Home Federal Government Government Structure: 1. The US Constitution

Government Structure: 1. The US Constitution

Government Structure: 1. The US Constitution

In addition to being a federal republic, the US is also a constitutional democracy. The US constitution is even shorter than the Vermont constitution. It was approved by the Continental Congress in 1787 and ratified by all thirteen original states by 1790. Vermont ratified the US constitution in 1791 when it became the 14th state.

The original constitution had only seven Articles and addressed largely the framework of the federal government and the relationship between the federal government and state governments.  Based on separation of powers, the first three Articles established the legislative branch, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Presidency and the Supreme Court. Article IV addressed states, Article V set out the process for amending the constitution and Article VI confirmed the constitution as the supreme law of the land with a requirement that all elected officials and judges take an oath to that effect. Article VII simply addressed ratification of the constitution by the states.

Before final ratification of the constitution by all 13 original states, the Bill of Rights was distributed for ratification. A number of states demanded greater constitutional protection for individual liberties as a condition to ratifying the Constitution.

Drafted by James Madison, the Bill of Rights was fully ratified in 1791. Similar to the Vermont constitution, the Bill of Rights provided the citizens of the country a set of individual rights enshrined as the supreme law of the land, as follows:

  1. Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, right to peaceable assembly and right to petition the government
  2. Right to keep and bear arms
  3. No soldier to be quartered in a house without owner’s consent in times of peace, and only as prescribed by law in times of war
  4. Requirement for a specific warrant, no unreasonable search and seizure and no warrants without probable cause
  5. Requirement for a Grand Jury indictment, no double jeopardy, requirement for due process of law and no taking of private property for public use without just compensation
  6. Right to a jury, right to have witnesses and right to counsel
  7. Right to a jury in civil cases
  8. No excessive bail and no cruel and unusual punishments
  9. The rights granted in the constitution do not limit any other rights retained by the people
  10. Powers not expressly granted to the federal government are retained by the states.

Unlike the Vermont constitution, the US constitution did not ban slavery. This didn’t happen until just after the Civil War in 1865 with the ratification of Amendment XIII. The Civil War also resulted in amendments to limit the ability of states to impinge on the rights of black people. In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the constitution guaranteed the rights of all citizens, granted all citizens the privileges and immunities of citizenship and provided all citizens with due process and equal protection under the law. In 1869, the 15th amendment to the constitution guaranteed all citizens the right to vote irrespective of race.

There have been over twenty amendments to the constitution. The income tax was established, women got the right to vote and Presidents were limited to two terms. Two amendments related to alcohol: one banned alcohol and one banned the ban. The last amendment, number XXVII, which came into effect in 1992, took over 200 years to ratify. It stipulates that no change in the pay of legislators can take effect until the beginning of the next election cycle of the House of Representatives. So, if you want to give yourself a raise, you need to win another election first. As constitutional amendments need to be ratified by the various state legislatures, one can imagine this idea not being too popular among that particular constituency.

Much has changed since 1787, but the US constitution remains the supreme law of the land. Once 13 small states spread along the East coast, the US is now the fourth largest country in the world by landmass, the third largest by population and the largest as measured by GDP. The Senate has grown from 26 to 100 members. The House of Representatives has grown from 65 to 435. The number of cabinet ministers has grown from four under George Washington to fifteen today. Along the way, there have been hundreds of Supreme Court cases interpreting the US Constitution.


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