The U.S. Constitution serves two essential roles:
Every American should understand the basics of the Constitution; however, much of it is written in archaic language from the 18th century, and even the more recent amendments can be hard to understand if you’re not a lawyer. This page is intended to explain the most important parts of the Constitution in plain language. For further information on the structure of the Constitution and how its provisions are interpreted by courts, see our main page on Constitutional Law.
The Constitution is made up of seven Articles and (currently) 27 amendments. The first three articles describe the three branches of government and outline their powers.
Article I of the U.S. Constitution describes the two houses of the legislature: the House of Representatives, whose numbers are based on the population of each state, and the Senate, in which representation is allocated equally. This form of legislature depends on two principles: the belief that people should choose their own representatives to enact their will in governing, and the tenet that laws should not be passed by temporary majorities. In practice, states enjoy both proportional representation and equal representation in the legislature. Each state elects congressional representatives apportioned to the number of districts in the state (which corresponds to the state’s population), but each state also elects two senators regardless of population. Article I gives these two legislative houses, known collectively as Congress, enumerated and implied powers.
Enumerated/Expressed Powers of Congress: these powers are listed specifically in Article I, Section 8. The powers delineated here include:
However, Article I, Section 8 ends with a provision that also grants Congress all powers that are “necessary and proper” to carry out its enumerated powers. This provision implies that Congress has powers not explicitly stated in the Constitution.
Implied Powers: Implied powers are not explicitly identified in the Constitution but have been extrapolated from the enumerated powers and thought to be necessary to implementing Congress’s express powers. The exact definition of implied powers has fluctuated considerably, but those powers include setting a minimum wage, borrowing money on behalf of the U.S., issuing patents and copyrights, maintaining the armed forces, and declaring war.
Inherent Powers: These powers are supposed to be encompassed by the very idea of a national government and include the power to control the country’s borders, to offer (or refuse) diplomatic recognition to other countries, and to acquire new territories.
Article II of the Constitution establishes the executive branch of the government, headed by the President of the United States. The purpose of this branch is to carry out the government’s daily functions, to enter into treaties with other nations, to appoint federal judges and ambassadors, and to oversee the military. Article II also requires the President to periodically inform Congress about the state of the union.
Article III provides for a federal judiciary, tasked with interpreting the laws of the United States. This article does not require a specific number of federal courts, nor does it explain how those courts should be organized. However, the article does establish a single Supreme Court as a court of last resort for legal cases that arise under the Constitution, U.S. laws, and treaties.
The remaining four original articles of the Constitution cover other essential properties of government and the Constitution’s role in governing the United States:
This article outlines the relationship between the federal government and the states, and between one state and another. The article provides that states shall respect the laws and judgments of other states.
This article confers the power to amend the Constitution. Amendment may be accomplished in two ways: two thirds of both houses of Congress propose an amendment, or two thirds of all state legislatures call a convention for the purpose of amending the Constitution. Amendments must be approved by three fourths of the states, either by state legislatures or in convention.
This article establishes the Constitution as the law of the land and requires public officials to take an oath to uphold the Constitution and all laws stemming from it. This article also prohibits any religious test for holding public office.
This article ratifies the document.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was drafted in response to calls from the states for greater freedom from federal control and was added to the Constitution to help ensure that the document would be ratified by the states. Many colonists had experienced the tyranny of the English monarchy before emigrating to the United States and wanted to be sure that the government in the new country would not engage in similar oppression. Many were fearful that the Constitution, as originally drafted, created a federal government with too much power. The Bill of Rights was intended to limit that power.
The Bill of Rights includes the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution:
For further information on the provisions of the Fifth Amendment, see our page on 5th Amendment Law.
There are 27 amendments to the Constitution. Some of these amendments clarify procedures (such as how the Electoral College meets and votes) while others clarify rights. Some of the most important amendments are the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Sixteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments.
The Thirteenth Amendment, which was passed by the House of Representatives in January 1865 and ratified by the states later that year, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. That exception means that prisoners who are duly convicted of a crime can be forced to labor without pay.
The Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, offers a guarantee of several important rights and protections, including Equal Protection and Due Process.
The Equal Protection Clause ensures that the government treats its citizens in the same way, or at least does not treat citizens differently for impermissible reasons. For example, the government may treat a citizen who has committed a crime differently than it treats citizens who have not committed a crime, but it may not treat citizens of a particular religion or race differently from other citizens. For further information on how the Supreme Court applies the Equal Protection Clause, see our page on that topic.
The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment has been applied by the Supreme Court to uphold substantive rights such as the right to work, the right to use contraception, and the right to marry. It also ensures that a state cannot deprive an individual of life, liberty, or property without notice and a fair hearing. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution both contain Due Process Clauses. The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment pertains to federal government action and the Fourteenth Amendment’s applies to state and local government action.
The Citizenship Clause defines U.S. citizenship to include all persons born or naturalized in the United States. The immediate effect of this clause was to confirm that the descendants of African slaves were also citizens. More recently, this clause has been invoked to uphold “birthright citizenship,” the principle that children born within the U.S. are citizens of the U.S. even if their parents are not.
The Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment repeats the guarantee of the Fourth Amendment that “the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.” The clause has not been extended to specific rights afforded by individual states, but only to fundamental rights, like life, liberty, property ownership, and safety.
The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, gave Congress the ability to levy a federal tax on citizens’ incomes.
The Nineteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to women.
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