The Constitution: These United States, (re)defined

Welcome back, Readers. On Wednesday’s part two of this three-part look at the founding documents of the United States, we explored the Articles of Confederation, which established a governmental structure in the years immediately following America’s independence from Britain. It’s taken me a few days to figure out the best way to do this, as it’s such a large document, but today we will look at the Constitution, the supreme law of the United States. Excerpts will be taken from the full transcript, as found at the National Archives website.constitution-1486010_640

After the issues with the Articles of Confederation resulted in a government that was essentially paralyzed, a Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia in 1787, where it was hoped that the Articles could be amended to satisfaction. When this failed, the Framers set about drafting a new document, one that would mitigate the problems of an extremely weak federal government while preserving the ideals of liberty and republicanism. The Preamble (introduction), perhaps the most famous part of the Constitution, sets out the document’s purpose in soaring tones:

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 Preamble makes clear that the laws of the government come from the people of the nation themselves, and not from a king or distant parliament as had been done during the Colonial Era. Ratified in 1788, the seven articles that make up the original, unamended Constitution lay out the structure and powers of the new system of  government.

Articles 1-3 describe the Legislature (House of Representatives and Senate), Executive (Office of the President), and Judiciary (federal court system, including the Supreme Court) branches, and the powers that they will have.

Article 4 outlines how the federal government will relate to the states. Provisions are made for the creation of new states, freedom of movement between states, and the guarantee of a republican form of government in all states under the new government. It is this last provision which allows the federal government to sent troops into a state to preserve or restore law and order, such as took place during Reconstruction following the Civil War.

Article 5 lays down the rules for amending the Constitution. There are two ways this can happen, and I’ll let the US Senate’s exhibit on the Constitution explain it:

The standard device, used for all amendments so far, is for both houses of Congress to pass by two-thirds vote a proposal, which they send to the states for ratification, either by state legislatures or by conventions within the states. An amendment is ratified when three-fourths of the states approve. The Constitution also authorizes a national convention, when two-thirds of the states petition Congress for such a convention, to propose amendments, which would also have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Article 6 does three things: it declares the debts of the old Confederation to be the responsibility of the new United States government; makes itself the supreme law of the United States (called the “supremacy clause”), which insures that all laws created by the states and all decisions made by the Supreme Court are bound, first and foremost, by the Constitution; finally, Article 6 establishes that an Oath (or Affirmation) to defend the Constitution of the United States must be taken by any state or federal official, but that no religious test for office shall ever be required.

Article 7, finally, established that the new Constitution would go into effect when nine of the thirteen states ratified (approved) it.


Besides the Preamble, perhaps the most famous part of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified as a group in 1791. These ten amendments are often considered the cornerstone of freedom in the United States, and guarantee various civil liberties. As a summary, those liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights include:

  1. Freedom of religion, including the freedom to profess no religious belief, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly and petition.
  2. Right to bear arms
  3. Soldiers may not be housed (“quartered”) in private homes in either peace-time or time of war.
  4. No unreasonable searches and seizures of property; warrants must be issued according to probable cause for specific places to be searched and property to be seized.
  5. Protects against double jeopardy and self-incrimination; loss of private property under eminent domain must be compensated.
  6. Protects a number of the defendant’s rights during a trial.
  7. Guarantee of trial by jury in federal civil cases where the claim is more than $20. Also prevents judges from overruling a jury’s findings of fact.
  8. No excessive bail and fines, and protects against cruel and unusual punishment.
  9. Establishes that there are rights not specifically addressed by the Constitution, but that this should not be taken to mean that they are therefore denied by it.
  10. Provides that powers not specifically given to the federal government are reserved to the states, or the people.


In addition to the above summary, I’ve reprinted the entire Bill of Rights here for you to read if you wish:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Amendment VII

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.


So, we’ve come to the end of our Independence Week celebration! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little detour into an exploration of the founding documents of the United States. Expect a return to our regularly scheduled programming later this week.

Remember to Write Full Circle every day,

K R Parkinson Monogram
– K R Parkinson

The Articles of Confederation: The United States’ First Draft

US_flag_13_starsHello again, readers! Today I’m taking a break from our regularly scheduled Writing Prompt Wednesday to continue looking at the founding documents of the United States, in honor of Independence Day.

On July 4th, we looked at the Declaration of Independence, which declared to the “powers of the earth” that the thirteen Colonies would “assume” a “separate and equal station” alongside them. Today we’ll move forward in time a bit, from the birth of America’s Independence in 1776 to our nation’s first attempt to turn a collection of small-‘u’ “united States of America” (that’s how it’s actually written in the Declaration) into the entity we call the United States of America in 1781.

While we don’t normally think about it, there was a constitution before there was The Constitution that we know today. Called the Articles of Confederation, they were ratified in 1781 and held the country together in a loosely-bound “league of friendship” for almost a decade.

When the Articles were drafted, the grievances the newly-independent Colonies had with the British Empire were still quite fresh, and so there was a very real feeling that each state in the Union should retain as much freedom from interference as possible. In order to do this, the Articles of Confederation created a weak form of government where each state in the Confederation was granted powers not expressly delegated by the Articles to the national government:

Article II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

In addition, the Articles granted free movement of citizens and commerce between states, extradition powers for fugitives, and “freedom of speech and debate in Congress.” It also restricted the ability for states to enter into treaties with other governments, but allowed states to create agreements with each other with the approval of Congress:

No State, without the consent of the United States in Congress assembled, shall send any embassy to, or receive any embassy from, or enter into any conference, agreement, alliance or treaty with any King, Prince or State; nor shall any person holding any office of profit or trust under the United States, or any of them, accept any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any King, Prince or foreign State; nor shall the United States in Congress assembled, or any of them, grant any title of nobility.

No two or more States shall enter into any treaty, confederation or alliance whatever between them, without the consent of the United States in Congress assembled, specifying accurately the purposes for which the same is to be entered into, and how long it shall continue.

Interestingly, there was only one branch of government under the Articles of Confederation, the Legislative branch, embodied in the Congress of the Confederation, which was the highest national office. There was a President, called the President of the United States in Congress Assembled, but his abilities were incredibly diminished, since all of his duties were performed at the direction of the Congress.

There was no national court system, and laws passed that affected all states could not be enforced. Funding of the national government came from the states themselves, who often refused to pay, leading to a crisis in which promised payments to the Continental Army were unable to be made. Rhode Island and New York refused tariffs (basically taxes) on imported goods, which would have helped fund the government.

And it is in these issues that the problems of the Articles of Confederation (and, one can argue, the issue with ANY confederation) become apparent: without a strong national government, the “United” in United States of America was little more than a nice name and an unrealized ideal.

By 1786, it was decided that something had to be done to improve the situation. While it was initially hoped that revision of the existing Articles would be sufficient, eventually it became clear that the requirement of unanimous agreement for amendment made it impossible to actually revise the Articles to any degree of satisfaction. Thus, the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia in 1787.

Rhode Island, ever the political gadfly it seems, boycotted the Convention.

K R Parkinson Monogram
– K R Parkinson