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Constitution of the United States



Constitution of the United States, basic instrument of government and supreme law of the United States. The Constitution was drafted by the Constitutional Convention of May 25-September 17, 1787, and, following its ratification by conventions in two-thirds of the states, as provided in the Constitution, became effective in 1789. In 1987 the United States celebrated the bicentennial of the Constitution.


By 1786, the Confederation of the United States, established in 1781 by the Articles of Confederation, was in danger of dissolution. A general feeling of dissatisfaction existed with a national government that lacked authority to legislate for the country as a whole in many vital matters and that was not empowered to enforce its decisions. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts and the possibility of intervention by foreign countries gave added the point to the repeated warnings of George Washington and other statesmen that the government of the union, formed during the American War of Independence, was in need of drastic revision if the United States were to endure as a nation.

A solution to the problem developed unexpectedly as a result of action taken by a convention of representatives of five states, held in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786, to formulate a uniform code of trade regulations to apply to the 13 states of the Confederation. The Annapolis Convention, in which James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were leading members, recommended to the 13 states that they send delegates to meet in another convention “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union. . . ”. The Congress of the Confederation endorsed the proposal in February 1787 and set Philadelphia as the place, and May of that year as the time, for what later became known as the Constitutional, or Federal, Convention.


The Constitutional Convention, which opened in the State House in Philadelphia on May 25, 1787, comprised 55 delegates representing 12 states. Rhode Island, fearful that national regulation would injure its lucrative trade, opposed revising the Articles of Confederation and sent no delegates.

George Washington was chosen the president of the convention. Among the other delegates, a number of whom had signed the Declaration of Independence and many of whom had served in Congress, were James Madison, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia; Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, and Gouverneur and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania; Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut; Rufus King of Massachusetts; Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina; John Dickinson of Delaware; Alexander Hamilton of New York; William Paterson of New Jersey; and Luther Martin of Maryland. John Jay, who was US secretary of foreign affairs, and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who were out of the country on government missions, did not attend the convention; nor did Patrick Henry or Samuel Adams, both of whom opposed the creation of a strong central government.

Except for brief adjournments to allow its committees to execute tasks imposed on them, the Constitutional Convention was in continuous session until its work was done and approved by “unanimous consent of the States present”. On the whole, the debates were conducted on a high plane of eloquence and practical statesmanship, but occasionally proceedings were acrimonious and sessions were stormy. At times the convention was deadlocked. On one occasion a number of delegates withdrew from the convention on the ground that it was exceeding its authority in writing a new constitution. Madison, called the Father of the Constitution, Franklin, then 81 years old, John Dickinson, and Roger Sherman, however, were especially skilled, tactful, and patient in resolving disputed issues during the 16 weeks the convention was in session.

All the major issues in dispute were disposed of by compromises that made possible the establishment of a national republic with a government of limited and delegated powers and that did much to determine the fundamental and unique features of the US system of federal and state governments.

The first and most serious conflict in the Constitutional Convention occurred over the plans for a national government introduced by Virginia and New Jersey. Both plans provided for a national government of three independent branches: executive, judicial, and legislative, but they disagreed principally over the character of the legislature. The Virginia Plan, supported by the larger states, provided for a bicameral system: a House of Representatives elected by popular vote, and a Senate elected by the House. This would have given the more populous states control of the national legislature. The smaller states, fearful that their interests would suffer by such an arrangement, supported the New Jersey Plan, which provided for a unicameral legislation in which all the states were to have equal representation.

The issue was bitterly fought, and for a time it seemed that the convention would founder. The dispute was finally resolved, however, by the Connecticut, or Great, Compromise, establishing the present arrangement whereby the states are equally represented in the Senate and are represented in the House of Representatives in proportion to their populations. As a precaution against having to assume the financial burdens of the smaller states, the larger states exacted an agreement that revenue bills could originate only in the House, where the more populous states were to have greater representation. The southern states won the point that in enumerating the population of the states, three-fifths of the black slaves within their borders should be added to the total number of white people within their borders.

Other important issues in the Constitutional Convention involved chiefly sectional economic interests. The southern states, which were not as populous as the northern states, feared that giving Congress the power to regulate trade might adversely affect their economy, based mainly on the export of tobacco, rice, and indigo and on slave trading. They demanded that legislation affecting commerce be enacted only by two-thirds majority votes, but they consented to eliminate this requirement when the northern states agreed to constitutional clauses prohibiting the federal government from levying export taxes and from interfering with the slave trade before 1808. The southern states were further placated by the provision for a decennial census as the basis for apportioning representatives, for they looked on this measure as a way to increase their representation in the House as their populations increased.

On September 12, 1787, the convention concluded the work of writing the Constitution and gave the completed draft to a committee on the style to polish the language. The notable literary quality of the Constitution, an unusual feature in documents of state, is due principally to Gouverneur Morris. On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates, the other delegates being opposed or absent, signed the Constitution and sent it to the Congress of the Confederation. The Convention then adjourned. On September 28, Congress sent the Constitution to the states for ratification.


Article VII of the Constitution stipulated that the Constitution could become effective only after conventions in two-thirds of the states had ratified it. This necessary ratification took place after a bitter struggle, in which some opponents condemned the establishment of a strong national government and urged instead the establishment of a confederation of sovereign, or chief, states. Others objected to the lack of adequate constitutional safeguards of fundamental rights. Although differences of opinion were expressed among the people as a whole, the majority of the merchants, shippers, manufacturers, bondholders, land speculators, lawyers, and ministers were for ratification; and a majority of those opposed were small farmers and artisans. John Adams later wrote that the Constitution was “extorted from the grinding necessity of a reluctant people”.

The state conventions of Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia ratified the Constitution unanimously on December 7 and 18, 1787, and January 2, 1788, respectively; those of Pennsylvania and Connecticut by large majorities on December 12, 1787, and January 9, 1788. In Massachusetts, the convention was the scene of an intense conflict, in which a majority of the 355 delegates, led in part by Samuel Adams, were opposed to ratification. Only after supporters of the Constitution suggested that, after ratification, Massachusetts propose to the other states that the Constitution be amended to include a bill of rights were they able, on February 6, 1788, to win by a majority of 19 votes.

Maryland and South Carolina ratified the Constitution by large majorities on, respectively, April 28 and May 23, 1788. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, completing the necessary two-thirds majority.

A struggle in the Virginia convention found Patrick Henry and James Monroe expounding their belief that the Constitution was undemocratic, and James Madison and John Marshall vigorously supporting ratification. The latter two finally won a majority of 10 votes out of a total of 168 on June 26, 1788.

In New York, Alexander Hamilton, although not fully satisfied with the Constitution as drafted, led the fight for its ratification. An important element of his campaign was the publication of The Federalist, in which, with the help of James Madison and John Jay, he expounded his view of government. Only after threatening to detach New York from the rest of the state was he able to win a majority of 3 votes out of a total of 57 on July 26, 1788.

North Carolina rejected the Constitution in 1788 but ratified it on November 21, 1789, when the US government had already been established. Rhode Island was induced to ratify the Constitution (May 29, 1790) by a threat, which was made by Congress, to regard it as a foreign nation and to impose duties on its exports to the other states.


When the first US Congress convened on March 4, 1789, before it was 103 amendments to the Constitution submitted by the states, 42 amendments proposed by minority groups within the states, and bills of rights submitted by Virginia and by New York. After deliberating on these proposed amendments, Congress reduced them to 12, which were submitted to the states. Two failed of ratification; the others became the first 10 amendments. They were ratified on December 15, 1791, and are known as the Bill of Rights. In general, the 10 amendments are sweeping prohibitions against government abridgment or destruction of fundamental rights. The 2nd Amendment is concerned with the ownership of firearms. The 10th Amendment, reserving to the states, or the people, those powers not delegated or prohibited to the federal government, established a basis for subsequent judicial interpretations of the Constitution, thereby limiting the power of the federal government.

Other amendments were enacted as events demonstrated their desirability or necessity. Thus the Chisholm case led to the enactment of the 11th Amendment (ratified February 7, 1795), limiting the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. The dispute over the election of the president and vice-president in 1800 led to the enactment of the 12th Amendment (ratified July 27, 1804), changing the method of electing the president and vice-president.

The victory of the North in the American Civil War was followed by the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (ratified December 6, 1865, July 9, 1868, and February 3, 1870, respectively). These are the amendments that abolished slavery, conferred citizenship on the former slaves, and established the principles that a state cannot “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, and that the right of US citizens to vote cannot be denied or abridged on account of race or colour.

The 16th Amendment (ratified February 3, 1913) resulted from a Supreme Court decision holding unconstitutional a federal tax on income derived from property and not apportioned among the states. This amendment gave Congress the power to levy “taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States”.

Popular demand, extending over many years, resulted in the enactment of the 17th Amendment (ratified April 8, 1913), providing for the election of senators by popular vote.

The 18th Amendment, the so-called Prohibition Amendment, was ratified on January 16, 1919, and was repealed when the 21st Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933.

The long agitation for woman suffrage finally culminated in the enactment of the 19th Amendment (ratified August 18, 1920), giving women the right to vote.

The 20th, or “Lame Duck”, Amendment (ratified January 23, 1933) changed the end of the terms of the president and vice-president from March 4 to January 20, and of representatives from March 4 to January 3; and fixed January 3 as the opening date of the annual meeting of Congress, which was empowered to designate another date.

The 22nd Amendment, limiting to two the number of terms a president may serve, was ratified on February 27, 1951.

Residents of the District of Columbia gained the right to vote for president and vice-president upon enactment of the 23rd Amendment (ratified March 29, 1961). Poll taxes were imposed in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia until January 23, 1964, when the 24th Amendment, prohibiting tax payment as a requirement for voting in federal elections, was ratified.

The 25th Amendment (ratified February 10, 1967) provides that in a case of the removal from office, the death, or the resignation of the president, the vice-president shall become president. It also provides for the filling of a vacancy in the office of the vice-presidency.

The 26th Amendment, as ratified July 1, 1971, provides for the lowering of the voting age to 18.

The 27th Amendment (ratified May 7, 1992, 203 years after it was written by James Madison) provides that any pay rise Congress votes itself will not take effect until after an intervening congressional election.