About Our Constitution, a Series
Article 2 – About the United States Constitution
By David Robert Wood
January 15, 2011
Since its adoption, the United States Constitution has been, and continues to be, respected by many. British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) famously remarked that “the American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the thirty-seventh President of the United States from 1933 to 1945, also observed, that “The United States Constitution has proven itself the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written.”
The Constitution is generally a pragmatic document and was, and is intended to be permanent. One characteristic that has contributed to its longevity is its open-text language. It provides general outlines and guidance while allowing for implicative change based on changing circumstances. The intended permanence and longevity of the Constitution was well put by American statesman Henry Clay (1777–1852), who stated, “The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed [in 1788], but for posterity — unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.”
As discussed in the preceding article, the national government under the Articles of Confederation was clearly ineffective and virtually bankrupt. This led to the Annapolis Convention in September 1786 where the five, attending States called for a convention of all States; scheduling it eight months later on May 14, 1787.
To be later known as the Constitutional Convention, its reality was questionable because only a handful of delegates appeared on May 14th. However, over the next eleven days, delegates continued to trickle in and by May 25th, representatives from nine States were present. This resulted in a quorum of the States, allowing for the Convention to start. Representatives from three of the remaining States arrived later, but Rhode Island did not participate.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were generally well-educated individuals who had distinguished themselves in their respective State Governments. They also had diverse ideas, which often conflicted, about the appropriate form of a national government. Some were advocates of a democratic, republican form of government. Others favored a more elite government with less citizen involvement, somewhat comparable to a monarchy.
As a result, the debates and discussions were often heated, resulting in numerous compromises. However, in less than four months, the proposed Constitution was completed. It was then submitted to the Confederation Congress where it was approved on September 28, 1787. On that same day, the proposed Constitution was transmitted to the States by Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Confederation Congress, whose letter reads:
In obedience to an unanimous resolution of the United States in Congress Assembled a Copy of which is annexed, I have the honor to transmit to your Excellency the Report of the Convention lately assembled in Philadelphia, together with the resolutions and Letter accompanying the same, and have to request that your Excellency will be pleased to lay the same before your Legislature in order that it may be submitted to a Convention of Delegates to be chosen by the people of the State, in conformity to the Resolves of the Convention, made and provided in that case.
Ratification of the Constitution occurred on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth ratifying State, nine being the requirement for full ratification. The Constitution was ratified by each of the four remaining States with Rhode Island being the last of the thirteen in March 1791.
On September 13, 1788, the Confederation Congress established the beginning of the new government under the Constitution. The first Wednesday in January 1789 (January 7) was the date for appointing electors for the President, and the first Wednesday in February 1789 (February 4) was the date for the electors to assemble in their respective States. In addition, the first Wednesday in March 1789 (March 4) was established as the date for the beginning of the new Congress under the Constitution, this being the start of the government under the Constitution.
The format and style of the Constitution were well conceived, being done by the “Stylization Committee” in the Constitutional Convention. The Constitution consists of seven “Articles,” each consecutively numbered with Roman numerals “I” to “VII,” an untitled Preamble and the Signatures of the Convention delegates. The Preamble contains those famous and empowering words, “We, the people.”
Although not titled in the Constitution, the subject matter of each of the Articles is reasonably distinct. As such, each of the Articles has been unofficially, although appropriately, captioned through history as follows:
Article I – the Legislative Branch or Department (Congress);
- Article II – the Executive Branch or Department (President);
- Article III – the Judicial Branch or Department (the Supreme Court, and inferior federal courts as established by Congress);
- Article IV – State Relations and Rights (also captioned as “Relations of the States to Each Other,” “Relations among the States” and the “Rights of the States”);
- Article V – the Amendment Process;
- Article VI – the National Supremacy provision (also captioned as “General Provisions” and the “Law of the Land”); and
- Article VII – the Enacting provision (also captioned as the “Ratification” and the “Ratification of the Constitution” provision).
Each Article is further divided into “Sections”, which are sequentially numbered using Arabic numerals. As with the seven Articles, descriptive titles are not used for the Sections, but have been added in some publications. Each Section is further broken-down into paragraphs or “Clauses,” which are not numbered in the original Constitution. However, and in order to facilitate referencing, Clause numbers are often included in many publications.
The Constitution established a republican form of government, including a representative democracy that was unique in the history of the world. In general, a republican form of government is broadly defined to include those countries and states where the political powers and authority of the governmental leaders is based upon control by the citizens, i.e., the “People.” A representative democracy is a form of government where representatives, who have been duly elected by a majority of the people, make the governmental decisions and laws.
The Constitution is the fundamental and supreme law of the United States and is superior to all other laws and statutes that have been adopted by Federal and State Governments. Further, any State or Federal law in conflict with the Constitution, as Amended, is void. However, the practicalities of determining this can often be burdensome and lengthy.
Among the cardinal principles and objectives of the Constitution are popular sovereignty and limited government. Popular sovereignty means that all governmental actions, ultimately and ideally, are subject to the will of the people as expressed by and through their duly elected representatives.
Under the Constitution, the Federal Government is a limited government with the specific limitations included in the Constitution. For example, in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, specific limitations and restrictions are placed on Congress, such as in Clause 7: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”
In general, the Constitution does three basic things. It creates and establishes the form of a national government, it defines and establishes the division of governmental power between the States and the national government, and it protects individual rights and liberties. With respect to the national government, the Constitution provides for Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches. The governmental powers provided in the Constitution are divided between these three branches, a process commonly known as the separation-of-powers. This, coupled with a system of checks and balances, was designed to reduce the possibility of corruption or tyranny by the Government.
The Legislative branch is the lawmaking branch of the Federal Government; the Executive branch is to execute the laws and to manage the general Government; and the Judicial branch is to rule on Cases and Controversies implicitly including reviewing the constitutionality of Federal and State laws and actions. These functions, which are generally recognized, are only broadly stated in the Constitution. In actual operation, there have been numerous controversies regarding the extent of such powers and the allocation among and between these three branches of government.
The system of checks and balances includes Presidential approval of the laws passed by Congress, Congress’ power to override a Presidential disapproval (veto), Judicial review of adopted legislation, and Congress’ powers of impeachment relative to the Executive and Judicial branches. Another check on the Executive branch is the Senate’s power to ratify treaties and to confirm certain Presidential appointments to both the Judicial and Executive branches.
The second major purpose of the Constitution is the division of governmental powers between the States and the national Government. Such division of power is based upon the theory of federalism. Specifically, the States have ceded and deferred certain Powers to the national government while retaining others necessary for State self-governance.
A third purpose of the Constitution is the protection of individual liberties, which was generally not accomplished until the ratification of the first ten Amendments, the “Bill of Rights.” With respect to protecting individual rights, the Constitution generally only applies to governmental actions, commonly known as the “state action doctrine,” and not to the private conduct of individuals.
A unique attribute of the Constitution is the formal process allowing it to be changed. Article V provides the method for amending the Constitution and this process is intentionally difficult. The amendment process was generally designed to limit constitutional Amendments to only items of great significance and considered to be of permanent, present and future importance. The difficulty of amending the Constitution eliminates the sometimes whimsical, sometimes popular, but otherwise inappropriate subjects from cluttering and diluting the Constitution.
Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, there have only been thirty-three Amendments proposed, a small number in comparison to over eleven thousand amendments that have been introduced in Congress. Of these thirty-three proposed Amendments, twenty-seven have been ratified and six have not. Of these six, “Forgotten Amendments,” four may still be ratified today.
Of the twenty-seven ratified Amendments, eighteen are incremental and additive to the original language in the Constitution. The other nine, although possibly including additive language, have replaced or modified prior constitutional language. Impacting ten provisions in the Constitution (and two in ratified Amendments), there are six instances where original language in the Constitution has been replaced or eliminated and four instances where the original language has been restricted or modified.
In addition to the original Constitution language being modified or replaced by a ratified Amendment, there are also eight provisions in the Constitution which have expired. These are phrases and clauses in the original Constitution, which are no longer applicable due solely to the passage of time or the occurrence of a certain event. All eight of these expired provisions are the topic of the next two articles.