Chapter 1: The U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution is a valuable part of our American history. It was signed on September 17, 1787 by our Founding Fathers, which makes it the OLDEST constitution in the world! The Constitution is called the “Supreme Law of the Land” because it lays out the basic rules of our government and no other law is above it.

Fun Fact: Of the written national constitutions, the U.S. Constitution is the oldest and shortest.

Why do we have a constitution?

We have a constitution because the Founding Fathers wanted to set up a fair and balanced government. Americans fought in the Revolutionary War to become independent from Great Britain. When we won the war, the time came to set up government for the citizens of the new United States of America.

Many Americans feared having a strong ruler and did not trust government because they had just gained independence from Great Britain. Through much discussion, the Founding Fathers agreed to be governed under the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, states (like Pennsylvania) had stronger authority than the overarching federal government that acted as a central governing body for the states. This made it difficult for all the states to work together when it came to collecting taxes and uniting the country.

Fun Fact: The Founding Fathers were a collection of delegates or statesmen who worked together to create the America we all know today. Some Founding Fathers include past presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

There were so many problems with the Articles of Confederation that delegates from each state, except Rhode Island, decided to get together to discuss a new, better form of government. That new form is the government we have today under the U.S. Constitution.

What does the constitution say?

The Constitution is designed to limit government and establish rules for each part of our government. The first part of the Constitution is called the Preamble and it tells us what the Founding Fathers set out to do when creating our government:

We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The other parts of the Constitution explain the branches supposed to work with state governments, like the Missouri state government.

Classroom Activity: Discuss the multiple levels of government in your community and come up with examples. For a start, we know the police are local (city and county), schools are state run, and our armed forces are federal.

Why does the Constitution divide power between different branches?

The Founding Fathers wanted to make it difficult for one person, party, or group to get control of the government. To achieve these goals, the Founding Fathers proposed a national government where power was divided between three separate branches of government:  the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary. Each branch has its own rules, responsibilities, and powers. This is called the “separation of powers.”

By dividing power into three separate branches, the Founding Fathers hoped to prevent misuse of power. They also made a clever system of checks and balances to encourage the three branches of government to work together so that the government works for all of the people.  Let’s discuss each branch.

What is the Legislative Branch?

The legislature makes laws. The United States’ legislature is called “Congress.”  Congress is made up of two separate groups: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Together, the Senate and House of Representatives have the power to create laws, declare war, raise money for the military, establish post offices, admit new states to the union, investigate and oversee the executive branch, and many more.

The Senate has 100 members. Each state has two senators. Senators are elected by all of the people in a particular state – like Missouri – and serve six-year terms. The Senate is sometimes called “the upper house,” and acts as a kind of advisory council to the President. For example, sometimes the President wants to appoint, or hire, certain people for certain jobs.  The Senate must approve those appointments.  The Senate also has to approve agreements with other countries, called treaties, made by the President. The Senate’s main job is to look after the interests of their separate states as well as the nation as a whole.

The House of Representatives, has 435 members, who are called representatives.  Representatives serve two-year terms.  Each state gets a certain number of representatives. The number of representatives from each state is based on the state’s population. For example, Missouri has a population of six million people. This means Missouri has eight representatives. California, with its population of almost 39 million people, has more people than Missouri. As a result, California has 53 representatives!

The House of Representatives, sometimes called the “lower house,” is mainly in charge of writing laws and raising money for the government through taxes.

What is the Executive Branch?

The President, Vice President, and the President’s Cabinet members make up the Executive Branch. The Executive Branch implements and enforces the laws passed by Congress.

The President has many duties, which are listed in the Constitution. Those duties include: acting as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, appointing the Cabinet to advise him or her on specialized matters, and appointing federal judges and other important government officials. And the President also has the power to “veto” laws passed by Congress. A veto means the President does not think the law passed by Congress should into effect.

Fun Fact: The President and Vice President are elected by popular vote every four years. But the 22nd Amendment limits the President to two terms in office!

The Constitution also requires that the President must be born in the United States, that he or she must be al least 35 years old, and he or she must have lived in the United States for 14 years.

What is the Judicial Branch?

Article 3 of the Constitution also provided for a system of United States courts. The Constitution only mentions specifically a Supreme Court. It left to Congress to decide how many judges to have on the Supreme Court and how many lower courts to set up under the Supreme Court. There are now nine Supreme Court justices and two kinds of lower federal courts—the districts courts (also called trial courts) and the appellate courts.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation or the “court of last resort.” The Supreme Court’s most important job is to decide what laws are constitutional or unconstitutional. Supreme Court justices are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate.

Supreme Court justices cannot be removed/fired once appointed unless they commit a crime or are unable to perform their duties for some reason. The goal is to have a group of justices who are neutral or not appointed based on the current political thought.

What is the separation of powers?

The Framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure that each branch of government was balanced so that no one part of government could dominate the other. To achieve this goal, the Constitution provides “checks and balances” among the three branches.

“The accumulation of powers legislative, executive and judicial in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self–appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

-James Madison, Federalist #51

Here are a few examples of how the three branches powers are checked.

The President can veto (or reject) bills passed by Congress. This is a check on the power of Congress. But Congress can override a veto if both the Senate and the House again pass the bill by two-thirds majorities. The bill then becomes law.

Or, if the President commits a serious crime, he can be brought to trial by a process called impeachment. In such cases, Congress and the Judicial Branch go through a “trial process” to prove the President committed the crime and vote to remove the President from office.

Finally, if someone goes to court and challenges a law passed by Congress, the Supreme Court might rule that the law is unconstitutional. If that happens, then the law will be struck down and will no longer be enforced.

Can the Constitution be changed?

The Founding Fathers understood that the Constitution should be able to change and grow with time, so they included a way to change the Constitution. These changes are called “amendments.” It is difficult to change the Constitution because it takes two thirds of BOTH the House of Representatives and the Senate OR two thirds of the states to approve the change. Our Constitution has only been amended 27 times in over 200 years!

The first 10 amendments are called the “Bill of Rights.” These amendments list the fundamental rights that you and I enjoy today. Some of those rights include freedom of speech, religion, and press. The Bill of Rights also includes the right to a jury trial and the right to keep and bear arms.

Classroom Activity: Split the classroom up into ten groups, assigning 1 of the first 10 amendments to each. Ask them to read the amendment and talk together about what it means—discuss the history of the amendment and what it looks like in their own lives. Example: Sixth Amendment, what if you were accused of misbehaving at school? Shouldn’t you get a chance to prove or show you were not misbehaving? Have them present their amendment to the rest of the class.

By Danielle Atchison & Benjamin Stelter-Embry

Paid for by the Missouri Bar, Mischa Buford Epps, Executive Director PO Box 119, Jefferson City, MO 65102