The Constitution Explained
The Constitution is often hailed as a marvel of
brevity and of clarity. It was, however, written in the 18th century, and many
of the ideas, concepts, words, phrases, and euphemisms seem odd to us today, if
not down right foreign. Some of the more obscure words are defined in The Glossary.
But what of the Constitution itself? What does it mean? What does each
article, each section, say?
This page is like a synopsis or summary of the Constitution, article by
article, amendment by amendment. This should not be taken as a substitute for
the Constitution, but more like a study guide.
The Preamble to the Constitution has no
force in law; instead, it establishes the "Why" of the Constitution. Why is
this document in existence? It reflects the desires of the Framers to improve on the government they
currently had (to be "more perfect" than the Articles
of Confederation), to ensure that that government would be just, and would
protect its citizens from internal strife and from attack from the outside. It
would be of benefit to the people, rather than to its detriment. And, perhaps
as importantly, it intended to do the same for the future generations of
Americans. A more extensive exploration of the Preamble is also available.
Article 1 establishes the first of the three branches of the government, the
Legislature. Section 1 establishes the name of
the Legislature to be The Congress, a bicameral, or two-part, body.
Section 2 defines the House of
Representatives, known as the lower house of Congress. It establishes a few
minimum requirements, like a 25-year-old age limit, and establishes that the
people themselves will elect the members for two years each. The members of the
House are divided among the states proportionally, or according to size, giving
more populous states more representatives in the House. The leader of the House
is the Speaker of the House, chosen by the members.
Section 3 defines the upper house of
Congress, the Senate. Again, it establishes some minimum requirements, such as
a 30-year-old age limit. Senators were originally appointed by the legislatures
of the individual states, though this later changed. They serve for six years
each. Each state has equal suffrage in the Senate, meaning that each state has
the exact same number of Senators, two each, regardless of the population. This
Section introduces the Vice-President, who is the leader of the Senate (called
the President of the Senate); the Vice-President does not vote unless there is
Section 4 says that each state may
establish its own methods for electing members of the Congress, and mandates,
or requires, that Congress must meet at least once per year.
Section 5 says that Congress must have a
minimum number of members present in order to meet, and that it may set fines
for members who do not show up. It says that members may be expelled, that each
house must keep a journal to record proceedings and votes, and that neither
house can adjourn without the permission of the other.
Section 6 establishes that members of
Congress will be paid, that they cannot be detained while traveling to and from
Congress, that they cannot hold any other office in the government while in the
Section 7 details how bills become law.
First, any bill for raising money (such as by taxes or fees) must start out in
the House. All bills must pass both houses of Congress in the exact same form.
Bills that pass both houses are sent to the President. He can either sign the
bill, in which case it becomes law, or he can veto it. In the case of a veto,
the bill is sent back to Congress, and if both houses pass it by a two-thirds
majority, the bill becomes law over the President's veto. This is known as
overriding a veto.
There are a couple more options for the President. First, if he neither
vetoes a bill nor signs it, it becomes a law without his signature after 10
days. The second option is called a pocket veto. It occurs if Congress sends
the bill to the President and they then adjourn. If the President does not sign
the bill within 10 days, it does not become law.
Section 8 lists specific powers of
Congress, including the power to establish and maintain an army and navy, to
establish post offices, to create courts, to regulate commerce between the
states, to declare war, and to raise money. It also includes a clause known as
the Elastic Clause which allows it to pass any law necessary for the carrying
out of the previously listed powers.
Section 9 places certain limits on
Congress. Certain legal items, such as suspension of habeas corpus, bills of
attainder, and ex post facto laws are prohibited. No law can give preference to
one state over another; no money can be taken from the treasury except by duly
passed law, and no title of nobility, such as Prince or Marquis, will ever be
established by the government.
Section 10, finally, prohibits the states
from several things. They cannot make their own money, or declare war, or do
most of the other things prohibited Congress in Section 9. They cannot tax
goods from other states, nor can they have navies.
Article 2 establishes the second of the three branches of government, the
Executive. Section 1 establishes the office of
the President and the Vice-President, and sets their terms to be four years.
Presidents are elected by the Electoral
College, whereby each state has one vote for each member of Congress.
Originally, the President was the person with the most votes and the
Vice-President was the person with the second most, though this is later
changed. Certain minimum requirements are established again, such as a 35-year
minimum age. Presidents must also be a natural-born citizen of the United States. The
President is to be paid a salary, which cannot change, up or down, as long as
he in is office.
Section 2 gives the President some
important powers. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and of the
militia (National Guard) of all the states; he has a Cabinet to aid him, and can pardon criminals. He makes treaties with other
nations, and picks many of the judges and other members of the government (all
with the approval of the Senate).
Section 3 establishes the duties of the
President: to give a state of the union address, to make suggestions to
Congress, to act as head of state by receiving ambassadors and other heads of
state, and to be sure the laws of the United States are carried out.
Section 4 briefly discusses the removal of
the President, called impeachment.
Article 3 establishes the last of the three branches of government, the
Judiciary. Section 1 establishes the Supreme
Court, the highest court in the United States. It also sets the terms of
judges, of both the Supreme Court and lower courts: that they serve as long as
they are on "good behavior," which usually means for life (no Justice and only
a few judges have ever been impeached). It also requires that judges shall be
Section 2 sets the kinds of cases that may
be heard by the federal judiciary, which cases the Supreme Court may hear first
(called original jurisdiction), and that all other cases heard by the Supreme
Court are by appeal. It also guarantees trial by jury in criminal court.
Section 3 defines, without any question,
what the crime of treason is.
Article 4 concerns the states. Section 1
mandates that all states will honor the laws of all other states; this ensures,
for example, that a couple married in Florida is also considered married by
Arizona, or that someone convicted of a crime in Virginia is considered guilty
Section 2 guarantees that citizens of one
state be treated equally and fairly like all citizens of another. It also says
that if a person accused of a crime in one state flees to another, they will be
returned to the state they fled from. This section also has a clause dealing
with fugitive slaves that no longer applies.
Section 3 concerns the admittance of new
states and the control of federal lands.
Section 4 ensures a republican form of
government (which, in this case, is synonymous with "representative democracy,"
and both of which are opposed to a monarchical or aristocratic scheme - the
state derives its power from the people, not from a king or gentry) and
guarantees that the federal government will protect the states against invasion
Article 5 details the method of amending, or
changing, the Constitution. Please see The Amendments
Page for more information.
Article 6 concerns the United States itself.
First, it guarantees that the United States under the Constitution would assume
all debts and contracts entered into by the United States under the Articles of Confederation. It sets the Constitution
and all laws and treaties of the United States to be the supreme law of the
country. Finally, it requires all officers of the United States and of the
states to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and the Constitution
when taking office.
Article 7 details the method for ratification,
or acceptance, of the Constitution: of the original 13 states in the United
States, nine had to accept the Constitution before it would officially go into
The first ten amendments to the Constitution were all adopted at the same
time and are collectively known as the Bill of
The 1st Amendment protects the people's right
to practice religion, to speak freely, to
assemble (meet), to address (petition) the government, and of the press to
The 2nd Amendment protects the right to own
guns. There is debate whether this is a right
that protects the state, or a right that protects individuals.
The 3rd Amendment guarantees that the army
cannot force homeowners to give them room and board.
The 4th Amendment protects the people from the
government improperly taking property, papers, or people, without a valid
warrant based on probable cause (good reason).
The 5th Amendment protects people from being
held for committing a crime unless they are properly indicted, that they may
not be tried twice for the same crime, that you need not be forced to testify
against yourself, and from property being taken without just compensation. It
also contains due process guarantees.
The 6th Amendment guarantees a speedy trial,
an impartial jury, that the accused can confront witnesses against them, and
that the accused must be allowed to have a lawyer.
The 7th Amendment guarantees a jury trial in
federal civil court cases. This type of case is normally no longer heard in
The 8th Amendment guarantees that punishments
will be fair, and not cruel, and that extraordinarily large fines will not be
The 9th Amendment is simply a statement that
other rights aside from those listed may exist, and just because they are not
listed doesn't mean they can be violated.
The 10th Amendment is the subject of some
debate, but essentially it states that any power not granted to the federal
government belongs to the states or to the people. See the Federalism Topic Page for more information.
The 11th Amendment more clearly defines the
original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court concerning a suit brought against a
state by a citizen of another state.
The 12th Amendment redefines how the
President and Vice-President are chosen by the Electoral College, making the
two positions cooperative, rather than first and second highest vote-getters.
It also ensures that anyone who becomes Vice-President must be eligible to
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the entire United States.
The 14th Amendment ensured that all citizens
of all states enjoyed not only rights on the federal level, but on the state
level, too. It removed the three-fifths counting of slaves in the census. It
ensured that the United States would not pay the debts of rebellious states. It
also had several measures designed to ensure the loyalty of legislators who
participated on the Confederate side of the Civil War.
The 15th Amendment ensures that race cannot
be used as a criteria for voting.
The 16th Amendment authorizes the United
States to collect income tax without regard to the population of the
The 17th Amendment shifted the choosing of
Senators from the state legislatures to the people of the states.
The 18th Amendment abolished the sale or
manufacture of alcohol in the United States. This amendment was later repealed
The 19th Amendment ensures that gender cannot
be used as a criteria for voting.
The 20th Amendment set new start dates for
the terms of the Congress and the President, and clarifies how the deaths of
Presidents before swearing-in would be handled.
The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th
The 22nd Amendment set a limit on the number
of times a President could be elected - two four-year terms. It has one
exception for a Vice-President who assumes the Presidency after the death or
removal of the President, establishing the maximum term of any President to 10
The 23rd Amendment grants the District of
Columbia (Washington D.C.) the right to three electors in Presidential
The 24th Amendment ensured that no tax could
be charged to vote for any federal office.
The 25th Amendment clarifies even further the
line of succession to the Presidency, and
establishes rules for a President who becomes unable to perform his duties
while in office.
The 26th Amendment ensures that any person 18
or over may vote.
The 27th Amendment requires that any law that
increased the pay of legislators may not take effect until after an