WHAT IS THE U.S. CONSTITUTION?
The U.S. Constitution is the fundamental framework of America’s federal system of government.
WHAT ARE THE THREE BRANCHES OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT?
The Constitution separates the powers of the federal government into three branches:
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CONSTITUTION AND THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE?
The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776 (during the Revolutionary War) by Thomas Jefferson, edited by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (among others), and adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, as it voted to declare independence from Great Britain. It included a list of grievances against King George III that justified separation from British rule, and it expressed the core principles upon which the United States was founded.
The Constitution was written and signed by a group of delegates in 1787 (years after the Revolutionary War was over) and ratified in 1788. (Thomas Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention.) It remains the “supreme law” of the land today.
Both documents were signed in Independence Hall in Philadelphia (then known as the Pennsylvania State House), steps away from where the National Constitution Center now stands. Read more about the relationship between Declaration of Independence and the Constitution here: https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/white-papers/the-declaration-the-constitution-and-the-bill-of-rights
WHAT WAS THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION, AND HOW DID IT LEAD TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION?
Adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, and ratified by the states in 1781, the Articles of Confederation was America’s first framework of national government. Crafted during the American Revolution, it initially formed a war-time confederation of states.
Overall, the Articles of Confederation created a weak central government—a “league of friendship” between the states—that largely preserved state power and independence. While the document made official some of the procedures used by the Continental Congress to conduct business, many Americans came to recognize the Articles of Confederation’s many flaws. It created a national government centered on the legislative branch, which was composed of a single house. There was no separate executive branch or judicial branch. The delegates in Congress voted by state—with each state receiving one vote, regardless of its size. The national government did not have the power to tax or to regulate commerce between the states. And any proposed amendment to the Articles required unanimous approval from all thirteen states. As a result, no amendment was ever ratified. The delegates to the Constitution Convention eventually framed a new Constitution designed, in part, to address many of the Articles of Confederation’s flaws.
Alarmed by the need for greater economic cooperation, delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786 to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation. These delegates included John Dickinson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. They recommended a later meeting that might include all thirteen states. On February 21, 1787, the Confederation Congress agreed to call for a convention of state delegates to meet in Philadelphia for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles.” Instead of amending the Articles of Confederation, the convention delegates crafted an entirely new framework of government: the U.S. Constitution.
WHEN AND WHERE WAS THE CONSTITUTION DRAFTED?
The Constitution was drafted and signed in Philadelphia in the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall.
The Constitution was created during the Philadelphia Convention—now known as the Constitutional Convention—which convened from May 25 to September 17, 1787. It was signed on September 17, 1787 and ratified on June 21, 1788.
WHO WAS AT THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION?
Delegates from all of the original states except Rhode Island participated in the Constitutional Convention. Many had fought in the Revolutionary War and had served in Congress.
The delegates named George Washington presiding officer. Of the 55 original delegates, only 41 were present on September 17, 1787, to sign the final draft of the proposed Constitution, and 39 of the delegates signed. Three of those present (George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts) refused to sign the Constitution. One delegate, John Dickinson of Delaware, was too sick to attend the final session but had fellow delegate George Read sign his name. The delegates from each state were:
Connecticut: Oliver Ellsworth; William Samuel Johnson; Roger Sherman
Delaware: Richard Bassett; Gunning Bedford Jr.; Jacob Broom; John Dickinson; George Read
Georgia: Abraham Baldwin; William Few; William Houstoun; William Leigh Pierce
Maryland: Daniel Carroll; Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer; Luther Martin; James McHenry; John Francis Mercer
Massachusetts: Elbridge Gerry; Nathaniel Gorham; Rufus King; Caleb Strong
New Hampshire: Nicholas Gilman; John Langdon
New Jersey: David Brearley; Jonathan Dayton; William Churchill Houston; William Livingston; William Paterson
New York: Alexander Hamilton; John Lansing Jr.; Robert Yates
North Carolina: William Blount; William Richardson Davie; Alexander Martin; Richard Dobbs Spaight Sr.; Hugh Williamson
South Carolina: Pierce Butler; Charles Pinckney; Charles Cotesworth Pinckney; John Rutledge
Pennsylvania: George Clymer; Thomas Fitzsimons; Benjamin Franklin; Jared Ingersoll; Thomas Mifflin; Gouverneur Morris; Robert Morris; James Wilson
Virginia: John Blair; James Madison; George Mason; James McClurg; Edmund Randolph; George Washington; George Wythe
The National Constitution Center’s Signers’ Hall exhibit features life-size bronze statutes of 42 men: the 39 delegates who signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, as well as the three who refused. To visit Signer’s Hall, click here: (link to NCC visit site?)
To learn more about the Constitutional Convention, click here: https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution/white-papers/the-constitutional-convention-of-1787-a-revolution-in-government
WHEN DID THE CONSTITUTION GO INTO EFFECT?
The Constitution did not go into effect the moment it was signed by the delegates. It needed to be approved by the people through the state ratification process.
Article VII of the Constitution established the process for ratification, stating: “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.” On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify (after Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina); and the Confederation Congress established March 4, 1789, as the date to begin operating a new government under the Constitution. The first modern Congress convened in New York City at Federal Hall. It was about one month before George Washington was elected as the first President under the new Constitution.
WHO WROTE THE CONSTITUTION?
Because of James Madison’s crucial role in crafting much of the Constitution, he is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” His notes of the proceedings, which were held in secret, also have provided valuable insights into the drafting process.
But the Constitution was the result of months of thoughtful deliberation, debate, and compromise among the delegates. Many others besides James Madison made important contributions, particularly those who served on the Committee of Detail, which included Oliver Ellsworth, Nathaniel Gorham, Edmund Randolph, John Rutledge, and James Wilson; and those on the Committee of Style, which included Alexander Hamilton, William Johnson, Rufus King, and Gouverneur Morris. Other notable delegates included John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and George Washington (who served as president of the convention).
WHAT IS THE BILL OF RIGHTS?
The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Congress proposed the first amendments to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789.
There were actually 12 proposed amendments, but two (the first concerning the number of constituents for each congressional Representative, and the second concerning compensation of Congress members) were not ratified at that time. Only 10 were ratified, becoming the Bill of Rights and officially added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.
But the second unadopted amendment concerning compensation of Congress was eventually ratified on May 7, 1992, as the 27th Amendment.
As ratified, the Bill of Rights only applied to abuses by the national government—not the states. However, following the ratification of the 14th Amendment and later decisions by the Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights became a charter of national freedom—applying key Bill of Rights protections (like free speech and religious liberty) to abuses by all levels of government: national, state, and local. This process is known as “incorporation.” Today, virtually all of the key protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights apply with equal vigor against all levels of government.
HOW HAVE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE USED THE AMENDMENT PROCESS TO TRANSFORM THE CONSTITUTION?
With the U.S. Constitution, the Founding generation created the greatest charter of freedom in the history of the world. However, the Founding generation did not believe that it had a monopoly on constitutional wisdom. Therefore, the Founders set out a formal amendment process that allowed later generations to revise our nation’s charter and “form a more perfect Union.” They wrote this process into Article V of the Constitution. Over time, the American people have used this amendment process to transform the Constitution by adding a Bill of Rights, abolishing slavery, promoting freedom and equality, and extending voting rights to groups like African Americans and women.
HOW MANY AMENDMENTS DOES THE CONSTITUTION HAVE?
The Constitution has a total of 27 amendments.
DID ANY AMENDMENTS FAIL TO GET ADDED TO THE CONSTITUTION?
As of 2018, more than 11,000 amendments have been proposed in Congress. Just 37 proposed amendments were approved by Congress for submission to the states; 27 were approved including the Bill of Rights; one amendment in the original Bill of Rights was rejected; and six others congressionally approved amendments weren’t ratified by the states.
WHERE IS THE CONSTITUTION? IS IT AT THE NATIONAL CONSTITUTION CENTER?
The original signed, handwritten Constitution is at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
However, the National Constitution Center owns a rare, original copy of the first public printing of the Constitution. This printing was published in a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, on September 19, 1787—two days after the Constitution was signed. Because the Convention was conducted under an oath of secrecy, this printing represents the first time that Americans—“We the People”—saw the Constitution.
The Constitution Center also contains rare first drafts of the Constitution in its American Treasures exhibit.
HOW CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION?
Visit the National Constitution Center and explore the Interactive Constitution! Start here: https://constitutioncenter.org/the-constitution