the fundamental law of the U.S. federal system of government and a landmark document of the Western world. It is the oldest written national constitution in operation. The Constitution defines the principal organs of government and their jurisdictions and the basic rights of citizens. Click here for the text of the Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution was written during the summer of 1787 at a convention of 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia, ostensibly to amend the Articles of Confederation, the country's first written constitution. The new Constitution was submitted for ratification to the 13 states on Sept. 28, 1787, and after the ninth state had ratified it in June 1788, Congress set March 4, 1789, as the date for the new government to commence proceedings (the first elections under the Constitution were held late in 1788). Because ratification in many states hinged on the promised addition of a Bill of Rights, Congress proposed 12 amendments in September 1789; 10 were ratified by the states, and their adoption was certified on Dec. 15, 1791. The authors of the Constitution were heavily influenced by the experience of the country under the Articles of Confederation, which dated from 1781. This document had attempted to retain as much of the independence and sovereignty of the states as possible while also establishing a central government to carry out important national functions that the states could not handle individually. But the experience of the years from 1781 to 1787 showed that this could not be done, for under this arrangement the national government lacked many essential powers and was thus weak and ineffective. The new Constitution would remedy this. The framers of the Constitution were especially concerned with limiting the power of the government and securing the liberty of citizens. The separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the checks and balances of each against the others, and the explicit guarantees of individual liberty were all designed to strike a balance between authority and libertythe central purpose of U.S. constitutional law. The Constitution organizes concisely the basic U.S. political institutions. The main text comprises seven articles. Article I vests all legislative powers in the Congressthe House of Representatives and the Senate. Among those powers are the right to levy taxes, borrow money, regulate interstate commerce, provide for military forces, declare war, and determine member seating and rules of procedure. The House initiates impeachment proceedings, and the Senate adjudicates them. Article II vests executive power in the president. The president's formal responsibilities include those of chief executive, commander in chief of the armed forces, and treaty maker (two-thirds of the Senate must concur). The powers of appointment of the president are vast but are subject to the advice and consent (majority approval) of the Senate (Article II, section 2). The informal responsibilities of the president have grown to embrace political leadership, including proposing legislation to Congress. Article III places judicial power in the hands of the courts. The Constitution is interpreted by the courts, and the Supreme Court of the United States is the final court of appeal from the state and lower federal courts. The power of U.S. courts to rule on the constitutionality of laws is known as judicial review. Few courts in the world have that extraordinary power, which is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. The definitive assertion of judicial review was made by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison (1803; q.v.). Beyond the body of judicial rulings interpreting it, the Constitution acquires meaning in a broader sense at the hands of all who use it. Congress on innumerable occasions has given new scope to the document through statutes, such as those creating executive departments, the federal courts, territories, and states, or controlling succession to the presidency, or setting up the executive budget system. The chief executive has also contributed to constitutional interpretation, as in the development of the executive agreement as an instrument of foreign policy. Practices outside the letter of the Constitution based on custom and usage are often recognized as elements on the constitutional level. An example is the system of political parties, presidential nomination procedures, and election campaigns in the United States. The presidential cabinet is largely a constitutional convention based on custom, and the actual operation of the electoral college system is also such a convention. Article IV deals, in part, with relations among the states and privileges of the citizens of the states, Article V with amendment procedure, discussed hereafter, and Article VI with public debts and the supremacy of the Constitution. Article VII gives ratification terms. Under the Constitution, the national government has only those constitutional powers that are delegated to it; the states, unless otherwise restricted, possess all the remaining powers of government (Tenth Amendment). Thus, national powers are enumerated, state powers are not. The state powers are often called residual powers. Although the national government is limited to its enumerated powers, Article VI cites the Constitution as the supreme Law of the Land; . . . any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding. The elastic clause of the Constitution (Article I, section 8) states that Congress shall have the authority To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the various powers vested in the national government by the Constitution. It follows that, in addition to the specified powers, Congress possesses implied powers, a proposition definitively established by Chief Justice Marshall in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819; q.v.). Early in U.S. history, competing concepts of federal supremacy and states' rights were brought into sharp focus in questions about commercial regulation. The commerce clause (Article I, section 8) simply authorizes Congress To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes. From Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) on, the Supreme Court has broadly interpreted Congress' regulatory power under the commerce clause as new methods of interstate transportation and communication have come into use. States may not regulate any aspect of interstate commerce that Congress has preempted. The federal government is obliged by many constitutional provisions to respect an individual citizen's basic rights. Some civil rights were specified in the original document, notably in the provisions guaranteeing the writ of habeas corpus and forbidding bills of attainder and ex post facto laws (Article I, section 9). It also guaranteed trial by jury in criminal cases (Article III, section 2). But the most significant limitations to government's power over the individual were added in 1791 in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment guarantees the rights of conscience, such as freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the right of peaceful assembly and petition. Other guarantees in the Bill of Rights include fair procedure for persons accused of crime, such as protection against unreasonable search and seizure and against compulsory self-incrimination and excessive bail, a speedy and public trial by a local, impartial jury before an impartial judge, and representation by counsel. Rights of private property are also guaranteed. For protection of such rights against state action, the citizen originally had to look to each state constitution. An important new federal limitation on the states was added to the Constitution of the United States with the ratification, in 1868, of the Fourteenth Amendment. It forbids any state to deny to any person life, liberty, or property, without due process of law or to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws. Interpretation by the Supreme Court gave these two clauses increased meaning. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has been held to include the liberties of religion, speech, and press that the First Amendment protects against violation by the federal government. Similarly, certain guarantees of a fair trial, such as the defendant's right to an impartial judge and the assistance of counsel, have also been judicially absorbed into the Fourteenth Amendment. The other great limitation on the states in the Fourteenth Amendmentthat no state shall deny the equal protection of its lawshas a long and important history in U.S. constitutional law. The Supreme Court applied the equal protection clause on May 17, 1954, when it ruled that states that segregated white and black children in the public schools violated the Constitution (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka). Under Article V, amendments to the Constitution may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress or by a convention called by Congress on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states. All subsequent amendments have been initiated by Congress. Amendments that have been proposed by Congress must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or by conventions in as many states. Congress decides which method will be used and sets the time limit for ratification. Twenty-seven amendments have been added to the Constitution since 1789. In addition to the first 10the Bill of Rights of 1791 was adopted as a single unitfar-reaching amendments include the Thirteenth (1865), abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth (1868), discussed previously, and the Fifteenth (1870), guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race. The Seventeenth (1913) provides for direct election of U.S. Senators and the Nineteenth (1920) for woman suffrage. The Twenty-second (1951) limits the presidency to two terms. The Twenty-sixth (1971) granted suffrage to citizens 18 and older.

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