The Jeffersonians   

The constitutions of most of our States assert that all power is inherent in the people ... Th. Jefferson

Learning About the Constitution


The Constitution

How is it important to us - We the People?

A. The Constitution is our supreme law - it designates all of our rights as citizens of this republic and it spells out the exact rights and powers that the state governments and the federal government has to govern us.

Who actually wrote the Constitution?
A. In none of the relatively meager records of the Constitutional Convention is the literary authorship of any part of the Constitution definitely established. The deputies debated proposed plans until, on July 24, 1787, substantial agreement having been reached, a Committee of Detail was appointed, consisting of John Rutledge, of South Carolina; Edmund Randolph, of Virginia; Nathaniel Gorham, of Massachusetts; Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut; and James Wilson, of Pennsylvania, who on August 6 reported a draft which included a Preamble and twenty-three articles, embodying fifty-seven sections. Debate continued until September 8, when a new Committee of Style was named to revise the draft. This committee included William Samuel Johnson, of Connecticut; Alexander Hamilton, of New York; Gouverneur Morris, of Pennsylvania; James Madison, of Virginia; and Rufus King, of Massachusetts, and they reported the draft in approximately its final shape on September 12. The actual literary form is believed to be largely that of Morris, and the chief testimony for this is in the letters and papers of Madison, and Morris's claim. However, the document in reality was built slowly and laboriously, with not a piece of material included until it has been shaped and approved. The preamble was written by the Committee of Style.

In what order did the States ratify the Constitution?
A. In the following order: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York. After Washington had been inaugurated, North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified.

When did the United States government go into operation under the Constitution?
A. The Constitution became binding upon nine States by the ratification of the ninth State, New Hampshire, June 21, 1788. Notice of this ratification was received by Congress on July 2, 1788. On September 13, 1788, Congress adopted a resolution declaring that electors should be appointed in the ratifying States on the first Wednesday in January, 1789; that the electors vote for President on the first Wednesday in February, 1789; and that "the first Wednesday in March next [March 4, 1789] be the time and the present seat of Congress the place for commencing proceedings under the said constitution." The Convention had also suggested "that after such Publication the Electors should be appointed, and the Senators and Representatives elected." The Constitution left with the States the control over the election of congressmen, and Congress said nothing about this in its resolution; but the States proceeded to provide for it as well as for the appointment of electors. On March 3, 1789, the old Confederation went out of existence and on March 4 the new government of the United States began legally to function, according to a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States (wings v. Speed, 5 Wheat. 420); however, it had no practical existence until April 6, when first the presence of quorums in both Houses permitted organization of Congress. On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States, so on that date the executive branch of the government under the Constitution became operative. But it was not until February 2, 1790, that the Supreme Court, as head of the third branch of the government, organized and, held its first session; so that is the date when our government under the Constitution became fully operative

What is meant by the term "constitution"?
A. A constitution embodies the fundamental principles of a government. Our constitution, adopted by the sovereign power, is amendable by that power only. To the constitution all laws, executive actions, and, judicial decisions must conform, as it is the creator of the powers exercised by the departments of government.

Why has our Constitution been classed as "rigid"?
A. The term "rigid" is used in opposition to "flexible" because the provisions are in a written document which cannot be legally changed with the same ease and in the same manner as ordinary laws. The British Constitution, which is unwritten, can, on the other hand, be changed overnight by act of Parliament.

What is the source of the philosophy found in the Constitution?
A. The book which had the greatest influence upon the members of the Constitutional Convention was Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, which first appeared in 1748. The great French philosopher had, however, in turn borrowed much of his doctrine from the Englishman John Locke, with whose writings various members of the Convention were also familiar.

Are there original ideas of government in the Constitution?
A. Yes; but its main origins lie in centuries of experience in government, the lessons of which were brought over from England and further developed through the practices of over a century and a half in the colonies and early State governments, and in the struggles of the Continental Congress. Its roots are deep in the past; and its endurance and the obedience and respect it has won are mainly the result of the slow growth of its principles from before the days of Magna Carta.

The United States government is frequently described as one of limited powers. Is this true?
A. Yes. The United States government possesses only such powers as are specifically granted to it by the Constitution

Then how does it happen that the government constantly exercises powers not mentioned by the Constitution?
A. Those powers simply flow from general provisions. To take a simple example, the Constitution gives to the United States the right to coin money. It would certainly follow, therefore, that the government had the right to make the design for the coinage. This is what the Supreme Court calls "reasonable construction" of the Constitution (Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 18)

[Section. 8.

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;--And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.  ]

Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?
A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the States.

Does the Constitution provide for the formation of a Cabinet?
A. No. The Constitution vests the executive power in the President. Executive departments were created by successive acts of Congress under authority conferred by the Constitution in Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 18. The Departments of State, Treasury, and War were created by the first session of the First Congress. The Secretaries of these, together with the Attorney General, formed the first President's Cabinet. The Cabinet, it should be distinctly understood, is merely an advisory body whose members hold office only during the pleasure of the President. It has no constitutional function as a Cabinet, and the word does not appear in an act of Congress until February 26, 1907 (Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 18; Art. II, sec. 1, cl. 1, sec. 2, cl. 1).

Who appoints the Chief Justice of the United States and for how long a term?
A. The Chief Justice of the United States and the Associate Justices are appointed for life (during good behavior) by the President of the United States, "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate," (Art. II, sec. 2, cl. 2; Art. III, sec. 1).

Is a constitutional amendment submitted to the President?
A. No. A resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution, after having passed both houses of Congress by a two-thirds vote, does not go to the President for his signature. It is sent to the States to be ratified either by their legislatures or by conventions, as Congress shall determine (Art. V). The Supreme Court as early as 1798 declared the approval was not requisite (Hollingsworth v. Virginia, 3 Dallas 378).

Should the amendments be called articles?
A. The amendments proposed by the first Congress were sent out as "Articles in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America," and the term "article" is used in self-application in all the amendments since the Twelfth, except the Seventeenth, which uses the term "amendment." This would seem to give official sanction to calling the amendments "articles," but as it causes some confusion, they are better placed by the use of "amendment" only, with the proper number.

What has been the longest period during which no amendment has been added to the Constitution?
A. Sixty-one years, from 1804 to 1865. This period elapsed between the Twelfth and Thirteenth Amendments.

How long did it take the States to ratify the income tax amendment?
A. The Sixteenth Amendment was proposed to the States on July 12, 1909, deposited with the Secretary of State on July 21, ratified by the thirty-sixth state on February 3, 1913, and, declared ratified on February 25, 1913.

It has been stated that the Prohibition Amendment was the first instance of incorporating a statute in the Constitution. Is this so?
A. No. Those portions of the Constitution which specifically dealt with slavery and the slave trade (Art. I, sec. 9, cl. 1; Art. IV, sec. 2, cl. 3 ) were both of this character. They were made obsolete by time limit in one case and the Civil War in the other.

How many amendments to the Constitution have been repealed?
A. Only one -- the Eighteenth (Prohibition).

How is an amendment repealed?
A. By adding another amendment.

If the Eighteenth Amendment is repealed, why is it necessary to call the new one repealing it the Twenty-first?
A. The Eighteenth Amendment will indeed remain in the Constitution, but a notation will be added to the effect that it is repealed by the Twenty-first.

. What constitutes the Bill of Rights?
A. The first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Do the first ten amendments bind the States?
A. No. They restrict the powers of the national government. They do not bind the States; but various of their restrictions have been applied to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Does not the Constitution give us our rights and liberties?
A. No, it does not, it only guarantees them. The people had all their rights and liberties before they made the Constitution. The Constitution was formed, among other purposes, to make the people's liberties secure-- secure not only as against foreign attack but against oppression by their own government. They set specific limits upon their national government and upon the States, and reserved to themselves all powers that they did not grant. The Ninth Amendment declares: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

What protection is given to a person accused of crime under the jurisdiction of the United States?
A. The Fifth Amendment declares that no person, except one serving in the land or naval forces or the militia in time of war or public danger, can be held to answer for a capital or other infamous crime unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury. No person can be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb for the same offense. No one in a criminal case can be compelled to be a witness against himself, or be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation. By the Eighth Amendment excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishments are prohibited. The original Constitution forbids ex post facto laws and bills of attainder, limits the punishment for treason, protects the right to a writ of habeas corpus, and secures trial by jury.

Is the right to speedy trial guaranteed?
A. Yes. The Sixth Amendment expressly states that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury within the district of the crime, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation. He is entitled to be confronted with the witnesses against him, to be allowed to compel the attendance of witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

What is the Twentieth Amendment and when was it adopted?
A. This is the so-called "Lame Duck" Amendment, which changes the time for the beginning of the terms of the President, Vice President, and the members of Congress. The term of the President and Vice President begins on January 20, and that of members of Congress on January 3. It was adopted upon the ratification by the thirty-sixth State, January 23, 1933, and certified in effect on February 6.

Why was a constitutional amendment necessary to change the date of the beginning of the terms of President, Vice President, and members of Congress?
A. The Constitution fixes the terms of President and, Vice President at four years, of Senators at six years, and of Representatives at two years. Any change of date would affect the terms of the incumbents. It was therefore necessary to amend the Constitution to make the change.

Does the Twentieth Amendment do away with the Electoral College?
A. It does not.

It takes how many States to block an amendment?
A. Thirteen, without respect to population or importance; but while approval is considered final, rejection is not while within the time limit, if one is prescribed by the amendment.

Some of our questions were derived from The Story of the Constitution by Sol Bloom



Learning more about the Constitution:

Who Drafted the Constitution?

A. The Constitution was drafted during the Constitutional Convention. States sent delegates to the convention, which was held in the summer of 1787. During this summer the delegates came and went, none where all there together, and they debated many variations, inclusions and exclusions. Finally it was finalized, James Madison was in the forefront of getting the draft together to which they then had it written up by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania through a committee who's job was to finalize the draft for signing. 

Where there others involved in the drafting?

A. Although they did not sign it nor did they attend the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, to name a few put in their words and opinions to those attending. Their input was extremely valuable and accepted graciously as their opionions and views were highly regarded.

Why didn't some states sign the Constitution?

A. Some states thought the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were going to create a document that would give too much power to the federal government, they wanted less federal government and more state control.

What resulted from the disagreement with the states not wanting to sign the Constitution?

A. The Bill of Rights or the first ten amendments were the result of the states having concerns over what powers, rights and liberties the federal, states and people would have.

What did "a more perfect union" mean in the Preamble of the Constitution?

A. The union was the original 13 states and was governed under the Articles of the Confederation; they now were forming a better, more secure document by which they would thus have a more perfect union of the thirteen states.