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The United States Constitution

Establishing the principles of American democracy


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A learner's guide to discovering the United States
The  United States Constitution was drawn up in Philadelphia, then the capital of the States, in May 1787, and was ratified by the parliaments of the 13 states between 1787 and 1790.

    The most important historic inspiration of the US Constitution was the English "Magna Carta", the document drawn up by the English barons in 1215, and which set clear limits on the exercise of power by the ruler (in this case the monarch, King John), formalised the principles of government by consensus (parliamentary government), and established the fundamental rights of the individual.

The principal articles the United States Constitution

The Five principal articles of  the Constitution specify:
    Article 1.  The constitution and powers of Congress (legislative power)
    Article 2.  The powers of the President of the United States, and their limits (executive power)
    Article 3.  The power of the Supreme Court (judicial power)
    Article 4.  Relations between the states, and the possibility of admitting new states.
    Article 5.  Methods of amending the Constitution.

However it quickly became clear that the original Constitution was not sufficient, and since 1791 a number of Amendments have been added. The first of these, Amendments 1 to X, were voted in 1791: defining the status of people in the United States, these first 10 Amendments are collectively known as the Bill of Rights - after the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

The Bill of Rights

Key elements of the US Constitution are defined in the Bill of Rights.

The "First Amendment"

This is no doubt the most famous of all the items in the American Constitution. It states, quite briefly, that:
    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibition of the free exercise thereof; of abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances."
    Thus "first amendment rights" have been invoked by Americans ever since in defense of their rights to freedom of belief, freedom of behaviour (within the scope of legality), and freedom of all kinds of idiosyncratic ideas. However, they are also invoked by those who wish to practice or disseminate all kinds of bizarre or extreme ideas and religions, from the Mormon preachings of Joseph Smith in the 19th century, to the dissemination of neo-Nazi propaganda over the Internet in the 21st.

The Second Amendment

Temple in Utah
Anti gun-control demonstrators claiming that the Second Amendment allows anyone to carry arms - of any kind.

    This states that : "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."

    This, the most controversial of the Amendments in modern times, is the cause of intense attention by the two opposing camps in modern American society, those in favor of firearms legislation as a means to combat America's terrible record in homicides and armed crime (the homicide and armed crime rate in the USA is far far higher than those in other Western countries where the possession of arms is closely regulated, if not largely forbidden), and those who maintain that it is the "constitutional" right of any American to be allowed to carry arms even for personal use (nothing to do with a Militia for the purpose of State security).

 The Fourth Amendment

    Places limits on the rights of the state to enter or conduct seizures on private property.

The 5th to 8th Amendments

    These establish the civil rights of defendants in courts of law, including the rights to trial by jury, the rights to summon witnesses, and the limits on the power of the State or state prosecutors to set "unreasonable" levels of bail.

The 10th Amendment.

    This underlines the fact that only certain powers in the United States are delegated to the federal government, and that all other power resides in the individual states and the people.

Later amendments to the US Constitution

Other major Amendments to the Constitution

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The Twelfth Amendment (ratified in 1804) determines the manner in which the President and Vice President of the USA are elected by "electors" nominated by the different states. The implications of this were illustrated in 2000 in the Bush / Gore election, and again in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won two million more popular votes than her rival Donald Trump who was elected as President by the electoral college. The President of the USA is NOT directly elected by universal suffrage, contrary to an often held popular belief.

The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) banned slavery in the United States.  It is a historic curiosity that  in spite of the Jeffersonian precept that "all men are born equal", slavery was banned in the USA long after it was outlawed in most countries of Europe and their dependencies.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, defines US citizenship and the manner in which states elect their Representatives to Congress. However, it only applied to men, and it was not until the passing of the  nineteenth amendment, in 1920, that women got the vote in the USA.

The twenty-second Amendment, passed in 1951, limited the number of terms of office that a president could serve, to two terms of four years each. Thus F.D.Roosevelt's record of getting elected to the US Presidency four times will never be beaten - unless the Constitution is changed again to allow this.

In God we Trust

The US Constitution makes no mention of God.

On the other hand the national motto of the USA is "In God we trust", a motto that first appeared on US coins in 1864. It should be noted, however, that the motto does not define the word "God". Although religious practice, to this day, remains strong in the United States, and the USA is still essentially a Protestant nation - indeed a Non-Conformist and even puritanical nation - there is no established religion, no state religion in the USA, and the "God" in whom Americans trust can be any form of God, including God the Father in the Christian sense, Jehovah, Allah, Hindu deities, or even personal Gods or the Gods of the American Indians. No American can be barred from representative office because of his religious views, or the absence of them.

    By contrast to the US Constitution, "God" is referred to in the State Constitutions of all but four of States. Six states still have articles in their State Constitutions that prohibit people who do not believe in God from holding public office; however these restrictions are not applied, and it is generally accepted that they are unconstitutional, according to the US Constitution.

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

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Photo top of page. the signing of the US Constitution in Philadelphia, in the year 1787
From a painting by Howard Christy

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