The Objectives of the Constitution | Finding Your Way Around the Constitution
The primary original function of the U.S. Constitution, as put in place in March 1789, was to create a framework for the American system of government. Shortly thereafter, due to concerns that the Constitution placed too much power with the government, the Bill of Rights was adopted to ensure the basic rights and freedoms of U.S. citizens.
The Structure of Government Set Forth in the U.S. Constitution
The American Constitution establishes three distinct branches of the federal government:
- The legislative branch, with the power to create laws;
- The executive branch, with the power to carry out and enforce the laws; and
- The judicial branch, with the power to interpret laws and also review and strike down any laws that go beyond the powers granted in the Constitution.
Individual Rights Established in the Constitution
The Constitution as originally written did not guarantee any individual rights. Those protections are found in its first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, and other amendments that have been added to the Constitution since it was originally adopted.
A Road Map to the United States Constitution
The main body of the Constitution contains seven articles:
- Article I identifies the structure of the legislative branch, establishing both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It sets forth how representation is allocated (pro rata by state population in the House and two per state in the Senate). Article I grants specific powers to Congress (e.g., to coin money, create the post office, declare war, etc.) but also grants it “all powers…necessary and proper” to carry out its identified powers.
- Article II creates the executive branch of the federal government, setting forth how the president is chosen, including the establishment of the electoral college. Article II grants specific powers to the president, including the powers to command the U.S. military, to make treaties with foreign countries (with senate approval), to enforce and administer the nation’s laws, and to nominate federal judges.
- Article III establishes the federal courts, including a single Supreme Court. It does not, however, identify a specific structure for the courts or ascertain how many courts there shall be or how many judges shall serve on each court.
- Article IV clarifies the relationship between the federal government and the governments of the respective states, and also mandates that states shall respect the laws and judicial decisions of other states.
- Article V identifies how the Constitution can be amended, requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.
- Article VI simply identifies the Constitution as the law of the land, requiring public officials to swear to uphold its provisions and all laws governed by it. Article VI also bans any religious test for holding public office.
- Article VII ratifies the Constitution as valid and in force.
There are currently 27 amendments to the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. The amendments are found sequentially after the main body of the Constitution. Some of our most important civil liberties are found in these amendments. Here are just a few examples:
- Freedom of speech (Amendment I)
- Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizure (Amendment IV)
- Right to a jury trial (Amendments VI and VII)
- Prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment (Amendment VIII)
- Abolishment of slavery (Amendment XIII)
- Guarantee of equal protection under the law regardless of race or religion (Amendment XIV)
- Guarantee that women can vote (Amendment XIX)
For more details about important amendments to the U.S. Constitution, see our page What You Need to Know About the U.S. Constitution.