Suppose you started a club. What would the rules be? Who would make decisions? If you needed new rules, how would they be made? Would you need some basic rules about how to make rules?
A constitution is a set of rules for a country. It tells how the country should be run and how new rules should be made.
HOW WAS THE CONSTITUTION BORN?
The United States Constitution was written in 1787. At that time, the country was brand-new. It consisted of 13 small states along the Atlantic Coast.
These states had just broken away from Great Britain in a war called the American Revolution. Now they were free to set up any kind of government they wanted.
The states elected representatives to attend a meeting in Philadelphia. Between May and September, these 55 men wrote a constitution. It set up a government unlike any seen before.
WHAT DOES THE CONSTITUTION SAY?
Two overall ideas shape the Constitution. First, America is a democracy. In a democracy, the people have the ultimate power over government because they elect the leaders. Second, no government official is above the law.
Under the Constitution, each state has its own government. There is also a federal government for the whole country. The Constitution states what powers each one has.
The Constitution divides the federal government into three branches. They have different jobs and different powers. Each branch can limit the other branches from gaining too much power. This limiting system is called checks and balances.
THE THREE BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT
The first branch, called Congress, makes laws. Congress also decides how the government will collect and spend money. The people of each state choose the members of Congress who will represent them.
Second is the executive branch. It runs the country and makes sure the laws are followed. A president elected by all the people heads up this branch. He or she is elected for a four-year term. After that, the people get to vote again.
Third is the judiciary branch: the judges and courts. This branch settles disputes. It decides how laws apply in real life. The courts also decide if people accused of crimes are guilty. The highest court, the Supreme Court, decides whether laws are legal according to the Constitution. It may strike down any law that goes against the Constitution. The president picks the nine judges on the Supreme Court. His choices have to be approved by Congress.
CAN THE CONSTITUTION BE CHANGED?
The Constitution can be changed, but not easily. Each change is called an amendment. Congress generally suggests amendments, though states can suggest them, too. Two-thirds of Congress must approve an amendment. After that, three-fourths of the states must say yes to it. Only then is an amendment added to the Constitution.
The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights. They were added right after the Constitution was written. They state rights that every citizen has. For example, the Bill of Rights gives Americans the right to speak freely, to follow any religion they choose, and to get a fair trial.
The Constitution now has 27 amendments, and new ones may still be added. That is why people sometimes call the Constitution a “living document.”
Source: Microsoft ® Encarta