Constitution Day presented on
September 14, 2012 by Mr. Bret Shefter
What is the Constitution? The Constitution is the "Supreme Law of the Land." It controls every aspect of our government and legal system, both state and federal. Every law must be consistent with it, and every judge must follow it.
Why do we have a Constitution? When the United States declared our independence from Great Britain in 1776, everyone knew we would need our own government. The thirteen original states wanted to retain a lot of their independence, though – farmers in Georgia had different needs than brewers in Massachusetts, or politicians in Pennsylvania. And we didn’t want an all-powerful, tyrannical central government – after all, we were in the middle of fighting the Revolutionary War to get rid of that!
Our first try, called the "Articles of Confederation" (1781), was a failure, mostly because they left too much power with the individual states and gave very little to the central government. For example, the government could not raise troops to defend the country, or impose taxes to pay for them. The Constitution struck a balance, giving the federal government certain specific powers and leaving the rest with the states.
How does the Constitution define the federal government? The Constitution divides the federal government into three branches: the Legislative branch (Congress), the Executive branch (the President), and the Judicial branch (the courts). The Constitution gives certain powers to each branch – called "separation of powers" – and imposes a system of "checks and balances" so that no one branch can have too much power.
Has the Constitution changed? Another problem that the old Articles of Confederation had was that they could not be changed to address problems that arose later. The framers of the Constitution didn’t know everything and could not see the future, so they made sure that the Constitution could be changed by a process called "amendment." Proposed amendments must be approved by 2/3 of both houses of Congress and ratified by ¾ of the States. The Constitution has been amended 27 times so far. The most recent amendment was ratified in 1992, although it was originally proposed back in 1789!
How has the Constitution changed? The first ten amendments to the Constitution came within a few years, in 1791. When the United States were arguing about whether to adopt the Constitution, some people were afraid that it did not have enough protection for individual rights. The Bill of Rights contains many of the constitutional rights we know best today, including: freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of religion; the right to bear arms; due process; trial by jury; and protections against unreasonable search and seizure, self-incrimination, and cruel and unusual punishment. Many of these were rights that the colonies did not have under British rule.
Other important amendments include: the 14th amendment, which outlawed slavery; the 15th amendment, which guarantees equal protection to all U.S. citizens and gave African-Americans the right to vote; the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote; and the 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
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