Basically, the Constitution is the highest law in the United States. All other laws come from the Constitution in some way. The Constitution also provides the framework for the government of the United States. It creates things like the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. Each state has its own constitution that is the highest law for the state — but even then, the United States Constitution is higher.
Over time, some things have been added to the Constitution. Called "amendments," these add-ons list some of the rights of the people. By listing these rights, they are made special, and it is illegal for the government to violate those rights. As of 2006, there are 27 amendments to the Constitution. Not all of them involve rights, but many do. The first ten amendments, in particular, have the special name of the Bill of Rights. To start, the Constitution is a document written by a group of men in 1787. Yes, it is over 200 years old. We actually have old copies of the document they created. The master copies are stored at the National Archives in Washington D.C. In 2003, the Rotunda, where the Constitution is displayed, was rebuilt, and anyone can go and see the actual Constitution. We also have pictures of the Constitution on this site.
From May to September 1787, the men, known as the Framers, met in Philadelphia and discussed what should be in the Constitution. The United States was a brand new country at the time, and had a government that many felt was not as good as it could be. They were meeting to come up with a new way of running the country. Some of the people at this meeting, called the Convention, are famous to us today, including James Madison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington.
The men came from all over the country, which at the time was made up of only 13 states. The different states had different ideas of what the new government should do, and they had many debates and discussions to come up with a plan that everyone could agree with. It is said that the Constitution was born in compromise, because only by compromising could all the disagreements be resolved. Ben Franklin said the he was not sure if the plan was perfect, but that it was probably as perfect as it could be.
After the Convention ended, the Constitution had to be approved by the 13 states. The Constitution actually said that only nine states had to agree to the Constitution, but everyone wanted all of the states to agree. Two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, took a long time to decide to agree to the Constitution, but in the end, they did. When the Constitution was accepted by these first nine states, we say that it was "ratified." New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify.
When the Constitution was written, the Framers knew their creation was not perfect. They knew that other people would have good ideas for the Constitution, that future generations would want to make changes. They wanted to make it possible to change the Constitution without needing to resort to revolution. They wanted to be sure that it wasn't too hard to make changes, but they also wanted to be sure that it wasn't too easy.
The Framers added an amendment process. An amendment to the Constitution is a change that can add to the Constitution or change an older part of it. An amendment can even overturn a previous amendment, as the 21st did to the 18th. There are a few methods to amend the Constitution, but the most common is to pass an amendment through the Congress, on a two-thirds vote. After that, the amendment goes to the states, and if three-quarters of the states pass the amendment, it is considered a part of the Constitution — it has been ratified.
One of the biggest reasons a lot of people opposed the original Constitution was because it lacked a bill of rights. A bill of rights is a list of rights that belong to the people that the government is not allowed to break. Some of these rights might sound familiar:...
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