Why is the U.S. Constitution important?
Imagine you are living in a time when your country is facing serious problems.
The central government is having a difficult time dealing with its far-reaching states; it is also overwhelmed by a failing economy and war debt. Yes, it’s 1787, and riots are breaking out.
In response to these crises, the nation’s most respected leaders travel to Philadelphia to serve as delegates at the Constitutional Convention. Their goal is to improve upon the country’s weak charter document, the Articles of Confederation, which has proven inadequate to deal with the problems the leaders are facing. The document they decide upon, the U.S. Constitution, begins with the words “We, the People, in order to form a more perfect union…”
Let’s focus on two of those words: “more perfect.” At the time, they referred to the delegates’ task of perfecting the framework of their government. Two hundred twenty two years later, they are a vital reminder that perfection is an ever-evolving goal, one that the leaders of the country must constantly strive toward as the world changes, societies grow and those living within them need to adapt.
At the time those words were written, for example, the colonists could still legally own slaves and women could not vote. But starting in 1865, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction, a trio of constitutional amendments abolished slavery and gave rights to former slaves. In 1920, women were granted the right to vote in the 19th Amendment. Amendments are the formal process by which lawmakers and government leaders debate and vote to modify the Constitution, and are part of their mission to continue making our union more perfect.
What does constitutional mean?
The concept of “constitutionality” is the basis of many of the 27 amendments. What exactly does “constitutional” mean? Quite simply, it refers to an act or a right that is permitted under the U.S. Constitution. For instance, once you turn 18, you will be allowed to participate in your next local election. This is because the voting age was lowered to include 18-year-olds when the 26th Amendment passed in 1971; voting is an 18-year-old’s constitutional right. Or look at the office of the president, and how one commander in chief cannot be in office for more than eight years, or two four-year terms. This came about following the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a strong leader of the Depression era who was elected to the White House four times. Congress decided that letting one person hold on to the position ran counter to the political process and, in 1947, approved an amendment to declare prolonged presidencies unconstitutional.
The Constitution and its amendments cover a lot of ground in terms of the operations of government and rules of society. In fact, the main body of the Constitution focuses entirely on how the government runs:
- Article 1 outlines the duties of the legislature.
- Article 2 outlines the duties of the executive branch.
- Article 3 outlines the duties of the judiciary.
- Article 4 describes the role of the states in relation to the country as a whole.
- Article 5 allows the Constitution to be amended.
- Article 6 establishes supremacy of federal law over state law when laws conflict.
- Article 7 is where the 13 colonies ratified – signed off on – the Constitution.
Since this document focused on a central government and not the people, the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the Constitution – was approved in 1791 to address fears that a strong national government might not respect citizens’ rights.In the two centuries since, as we strive to form a more perfect union, this has been an ongoing process. We have given citizens the freedom of speech, press and religion; we have abolished slavery. We have banned alcohol, and then repealed the ban when it proved to increase crime.
This is why scholars refer to the Constitution as “a living document.” It changes, takes on new life in new eras, takes different shapes over time and continually strives towards the goal set in its preamble: making our union more perfect.
What do you think?
Are there things you think should be added to the Constitution? If so, what are they? Is there anything you think should be repealed from the Constitution, or amendments you disagree with? What is your favorite part of the Constitution? What rights do you consider fundamental? How does the Constitution impact your life?
Consider these questions as you read the Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution; it presents the original text of our nation’s founding document and explains what it means in today’s English. Then join the discussion on our Speak Out page and let us know what you think!
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