (Amendment XXIV)
Replacing a President (Amendment XXV)
Voting Age and Congress’ Pay (XXVI, XXVII)
Outlook: Constitutional Law
Appendix A: The Constitution (text)
The Bill of Rights
Additional Amendments to the Constitution
Appendix B: Overview of Amendments
Appendix C: Government Comparison
Index of Selected Key Terms
After more than 200 years, the Constitution of the United States is still the “highest law of the land” (Article VI). Anyone who becomes familiar with its central principles will not only gain insight into one of the most important documents of democratic government, but will also become much better equipped to understand and to participate in debates about current issues concerning the United States. Of course, due to this country’s current status as a superpower with tremendous impact and influence around the globe, the American government’s decisions and how it applies the Constitution interest and affect far more people than the citizens it represents.
This concise, readable commentary presents and explains the American Constitution in way that is accessible for a broad audience. Its contents are closely connected with lectures and seminars I have given at the University of Tubingen in Germany. While written mainly for university students without specialized background knowledge about American law, this book can prove helpful for any interested readers (of any nationality) hoping to gain a clearer and deeper understanding of the government’s powers and citizens’ rights in the United States.
This book’s structure closely follows that of the Constitution. Background information is provided in Chapter 1, and Chapters 2-→ cover each section of the original Constitution’s articles, which define how the American government works. Chapters 6-→ address the Bill of Rights, the classic document that protects American citizens’ liberties as well as their basic rights under the justice system. Chapters 8-→ then discuss further amendments that have been added to the Constitution over the course of American history. Chapter 8 focuses mainly on the 19th century, featuring the end of slavery and the resulting, new framework for understanding constitutional rights, while Chapters 9 and → explain developments in the 20th century. Throughout the commentary, the specific sections and “clauses” (i.e., paragraphs) are referenced, so that these can easily be found in the text (cf. Appendix). The most significant changes in this second edition are in the more extensive discussion of civil rights as guaranteed in the amendments, which are now handled in five chapters instead of three. Moreover, recent developments are included, in particular the controversy about privacy rights that exploded shortly after the first edition was published earlier this year (see especially under Amendment IV).
Secondary literature that has been helpful to me is listed in the “Further Reading” section. In particular, the CRS Annotated Constitution provided online by Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute is recommended for more detailed notes and references to relevant laws and court decisions. I would like to thank the German-American Institute in Tubingen as well as the faculty and students of Interdisciplinary American Studies at the University of Tubingen for their continued support. I would also like to thank Matthew Kellogg of the German-American Institute and Christopher Landes of the history department at the University of Tubingen for their feedback and suggestions concerning this book. As a theologian, my own academic training dealt largely with interpreting texts in their cultural context. This background has proved very fruitful in studying my country’s foundational legal text. Furthermore, my work for the German-American Institute in Tubingen and at the university has included many opportunities to represent and explain my home country abroad. I hope that the following explanation of the Constitution will contribute to trans-Atlantic understanding as well.
The men who drafted the original Constitution had to face the challenge of establishing uniform law and order for diverse groups. Several independent states were brought together under a new central government. How can states’ rights be respected, while also binding all the states together in one country and ensuring that all citizens’ individual rights are equally protected? These kinds of questions guided how the Constitution was drafted and amended, and continue to be asked today. Differing opinions led to compromises between the Constitution’s drafters as well as to disagreements between them about how to interpret the document. Since then, the country has continuously struggled through heated political battles and even through a bloody civil war. Today, the nation spans much of the North American Continent (plus Hawaii) and features deep division on many important political and cultural issues.
In the midst of political battles and cultural changes, the Constitution remains an enduring symbol of unity. Compared to other peoples with strong democratic traditions, Americans are particularly attached to their Constitution. The British system, which developed as a gradual process, does not have a written constitution. Switzerland’s constitution has been changed and replaced a number of times; a completely rewritten version took effect in the year 2000. France adopted a new constitution in 1958, and this in turn has been amended 18 times. The American Constitution, by contrast, was ratified in 1789, and the Bill of Rights was added just two years later. After that, in over 220 years, the Constitution has been amended only 17 times. The fact that the Constitution is so old helps give it an aura of being an almost “sacred” document, a text that Americans believe in and see as central to their identity as a people. A sense of preserving the nation’s revolutionary heritage and remaining faithful to the Constitution set forth by the founding fathers is still very much alive in the American mentality today. This common heritage and respect for the legal system established by the Constitution remains the basis for the ongoing challenge of uniting the states.
Tübingen, end of summer, 2013
Lucas Kent Ogden
This third edition is essentially an updated version of the second edition. Firstly, I have revised and expanded on the text, both to further clarify questions that have been raised by my students and to update the material to reflect developments in the last two years. Since the second edition was published, Supreme Court decisions as well as social and political developments have already had a significant impact on how the Constitution is now being interpreted. Secondly, this version of Uniting the States has been made more user-friendly. At the request of my students, a brief index of selected topics has been added to make it easier to find information, and additions to the appendix help put a broader perspective on Congress as well as on the amendments.
I would like to thank my students at the University of Tübingen for their questions, insights, and interest, which have encouraged me to update the material in this book. In particular, I would like to give a special word of thanks to Pekka Gaiser for designing the cover for this edition.
Tübingen, fall 2015
Lucas Kent Ogden
In some ways, the common perception of the United States as a relatively young country can be misleading. In fact, Americans not only have a strong sense of national tradition, but also use an older written Constitution than any other country. Whereas European countries’ legal foundations typically reflect their 20th century background of being re-built after the Second World War, or after the Cold War, Americans still base their government and basic rights on a document from the 18th century. It was drafted against the background of the American Revolution with the goal of uniting a group of former colonies that had fought for independence together. The “framers,” a select group of respected men from different states, developed a blueprint for a new government. Although they failed to address the problem of slavery or to solve the conflicts between the states, the framers managed to establish a Constitution that has endured to the present day.
In the spring of 1776, delegates from several British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard of North America came together to resume the Continental Congress, which had been meeting to decide how to handle the conflicts between the colonies and their mother country. The American colonists, seeing themselves as free British citizens, had longed to be able to send representatives from their colonies to the British Parliament in London. When taxes were imposed with this wish left unfulfilled, many colonists felt that the British principle of “no taxation without representation” was being violated. The British authorities, on the other hand, insisted they had done much to protect the colonists and their rights and that their interests were “virtually” represented in Parliament and taken into consideration. Moreover, as the British had lost both lives and money defending the colonies and securing the trade routes over the Atlantic for them, they found the Americans’ behavior in refusing to pay taxes unfair and ungrateful.
Tensions only continued to escalate on both sides, with both American protests and British attempts to suppress them becoming more aggressive. When colonists in Boston, Massachusetts, finally dumped tea into the harbor rather than paying taxes on it in 1773 (the so-called “Boston Tea Party”), Parliament responded by taking away the right of Massachusetts to govern itself. Alarmed at this heavy-handed treatment, widely perceived as an act of tyranny, Americans in other colonies sided with Massachusetts in its resistance to British rule, and in 1775 the Revolutionary War began. Delegates from all the colonies finally agreed that they would all break away from the British Crown, which they believed had betrayed the liberties and equal rights that they should have had under British law. On July 4, 1776, they formally issued a Declaration of Independence explaining why it was necessary to “dissolve the political bands” held to Great Britain. The best known segment (paragraph 2) proclaims:
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.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
This declaration goes on to explain that King George III has not respected these rights; instead of basing his authority on “the consent of the governed,” he has asserted “an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Therefore, the people have a “right” and even a “duty” to free themselves from this oppressive government and to claim their natural, self-evident and God-given rights.
The actual situation was more complicated. It is difficult to harmonize these words about equality and a right to liberty with the fact that their chief author, Thomas Jefferson, like many colonists, owned slaves! Furthermore, many colonists themselves still felt strong ties to Great Britain and were hesitant to embrace a revolution. However, as the British began to assert their authority with increasing aggression, the Continental Congress decided that complete self-government was the only solution. The Declaration of Independence thus proclaimed the thirteen “united colonies” to be “free and independent states.” On the one hand, the various states had joined together with a common purpose, but on the other hand each state maintained its own independence. These two aspects of being united and yet distinct are expressed in the name given to this union – “The United States of America.”
As the Revolutionary War continued, the delegates put forth a common plan in “The Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union.” Once accepted by all the states, this document guided the emerging country through the Revolutionary War and beyond, from 1781 to 1789. The Articles defined the United States as a “Confederacy,” with each state keeping its own “sovereignty, freedom and independence” (Article 2). The purpose of this “firm league of friendship” was to mutually help each other maintain and defend their liberty (Article 3). Moreover, each state was directed to send a small group of delegates to take part in Congress every year (Article 5). While a simple majority of the states were needed for many of the union’s decisions, particularly important ones required nine states’ agreement (Article 9).
Under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress lacked the power to enforce decisions it made, and the states remained more or less autonomous. For example, Congress could request taxes, but receiving them depended on the individual state governments (Article 7). The states were also slow to pay off their debts from the Revolutionary War, and hesitant to let Congress tax them. In addition, the states argued among themselves, e.g., about their conflicting claims to western territories. Another concern was civil unrest. Indebted farmers started an uprising in Massachusetts, causing landowners and creditors to fear a new rebellion. Standing on the brink of economic ruin and divided into independently-minded states, some feared that the union formed after the American Revolution would not last long.
At the time when they declared independence, most colonists identified primarily with their own states and were not ready to think of all these as composing one united country. However, the Confederation’s failures convinced more and more Americans that a stronger central government would be necessary. Finally, the Continental Congress officially acknowledged the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and called for a convention to revise them. In the course of the year 1787 all states except Rhode Island responded by sending delegates to meet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Instead of merely revising the Articles, these men ended up writing a new document altogether. This Constitution preserved a Congress in which all the states were represented, but now it would be both stronger and more democratic. Decisions would have to pass through two distinct houses of Congress that would keep each one’s power in check. There would also be an executive branch of government with the ability to make sure that decisions made by Congress were actually enforced, as well as an independent court system to review the people’s complaints. The United States thus developed from a group of separate colonies into a confederation of independent states, and finally into a republic directed by a central government.
The Constitutional Convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787, in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the largest city in the United States at that time. Of the 70 delegates appointed, only 55 of them actually came to the deliberations at all, and 29 attended regularly. In the end, 39 delegates signed the new constitution. At the same location, six of them had signed the Declaration of Independence eleven years before, and five had signed the Articles of Confederation nine years before. There were even two men who signed all three documents. The 39 signers of the Constitution who set up the new government’s framework are referred to as the framers. These men represent a subgroup of the founding fathers or simply founders, meaning in general those who led the United States along the way from several colonies to an independent country. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the most important founding fathers did not attend the Convention. Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and John Adams, whose pamphlet Thoughts on Government was influential, were on diplomatic duty in Europe. Perhaps some aspects of the Constitution might have turned out differently if these men, who each ended up becoming president, had participated in the debates. Both wanted, for example, to put strict term limits on politicians so that the same people would not be re-elected, and to include a bill of rights from the start.
The framers were prominent citizens with political experience. Almost all of them had been involved in the American Revolution and most had served in the Continental Congress. About half were college graduates, and the other half were self-taught. They were financially stable and influential men, but some had rather humble backgrounds. Some small farmers had been elected as delegates as well, but were poorly represented. Not only would it have been difficult for them to leave their farms to spend a few months attending debates, but they also generally disagreed with the Convention’s goals. In fact, many Americans would have rather remained in a loose confederation, and worried that a new government could threaten the liberties that the revolution had been fought for. The framers, however, had become convinced that a strong, centralized government was necessary for the young country to secure its borders, develop its economy and be taken seriously by Europe. They were afraid of the country falling apart into independent states in conflict with each other and incapable of dealing very well with uprisings, Indian raids and international trade. Being educated and experienced, and understanding the complicated nature of politics, diplomacy and economics, the framers considered themselves more qualified than others to determine what kind of government was needed.
Having been written by a rather elite group, the Constitution of course did not represent all Americans’ perspectives equally. Moreover, the framers and their families had important personal interests at stake in strengthening a government that would secure their own societal position, property, and business opportunities, and would be able to hinder uprisings. At the same time, it is also believable that they sensed a strong moral responsibility towards their communities and states. Their efforts indicate a desire for a government that would serve the best interests of society as a whole (at least from their perspective), both for their own generation and for many to come. Though the framers made the government significantly stronger than it had been under the Confederation, they were also careful to keep its power – and their own – limited. Despite their shortcomings, the framers did in fact succeed in setting up a blueprint that would guide their country into the coming three centuries and serve as a basis for it becoming a major world power and a symbol of liberty.
The presence of George Washington of Virginia and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania made the Convention seem very prestigious. Washington, a long-time military officer who led the American forces in the revolution, was seen as a hero throughout the states. In his desire to bring Americans closer together, Washington was ready to accept compromises to strengthen the union. Franklin, at 81 years of age by far the oldest delegate, was perhaps the most famous American internationally. The largely self-educated key figure in trans-Atlantic diplomacy and in the Enlightenment was known as a printer and popular author, as well as for his contributions to science, philosophy and politics. At the Convention, the aged Franklin encouraged respectful discourse among the younger delegates.
While Washington served as the Convention’s official president and Franklin played a moderating role, the two framers who actually spoke most often during the debates in Philadelphia were Pennsylvanians Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson. Morris, a polished gentleman from a wealthy, aristocratic family in New York, is regarded as the Constitution’s chief drafter. Wilson was a Scottish immigrant and an aggressive land speculator with a turbulent life; his expertise in political theory helped him to be influential in the debates. Morris was hesitant to give power to the common people, being concerned that they could be too easily swayed by money and charismatic speakers, while Wilson spoke out for greater democracy and favored popular elections.
The man who gave the third largest number of speeches in the debates in Philadelphia was James Madison of Virginia, known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Of frail health and indecisive about a career, Madison finally got involved in politics. Having spent much of his life on his aristocratic family’s estate, and not having been healthy enough to participate in the Revolutionary War, the 36-year old was less experienced than most delegates. As it turned out, however, he was quite brilliant in assessing the exact weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and laying out concrete plans to build a stronger union. As the main drafter of the “Virginia plan,” Madison mapped out a new government with three branches, the law-making branch having two chambers. This was the basic structure adopted by the convention and is still used in the United States today.
The rest of the framers also attended the meetings, participated in the debates and contributed to formulating the Constitution. They represented conflicting interests between smaller and larger states, different opinions about how strong and how democratic the government should be, and were deeply divided about slavery. In the end, the Constitution was a group effort reflecting a long series of compromises, and most delegates were not completely happy with the final document. Under the new government, disagreements continued between the founding fathers, including among those who had signed the same Constitution. When one of the framers, Alexander Hamilton, insisted on creating a national bank, the founding fathers could not agree on whether or not the Constitution allowed this. Congress is not explicitly given this power, but Hamilton claimed it was implied. James Madison and his mentor Thomas Jefferson emerged as leading opponents of this theory of implied powers. Some framers sided with them, while others supported Hamilton, whose views ultimately prevailed in the first Congress. This development shows that the common question about what the framers intended is much too simplistic. If we could ask the framers how to interpret the Constitution they themselves drafted, signed, and defended, we would hear conflicting answers!
The most problematic issue that the framers could not agree about was slavery. Although owning people obviously conflicts with the ideals of liberty expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution did nothing to stop it. The southern states in particular would not have accepted a constitution that prohibited slavery. The delegates were trying hard to bring the states closer together. As the slavery problem was too controversial for the Constitutional Convention to realistically solve, it was generally avoided. When it absolutely had to be addressed, then this was done indirectly and with compromises.
Even when slaves are referred to, the embarrassing word is never specifically mentioned. Article IV says a “Person held to Service or Labour” could not gain freedom by simply fleeing to another state, but would have to be returned (Section 2, Clause 3). A central compromise can be seen in the problematic “three-fifths” rule. When determining the total number of citizens in the respective states, “free persons” are distinguished from “all other Persons,” who are then each counted as three-fifths of a person (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3). The Articles of Confederation had not counted slaves at all and had even specifically mentioned “all white inhabitants” as making up the relevant population (Article 9, Clause 5). By contrast, the Constitution avoided any references to skin color and referred to those held in slavery as “persons.” Nevertheless, by allowing people who were not “free" to at least partially be counted among the population, states with many slaves gained a right to greater representation in government.
Almost half of the men at the Convention, including Washington and Madison, owned slaves themselves. Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton and others opposed slavery. Many from both groups realized how morally problematic and contradictory it was to own people as property in a country proclaiming liberty, though how they personally dealt with this varied. Franklin freed his own slaves, and then as the first president of the anti-slavery society in Pennsylvania helped to abolish slavery in his state. Madison, who owned slaves all his life and could not imagine blacks being integrated into white society, supported the idea of relocating black slaves to a place where they could live free in their own communities. Washington, a life-long slave owner as well, finally freed all his slaves in his will, also providing for their children to be educated.
Many framers hoped that slavery would end gradually, and in fact the early years under the Constitution were marked by progress in this direction. In 1787, when the Constitution was drafted, Massachusetts was the only one of the thirteen states that had abolished slavery. Under the new government, more states followed in gradually phasing out slavery until the North was dominated by free states. Furthermore, the Constitution protected the slave trade, but only until 1808, when an end to shipping in any more slaves would be possible (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1). This was enacted by Congress in that year, one year after the slave trade had been outlawed in Britain. Unfortunately, as this did not affect people who had already been brought over as slaves or their descendants, the end of the slave trade over the Atlantic did not lead to the end of slavery as many of the framers had hoped it would, but the slave population in the South only continued to grow as ever more black children were born as slaves. In fact, slavery continued a full three decades longer in the United States than in Britain, where it was abolished in 1834. The plan to send slaves back to Africa, which Madison and other founders had financially supported, was not ultimately successful either. In the early 19th century, some freed slaves were relocated to small American colonies on the western coast of Africa, which became the Republic of Liberia in 1847. However, most blacks remained in the United States as slaves, as their masters did not set them free.
As long as slavery existed, the Constitution’s ideals of forming a “more perfect Union” and ensuring “domestic Tranquility” stated in the Preamble would be very far off, to say the least. The southern, agriculturally based states continued to cling to this institution as part of their culture, whereas Americans who found it extremely inhumane demanded its immediate end. The states became increasingly polarized, culminating in a civil war, when most of the slave states attempted to leave the union. Abolishing slavery on a national level first became possible after the union victory in the Civil War, and was finally accomplished by Amendment XIII in 1865. The fact that slavery had been tolerated by a document proclaiming the “Blessings of Liberty” and “establishing Justice” shows that the Constitution failed even in its own stated goals.
“Liberty” can hardly mean the freedom to deny others any rights. The very heart of America’s revolutionary heritage – people’s rights against oppression – was denied as long as states were permitted to treat human beings as pieces of property. This inherent contradiction could only be overcome by guaranteeing full rights as citizens to people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it would take a long time for the original American vision of freedom to finally reach its logical conclusion.
In addition to its background and historical situation, the Constitution’s own stated purpose and basic structure should be taken into account as well. The document begins with the following famous Preamble:
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 first words clarify that the authority for governing is derived not from a monarch or an aristocracy, but from the people. The framers do not place themselves above those they represent, but count themselves among them. They thus do not presume any right to set up a new government without making clear that they are doing so in the interest of all the states.
According to the Preamble, the intention behind creating a government in the way laid out in the Constitution is to build a unified country with an enduring commitment to the ideals of justice and liberty for its citizens. This purpose includes six aspects. First of all, the document should help “form a more perfect Union” by laying out a plan for bringing the states together. By “Union,” more is meant here than a “Confederacy” of independent states. A centralized government with the power to make laws for the whole republic and direct its affairs is demanded. The goals that follow have to do with ensuring a stable system of law and order. In order to “establish Justice” and “insure domestic Tranquility,” an executive branch that enforces laws, as well as a reliable court system that can review people’s complaints, will be necessary. This kind of stable, functioning government accountable to the people can then “promote the general Welfare.” Furthermore, a centralized military headed by a commander-in-chief serves the interest of the “common defence,” helping secure the union against potential wars. Finally, the “Blessings of Liberty,” specifically, political liberty for the American people to govern themselves, must be secured by a government based on representation and with limited powers so that it cannot oppress its people. In the hope that this system would endure for many generations to come (“…and to our Posterity…”), the Constitution would have to be written with care and there would have to be a clear way to amend it in the future.
A comparison of the Constitution’s Preamble with Article 3 in the Articles of Confederation, written ten years before, is revealing. The purpose is no longer simply for states to offer support and friendship to each other, but “to form a more perfect Union.” This idea of binding the states closer together into one united country had become more acceptable than it had been a decade before. At that time it was the states that entered “into a firm league of friendship” in the interests of “the people of the different States” (Articles 3-→), but now the delegates speak as representatives of the people with one voice as a collective group – “We, the people of the United States.” Again, while the Articles of Confederation mention the “liberties” of each of the states, the Constitution has a collective focus on “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” with “ourselves” referring to all Americans together.
The Preamble portrays the American people as one collective group, speaking of their “general Welfare,” the common good. A loose confederation of separate states seeking their own interests had led to economic and social instability. The framers had to compromise both their own wishes and those of their own states in order to draft a document that could be accepted throughout the union. The Preamble does not promote a vision of individuals each pursuing their own goals. Instead, it calls upon Americans to be willing to put aside their own personal interests and even to give up some of their independent states’ rights under the Confederation for the sake of forming “a more perfect Union.” The reality, however, fell far short of this vision of unity. People’s primary loyalty was still to their respective states and many did not like a central government interfering. Within a century several states would finally try to leave the union and to form a new Confederacy of independent states. It was not until the pro-union forces won in a bloody civil war (1861-1865) that the authority of the Constitution and the enduring nature of the union were asserted once and for all. Only after this point was the original usage of the plural for the “United States” gradually replaced by the singular form (“the United States is,” instead of “are”), reflecting that the states together compose one nation.
The text following the Preamble consists of two major sections. There are seven articles ratified on March 4, 1789, and then there are 27 amendments that have been added since. The articles lay out the basic structure of the American government, defining how it works and what its powers are. The first article makes up about half of the original text and is concerned with Congress, the government’s law-making branch. After that, six shorter articles deal with additional questions about governmental power, such as ones regarding the president and the courts. The articles define the government’s power, but not the precise rights of American citizens. The first ten amendments were added as a group shortly afterwards, obtaining official status in 1791. This “Bill of Rights,” which is enshrined in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. along with the original Constitution, is held in particularly high esteem by the American people.
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