Constitution of United States of America
What Is Meant By a Constitution?
“A Constitution consists of those fundamental rules which determine & distribute functions & powers among the various organs of the Government’’ (Oxford Dictionary)
The United States Constitution was written in May 1787 during Philadelphia Convention, when the states decided to make necessary changes in Article of Confederation but then started all over again and came up with the US constitution. After ratification in eleven states, in 1789 its elected officers of government assembled in New York City, replacing the earlier 1781 Articles of Confederation government. The American constitution is one of the most remarkable and important document in the history which was written more than 200 years before and only amended 17 times after the 1st ten amendments of bill of rights.
The American constitution is in written form consisting of 7 articles and 27 amendments. It takes a very lengthy process to make any amendment to it. Therefore it is known as the most rigid document in the constitutional history of the world.
Article of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation was unanimously adopted in 1781 once Maryland agreed. Over the previous four years, it had been used by Congress as a “sworking document” to administer the early United States government.
Errors in Article of Confederation
The article of confederation seems to have many flaws which were far beyond corrections. James Madison called the articles woefully inadequate. Some of major shortcomings in the articles are stated below
- One house congress
- No separate executive
- Considerable powers to state
- Lack system of judiciary
- Central government had insufficient power to regulate commerce.
- It could not tax, generally impotent in setting commercial policy
- It could not effectively support a war effort.
- It had little power to settle quarrels between states.
Drafting the constitution
The 13 colonies were called at a convention in Philadelphia with the sole and express purpose of revising article of confederation. Rhodes Island was the only one which did not trusted the convention and refused to send its delegation.
The delegation of 55 men met in Philadelphia headed by George Washington. Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Dickenson and James Madison (father of American Constitution) were the other well known politicians in the delegation of 55 men. Where as John Jay, Tomas Jefferson, John Adams and Thomas Paine were on a diplomatic business trip abroad therefore they were not the part of delegation.
The American constitution was based on two plans; it was a compromise between the two plans that which plans should be given more weight-age in constitution.
- Virginia plan
- New Jersey Plan
Two alternative plans were developed in Convention. The nationalist majority, soon to be called ―Federalists‖, put forth the Virginia Plan, a consolidated government based on proportional representation among the states by population. ―Anti-Federalists‖, advocated the New Jersey Plan, a purely federal proposal, based on providing each state with equal
representation. This issue remained unsettled for 4 weeks until the Connecticut comprise came as an alternative.
Connecticut compromise was composed by William Samuel Johnson which allowed both plans to work together. It suggested that there should be two houses of congress
- House of Representative (Representation on population)
- Senate (Equal Representation)
The compromise suggested representation on the basis of population in ―House of Representative and equal representation in Senate with 2 Senators from each state. Even the Connecticut compromise was not sufficient enough to bring constitution in working form as 9/13 states had to ratify it. But the small farmers, New York and Virginia were not happy with the idea until the Bill of Rights was added to the constitution.
Bill of Rights
Bill of Rights were the 1st ten amendments in the American constitution granting rights to the ordinary people of America. Following are the amendments if the bill:
- Freedom of religions, speech, assembly, press and petition
- Right to possess arms
- No quartering of soldiers during peacetime
- No search and seizure of people‘s property
- No criminal case to stand twice for same crime
- Speedy trail of cases
- Right to jury in case of 20 dollars and above
- No excessive bails and cruel punishments
- Rights not mentioned in constitution lies with peoples
- Powers not mentioned in constitution will be exercised by states
The Amendment Process
There are essentially two ways spelled out in the Constitution for how to propose an amendment. One has never been used.
The first method is for a bill to pass both houses of the legislature, by a two-thirds majority in each. Once the bill has passed both houses, it goes on to the states. This is the route taken by all current amendments. Because of some long outstanding amendments, such as the 27th, Congress will normally put a time limit (typically seven years) for the bill to be approved as an amendment.
The second method prescribed is for a Constitutional Convention to be called by two thirds of the legislatures of the States, and for that Convention to propose one or more amendments. These amendments are then sent to the states to be approved by three fourths of the legislatures or conventions. This route has never been taken, and there is discussion in political science circles about just how such a convention would be convened, and what kind of changes it would bring about.
Salient Features of the American Constitution
Checks and Balances:
One of the most powerful weapons in the US constitution which makes it one of the most important written documents in world is the system of check and balance between the three tiers of state i.e. executive, legislative and judiciary.
Brief & Simple:
The US Constitution hardly consists of 6000 and is less than 12 pages in length which makes it one of the shortest and simply written constitutions of the world.
The US constitution is in the written form and comprises of 7 articles and 27 amendments had been made since the constitution was made in 1787.
The peoples living in America are authorized to have dual citizenship according to their constitution. The 1st citizenship of being an American and the 2nd is of the state which a citizen belongs to.
Since the constitution declares America as a secular state. Therefore no law can be made which prohibits or dents any religion in the country.
Supremacy of the Constitution:
The US Constitution is the supreme document as described in the article IV. The constitution is declared superior over the entire citizens, law making agencies and the government. No law can be passed contrary to the constitution.
Article I, section 789 declares the federal form of government in America. The stress is laid upon the strong center and relatively weaker states.
Bill Of Rights: Bill of rights were the 1st ten amendments in the US constitution which defined the rights of the peoples living in America.
US constitution is a rigid constitution because it requires a difficult procedure to amend it. Every amendment, which can be moved in two different ways, must be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Separation of Powers: The constitution is based on the doctrine of separation of powers. According to the constitution the national powers are divided into three departments i.e. executive, legislature and judiciary.
American parliament is known as Congress. It consists of two chambers. Upper house is the Senate and lower house is the House of Representatives.
Independent Judiciary: The president of USA appoints the judges but he has no power to remove them. It is only the legislature according to Article 1 Section 6, which can impeach the judge of Supreme Court.
Universal Suffrage: The Constitution has given right to vote to every citizen who is 18 years old without any distinction of male or female.
Division of Powers: As the Federal Government requires a double set of Government. That of center and those of states there must be a division of powers between the two parts. All those powers which are not stated in the constitution are to be exercised by the states.
This system was introduced by President Andrew Jackson. According to this system the new president appoints all important official of the government sacking the previous administration. This system is known as the ―Spoilt System because the jobs are distributed among the party men regardless of their merit, experience and talent.
Presidential form of government:
The Constitution establishes a presidential form of government. The constitution vests all executive powers to the president. The president is the head of the state as well as the government.
There would be Republicanism in the political structure of the US. Laws made by the legislature shall be supreme as it represents the will of the people. The people who made those laws are elected by the people themselves.
Sovereignty of the People: The preamble of the US Constitution emphasizes the theory of popular sovereignty i.e. the ultimate authority has been vested in the people of the USA.
Amendments in American Constitution
- 1st Ten Bill of Rights
- 11th Immunity of states from suits from out-of-state citizens and foreigners not living within the state borders. Lays the foundation for sovereign immunity
- 12th Revises presidential election procedures
- 13th Abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime 14th Defines citizenship, contains the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and deals with post-Civil War issues
- 15th Prohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude
- 16th Allows the federal government to collect income tax
- 17th Establishes the direct election of United States Senators by popular vote
- 18th Establishes Prohibition of alcohol (Repealed by Twenty-first Amendment)
- 19th Establishes women’s suffrage
- 20th Fixes the dates of term commencements for Congress (January 3) and the President (January 20); known as the “lame duck amendment”
- 21st Repeals the Eighteenth Amendment
- 22nd Limits the president to two terms, or a maximum of 10 years (i.e., if a Vice President serves not more than one half of a President’s term, he or she can be elected to a further two terms)
- 23rd Provides for representation of Washington, D.C. in the Electoral College
- 24th Prohibits the revocation of voting rights due to the non-payment of poll taxes
- 25th Codifies the Tyler Precedent; defines the process of presidential succession
- 26th Establishes the official voting age to be 18 years old.
- 27th Prevents laws affecting Congressional salary from taking effect until the beginning of the next session of Congress
System of Check and Balance in American Constitution
The United States Constitution provided very direct safeguards to the freedoms of all Americans as the first three Articles of the United States Constitution discuss about the specific powers reserved to the three branches of government that enable a balance of power. The national government is divided into three branches:
These three branches are not independent of one another because the Constitution set up a system of checks and balances to help ensure that no one branch becomes too powerful. Each branch has powers that it can use to check and balance the operations and power of the other two branches. Following is a look at the specific checks that each branch has been given.
The Legislative Branch of Government Makes the Laws
Section Seven outlines the procedure for passing bills and resolutions. Here we find a good example of ―checks and balances. A bill might arise in the House and passed with a simple majority. If then passed by the Senate, it goes to the President for signature. Once signed, the bill becomes law. However, if the President vetoes the bill, both chambers can still pass the bill with a two-thirds vote. This is referred to as a vote to “override” the veto.
- May override presidential vetoes with a two-thirds vote
- Has the power over the purse strings to actually fund any executive actions
- May remove the president through impeachment
- Senate approves treaties
- Senate approves presidential appointments
The Legislative Branch has the following checks over the Judicial Branch:
- Creates lower courts
- May remove judges through impeachment
- Senate approves appointments of judges
The Executive Branch of American Government
The Executive Branch is given the power to carry out the laws. It has the following checks over the Legislative Branch:
- Veto power
- Ability to call special sessions of Congress
- Can recommend legislation
- Can appeal to the people concerning legislation and more
The Executive Branch has the following checks over the Judicial Branch:
- President appoints Supreme Court and other federal judges
The Judicial Branch of United States Government
The Judicial Branch is given the power to interpret the laws. It has the following checks over the Executive Branch:
- Judges, once appointed for life, are free from controls from the executive branch
- Courts can judge executive actions to be unconstitutional through the power of Judicial review
The Judicial Branch has the following checks over the Legislative Branch:
- Courts can judge legislative acts to be unconstitutional.
The American system of checks and balances has worked well over the course of America’s history. Even though some huge clashes have occurred when vetoes have been overridden or appointees have been rejected, these occasions are rare. The system was meant to keep the three branches in balance. Even though there have been times when one branch has risen preeminent, overall the three branches have achieved a workable balance with no one branch holding all the governmental power.
Questions on US Constitution
- The American Constitution is a system of ―Checks and Balances‖. Discuss. (CSS 2001)
- Describe the salient features of the constitution of (CSS 2006)
- Give the salient features of the Constitution of the (CSS 2008)
- What were the major flaws in the Articles of Confederation (the first constitution of the United States of America) that led to the Philadelphia Convention and the drafting of a new constitution? Discuss the salient features of the present constitution of the United States of America. (CSS 2009)