During the American Revolution, the United States adopted the Articles of Confederation as the framework for a new national government. Soon, though, this government proved too weak to be effective. Leaders agreed to meet to amend the articles, but the delegates to that convention quickly agreed to adopt a completely new plan of government. The result—the U.S. Constitution—laid out a federal system of government that gave more power to the central government while retaining key powers to the states. Rectifying one flaw of the articles government, it also established separate executive and judicial branches, while providing a system of checks and balances that gave each branch some power over the other branches to prevent any from becoming too powerful. The result of debate and compromise, the Constitution provided a process for amending its terms. Supporters and opponents of the new framework debated its merits, but the Constitution finally won ratification in part through the promise to add a Bill of Rights that would provide strong guarantees of the basic rights and personal freedoms of Americans.
At A Glance
- The Articles of Confederation, approved by the states in 1781, was the first written plan of government for the new United States. It laid out the powers and purpose of the national government, which consisted of a one-chamber legislature.
- In the Articles of Confederation, Americans deliberately established a weak confederation of sovereign states because they did not want to be ruled by another authoritative central power like the British crown.
- The delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 faced challenges regarding representation in the legislature, the issue of slavery, and the selection and powers of the chief executive (president) that they resolved through compromise.
- The delegates determined that the executive branch would be headed by a single president with limited power to veto legislation who would be selected not by popular vote but by a group of electors.
- The U.S. Constitution incorporates four main principles: republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances.
- The U.S. Constitution contains a preamble and seven articles that outline the powers of the three branches of government, specify the relations between states, explain the process of amending the Constitution, establish the supremacy of the Constitution, and state the process for ratification.
Article 1 of the Constitution establishes a two-chamber Congress as the legislative branch of the U.S. government with the power to make laws and raise revenue. It grants the Congress specific, or enumerated, powers, but Congress also possesses implied powers.
Article 2 of the Constitution describes the terms of office and the powers of the executive branch.
Article 3 of the Constitution calls for one Supreme Court and other courts as Congress deems necessary but provides very little specific detail about the judicial branch.
Article 4 of the Constitution establishes that each state shall give "full faith and credit" to the laws of other states, guarantees the rights of citizens in each state, provides for the addition of new states, and guarantees each state a republican form of government.
Article 5 of the Constitution outlines how the document can be amended. Although four potential paths are prescribed, almost every amendment has been proposed by a two-thirds vote in Congress and by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.
Article 6 of the Constitution includes the supremacy clause, which states that federal laws take precedence over state laws.
Article 7 of the Constitution establishes that it would take effect when conventions in 9 of the 13 states ratified the document.
- Americans were divided over the ratification of the Constitution. Federalists, proponents of a stronger central government, argued in favor of the new document.
- The Anti-Federalists, who believed the new central government was given too much power and could deprive individuals of their liberties, were against ratification of the Constitution.
- The Bill of Rights—the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution—secures the basic rights and personal freedoms of U.S. citizens.