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.
The Constitution is divided into a preamble and seven sections, or articles, of various length. The preamble begins by stating that "We the People" proclaim this document, establishing that the people are the sovereign power in the government. According to the preamble, the goals of the Constitution are to "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." The Constitution follows with seven articles. The first three outline the powers of the three branches of government, beginning with the legislative power. The others address such issues as relations between states, the process of amending the Constitution, the supremacy of the Constitution, and the process for ratification.
Articles of the U.S. Constitution
All legislative powers are vested in Congress. Congress is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The article details the qualifications for office of members of House and Senate.
Executive power is vested in the president of the United States. The article details the qualifications for office and the powers of the president. The vice president shall also serve as the president of the Senate.
Judicial power is vested in a Supreme Court and such inferior, or lower, courts that Congress establishes.
The article in part defines the relations among the states: each state gives full faith and credit to the law, records, and court decisions of other states; citizens in every state are entitled to the privileges of citizens in all other states. New states may be admitted but not carved from any other state. The United States will guarantee each state a republican form of government and protect each state from invasion and civil unrest.
The Constitution may be amended through either of two two-step processes.
All debts and agreements prior to the Constitution remain valid. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land (the supremacy clause). Members of Congress and all federal and state officeholders are bound by oath to uphold the Constitution, but no religious test will be required for holding office.
The Constitution takes effect once it is ratified by the conventions of nine states.
Federal Legislative Branch
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.
Significantly, the body of the Constitution begins with the legislative branch, indicating the importance the framers placed on the lawmaking power. Article 1 divides Congress into the House of Representatives and the Senate and sets the terms of office for members at two and six years, respectively. House elections are held every two years; Senate seats are divided into three groups, one of which is up for election every two years. To be eligible for election to the House, a person must be 25 years old, be a citizen for seven years, and be a resident of the state. Candidates for the Senate must be 30 years old, be a citizen for nine years, and live in the state. Originally, senators were elected by state legislatures but have been elected by statewide popular vote since ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913. Article 1 identifies the presiding officers of the two chambers as the Speaker of the House and, for the Senate, the vice president.
Article 1 of the Constitution details the enumerated powers of Congress. An enumerated power is one specifically granted to Congress by Article 1, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution. Congress also holds implied powers. An implied power is a power assumed by Congress through interpretation of the necessary and proper clause found in paragraph 18 of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. The necessary and proper clause, or elastic clause, gives Congress the power to make laws that are necessary to carry out the powers that are granted by the Constitution. Over the years, Congress has exercised this broad power to legislate in many more areas than would be imaginable under the enumerated powers alone.
A key congressional power is the ability to raise revenue by imposing taxes. Under the Articles of Confederation, only the states had the power to tax. The Confederation Congress could ask the states for money to meet national needs, but it could neither tax the people or the states nor compel the states to supply the requested funds. By giving the new Congress the power to tax, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention made the new national government more viable.
Federal Executive Branch
Article 2 of the Constitution describes the terms of office and the powers of the executive branch.
Article 2 of the Constitution outlines the terms of office and the powers of the president of the United States, who heads the executive branch of the U.S. government. The president serves for four years and may be reelected. Under the 22nd Amendment, ratified in 1951, a person may be elected to only two terms as president; anyone who succeeds to the presidency to fill a vacancy and serves more than two years can only be elected to one additional term. To be elected president, a person must be 35 years old, be a natural-born citizen of the United States, and have lived in the United States for 14 years. As noted earlier, the framers established the electoral college to select the president and the vice president. The vice president's only specified duty is to serve as the presiding officer of the Senate.
The president is responsible for enforcing laws. Although Article 2 names the president as commander in chief of the armed forces, Article 2, Section 8, stipulates that only Congress has the power to declare war. Enumerated powers given to the president include negotiating treaties with other countries and nominating federal officials and judges, though both treaties and those nominations are subject to the consent of the Senate.
Federal Judicial 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.
The judicial branch is made up of the court system. The Constitution created one Supreme Court and gave Congress the power to create other inferior, or lower, courts. The Supreme Court can rule directly on all cases involving a dispute between the states or one involving foreign officials. It can review appeals of decisions made by the lower courts on issues of constitutional or federal law. Through the principle of judicial review, established in the case Marbury v. Madison (1803)—but not specifically granted by the Constitution—the judiciary also holds the power to review a federal law or executive branch action for constitutionality.
The Constitution provides only a sketchy outline of the federal judiciary, as the framers left it up to Congress to fill in the details. The First Congress created a three-level court system with district courts that function as federal trial courts that handle both criminal and civil cases; circuit courts that hear appeals on the decisions of those lower courts; and the U.S. Supreme Court, which has the final word on federal cases. The number of justices on the Supreme Court is not set by the Constitution but established by law. While the number of justices has been set at nine since the 1860s, the first Supreme Court had only six. The Constitution does provide that members of the federal judiciary shall serve for life "during good Behaviour." Under Article 3, Section 4, federal judges, as "civil Officers," are subject to impeachment.
Article 4 Provisions
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 4 addresses relations among states and other state-related issues. The first two sections stipulate that the laws and judicial proceedings of one state be honored by others, that the citizens of one state cannot be denied the "Privileges and Immunities" of citizens of other states, and that those accused or convicted of a crime in one state should be delivered to that state should they flee to another. Section 3 provides for expansion of the Union by giving Congress the power to make rules for territories added to the United States and by stating the process by which new states may be admitted. Under Section 4, the Constitution guarantees each state a republican form of government and promises that the federal government will protect each state from foreign invasion or domestic rebellion.
Amending the U.S. Constitution
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 5 describes the process of amending the Constitution. Hoping that the Constitution would endure for many years, the framers did not want to make the process of amending it too easy. On the other hand, recognizing the near impossibility of revision posed by the unanimity required of amendments under the Articles of Confederation, they wanted a process that allowed a realistic opportunity to make changes. Amendments can be proposed either by two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress or in a national convention requested by two-thirds of the state legislatures; all 27 amendments that have been ratified were proposed by Congress. Amendments must be ratified by either three-fourths of the state legislatures or by conventions in three-fourths of the states. Only one amendment—the 21st—has been ratified by state conventions, and this requirement was specifically imposed by Congress when it proposed the amendment. The requirement of two-thirds and three-quarters supermajorities ensures that substantial consensus exists about the need for change.
Article 6 of the Constitution includes the supremacy clause, which states that federal laws take precedence over state laws.
Article 6, Clause 2, of the Constitution is known as the supremacy clause. It states that the U.S. Constitution and federal law take precedence over state constitutions and state law. This is a key difference between the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution. The supremacy clause ensures that states cannot interfere with the constitutional powers of the federal government or take over any functions that are specifically assigned to the federal government.
Article 7 of the Constitution establishes that it would take effect when conventions in 9 of the 13 states ratified the document.
Article 7, Clause 1, of the Constitution provides that only nine states were needed to ratify the document and put the new government into effect. The framers debated whether to allow state legislatures to ratify the Constitution or to require specially elected conventions. They decided on the latter out of a belief that endorsement by bodies chosen by the people expressly for that purpose would have more weight. They settled on nine states as being sufficient for ratification as a way of promoting early ratification, based on the idea that states would move to approve the document quickly so as to gain a place under the new government and thus influence any possible changes to the framework.