New Government

The Constitution

Article I of the Constitution establishes the Legislative Branch. The legislative power of the United States is given to Congress. The Congress is bicameral and includes the House of Representatives and the Senate. Section 8 of Article I lists the powers that the people have given to Congress. Section 9 of Article I places limits on the powers of Congress. Congress can not pass a bill of attainder--a law that declares a person guilty of a crime and sets the punishment for that person. Congress is also not allowed to pass an ex post facto law--a law that takes effect before Congress and the President complete the legislative process. Section 10 of Article I places l imits on what states may do. Besides prohibiting bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, the Constitution says states may not grant letters of marque and reprisal-- authorization for ship captains to stop ships, search them for contraband and sieze illegal cargo.

Article II sets up the Executive Branch. It contains the procedures for the electoral college and establishes the office of Vice president. This article also gives the President the power to give pardons for any crime except impeachment. It says that he must share the power to appoint high ranking government officials and treaty making with the Senate.

Article III establishes the Judicial Branch and defines treason. It establishes a Supreme Court and the original jurisdiction for that court. Congress establishes all inferior federal courts and Congress controls the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Article IV covers interstate relations or policies that decide how the states act toward each other. The "full faith and credit clause" says that each state must accept the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of all of the other states. If you get married in Florida and move to California, California must recognize the marriage. The "privileges and immunities clause" says that a state cannot make two different sets of laws--one set for its citizens and another set for everyone else. Another part of Article IV requires extradition of people charged with a crime. If a person commits a crime in one state and flees to another state, the state to which he or she fled must return the individual to the state where the crime was committed to stand trial.

Article IV also gives certain guarantees to any state that becomes part of the United States. First, each state is guaranteed a republican form of government. This means that the citizens in the state can elect their leaders. Second, if a another nation invades a state, the national government will go to the defense of that state. Finally, each state is guaranteed protection from domestic violence. If a state has riots that it cannot stop, the national government will help put down the uprising. In these cases of domestic violence, the state government must ask the national government for help.

Article V explains how the Constitution can be amended or changed. It explains the methods for proposing and ratifying amendments to the Constitution.

Article VI is the "supremacy clause." This part of the Constitution says that the supreme law of the United States has three parts. The Constitution, itself, is the supreme law of the land. All laws made using the procedures in the Constitution are part of the supreme law of the land. Treaties made under the authority of the United States are the final part of the supreme law of the land. The Constitution also says that all judges in all of the states must uphold the supreme law of the land.

The last article of the Constitution, Article VII, gives the actions necessary to ratify the Constitution or put it into effect.

When the Constitution was sent to the states to be ratified, it included only these seven articles. Many states had a bill of rights in their state constitution and, when they sent their approval of the Constitution to the national government, they asked that a bill of rights be added to the document. Because of this demand by the states, the national government, using the procedures in Article V of the Constitution, proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution. Ten of these were ratified and the first ten amendments to the Constitution are the Bill of Rights.

The Ratified Constitution

The Constitution, after ratification, brought prosperity to the United States. There were three major reasons for this. First, the European nations had more confidence in the new nation because a single government now had the authority to speak for all of the states. Second, business in the states began to prosper because of the elimination of the restrictive tariffs that states had placed on goods entering their state from other states . Finally, the people began to think of themselves as citizens of the United States rather than citizens of the individual states and began to feel unified.

The Constitution was a grant of power to the new government from the people of the United States. It not only granted power to the government but also limited the power of the national government.

To keep the national government from getting too much power and to make sure the different branches of government could not get too much power, the founding fathers wrote a system of separation of powers into the Constitution. Each branch of government has a separate responsibility for law in the United States. The Legislative Branch has the responsibility for making law. Once law is made, the Executive Branch is responsible for enforcing the law. When disputes arise over the meaning of a law, the Judicial Branch has the responsibility for interpreting the law.

With these different responsibilities, the founding fathers thought that each branch would guard its responsibilities from interference by the other branches. This would keep the other branches from getting too much power.

In addition, the Constitution established a system of checks and balances. These checks and balances included four factors.


The different branches of the national government had different terms of office. In the Legislative Branch, members of the House of Representatives are elected to two year terms and members of the Senate are elected to six year terms. In the Executive Branch, the President serves four year terms. Most judges in the Judicial Branch are appointed for life.

The second aspect of checks and balances was different electorates. In the original Constitution, only members of the House of Representatives were chosen by the people. Senators were chosen by the state legislatures. The electoral college was established to elect the President. Federal judges are appointed by the President but before they take office, they must be approved by the Senate.

The third aspect of checks and balances was different constituencies. Members of the House of Representatives represent the individuals in their congressional district. Members of the Senate represent the entire population of their state. The President represents the entire nation. Federal judges, once they have been appointed and confirmed, represent the law.

Shared responsibilities were the final aspect of the checks and balances. Each branch had some power over the other branches. For example, Congress must pass a law before the President can enforce it. If the President does not like a law passed by Congress, he can veto the law. If Congress still wants the law, they have the power to override the President's veto. The Judicial Branch can review actions of the President and Congress to determine if those actions were made in accordance with the Constitution.  This system allows each branch to delay or prevent action by another branch. It also keeps any one branch of the national government from getting too much power.

Changing the Constitution

The Constitution was a complicated document that the founding fathers knew would have to be changed. They put provisions in the document to amend or change it.

If we change the words in the Constitution, we make a formal change to the document. The procedures for making a formal change are in Article V of the Constitution.

Before a formal change can take effect, it must go through two processes--proposal and ratification.



Proposal means to suggest a change to the Constitution. There are two ways to propose an amendment. The first way is for two-thirds of both houses of Congress to recommend the change. All of the amendments to the Constitution were proposed using this procedure. The second method is if two-thirds of the states request a convention to propose amendments to the Constitution.

Ratification is the process of approving the proposed changes. The Constitution also has two methods of approving the proposed amendments. The first method is for three-fourths of the state legislatures to approve the change. The second method is for three-fourths of state conventions to approve the change. The second method has was used only once in our history--to ratify the 21st Amendment.

If we do not change the words in the Constitution but change the way we use the document, we make informal changes to it. There are four different methods to informally change the Constitution. Each branch of government has a way to make an informal change.

When the Legislative Branch changes the Constitution informally, it is congressional elaboration. Much of the wording in the Constitution is unclear and when Congress passes a law, they are expanding on the meaning of the document. For example, when Congress increases the debt ceiling for the United States, they are expanding their power in Article I, Section 8.

Presidential practice is the method used by the Executive Branch to informally change the Constitution. Actions by the President are the common way these changes occur. Events in the world today happen much faster than they used to and the President has to be able to react quickly. An example of presidential practice is executive privilege--the power of the President to keep conversations with his advisors secret.  This practice enables the President's advisors to give him candid advice on which to make decisions.  Without this privilege, advisors would have to choose their words carefully fearing public reaction and the President might not get the best advice before making a decision.

When the Judicial Branch makes a decision in a court case, it explains what the words in the Constitution mean. This method of changing the Constitution informally is judicial interpretation. If the Judicial Branch makes a decision on whether the actions of the President are legal or if the laws passed by Congress are constitutional, it is judicial review. The concept of judicial review is an example of judicial interpretation. The Supreme Court established the concept of judicial review for itself in the case of Marbury v. Madison. The Constitution does not specifically give this power to the Supreme Court but the decision established that authority and it is the major check the Supreme Court has on the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch.

The final method that may be used to informally change the Constitution is custom and usage. These are procedures that have been used for so long that they have become accepted practice. For example, there is nothing in the Constitution about political parties. Today, however, political parties are active in all phases of politics including nominating candidates for office, making laws and operating the electoral college. Although the Constitution does not mention political parties, we accept them as a fact of life in politics.

Sometimes, informal changes to the Constitution may be formalized using the procedures in Article V of the Constitution. When George Washington became President, he served two terms and chose not to serve a third term. Presidents who followed Washington continued this custom until Franklin Roosevelt was elected President four times. Because of Franklin Roosevelt's four terms of office, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was proposed and ratified. This amendment limits the President to two full terms in office. In this case, an informal change through custom and usage became a formal party of the Constitution when the custom was not followed by one of our Presidents.

Because we can change the Constitution to meet the needs of the current generation in the United States, the Constitution is a living constitution. We have made only 27 formal changes to the Constitution since its adoption but used the informal methods many times to allow the document to remain in touch with the times. The Constitution is a list of powers that the people of the United States gave to the government. The changes ensured that government can do those things that we believe are necessary for it to be effective.