Constitution, U.S. Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Document that defined the structure and powers of the U.S. national government.

The U.S. Constitution was created in an effort to design a workable, strong national government for the American states that had freed themselves from the British Empire through the Revolutionary War. The Constitution replaced the Articles of ConfederationArticles of Confederation, which were regarded as an ineffective basis for a strong national government because they did not grant the federal government sufficient powers with respect to economic and military matters. The Constitution represented a new attempt to design an effective national government for a diverse set of states that expected to retain many powers for themselves.

Article I of the Constitution describes the structure and powers of CongressCongress, the national legislative body. Article II describes the president’s role and powersPresidential powers. Article III describes the judicialJudicial powers branch of the national government. Section 1 of Article III established the Supreme Court and describes the protected tenure and compensation provided for Court justicesJustices to ensure that they have sufficient insulation from political pressures to be able to make proper decisions. Justices serve “during good Behavior,” which can effectively mean for life. Moreover, Congress cannot reduce the justices’ salaries;Salaries;Congress[Congress] therefore, other branches of government cannot threaten the justices with loss of income to pressure their decisions. In addition, only the Supreme Court is established by Article III. All other federal courts are created by Congress and therefore can be altered or even abolished by Congress.

The U.S. Constitution was first printed in The Pennsylvania Packet, a daily newspaper, on September 19, 1787.

(Library of Congress)

The Constitution also specifies that Supreme Court justices shall be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Because justices may serve on the Court for decades, the selection of a Court member is often one of a president’s most important decisions. Most presidents are able to appoint at least one justice to the Court, but some presidents, including President Jimmy Carter, are never able to appoint a justice because no one on the Court dies, retires, or resigns during their term in office.

Article IV of the Constitution discusses the obligations of states to each other, such as respecting each other’s court judgments.Comity clause Article V describes the process for amending the Constitution.Constitutional amendment process Article VI declares that the Constitution and laws made under the authority of the Constitution shall be the supreme law of the land and that states shall respect the Constitution and federal laws.Supremacy, federal This is an important provision because it helped to establish the broad scope of the Court’s power. When the Court interprets the Constitution, it is establishing legal rules for the entire nation to follow. Article VII notes that nine states needed to ratify the Constitution in order to give it effect.

The original Constitution was amended twenty-seven times. The first ten amendments, called the Bill of RightsBill of Rights, describe the protections that individuals possess against interference by government. These protections include many familiar rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to trial by jury. Although these rights originally protected citizens only against actions by the federal government, the Court subsequently interpreted the Constitution as providing most of these protections against violations by state and local governments. Other amendments have changed the way in which U.S. senators are selected, limited the president to two terms in office, abolished slavery, granted voting rights to women, and announced the plan for who would take charge in the event that the president and vice president should die or become disabled while in office. The Court is frequently asked to interpret the amendments to the Constitution, especially those amendments that grant rights to individuals. The Court’s interpretations of these amendments define the extent to which individuals’ constitutional rights protect them against actions by government.

Constitutional Interpretation

Because the Constitution was drafted by an assembly of representatives from various states, its wording is the product of negotiation and compromise. Therefore, many of the document’s words and phrases are ambiguous. Even those phrases whose meaning appears to be relatively clear may require interpretation when they are applied to unanticipated situations. It falls to the Court to take primary responsibility for interpreting and applying the Constitution. The Court is given opportunities to interpret the Constitution when legal cases are brought forward involving disputes about the Constitution’s meaning. Typically these cases involve either a challenge to the exercise of power by a government agency or a claim that a government employee, such as a police officer or prosecutor, has violated the rights of an individual. These questions about the Constitution’s meaning are given initial decisions by lower federal courts or by state courts before they reach the Supreme Court. The Court has authority to pick and choose which constitutional issues to decide. If the Court does not wish to decide an issue, it simply leaves intact the prior decision by a lower federal or state court.

Justices often disagree with one another about how the ConstitutionConstitutional interpretation should be interpreted. Many justices have their own theories about the proper approach to constitutional interpretation. Justice Hugo L. Black often argued that the justices should pay careful attention to the literal meaning of the Constitution’s words and not add their own preferred meanings to interpretations of the document’s words and phrases. When other justices decided in Griswold v. Connecticut[case]Griswold v. Connecticut[Griswold v. Connecticut] (1965) that the Constitution contains a right to privacy that protects married couples’ choices about birth control, Black argued that there could be no right to privacy because the word “privacy” did not appear anywhere in the Constitution. Similarly, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Constitution must be interpreted according to the meanings originally intended by the people who wrote the document. Therefore, when other justices applied the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to protect prisoners from abuse and mistreatment within correctional institutions in Helling v. McKinney[case]Helling v. McKinney[Helling v. McKinney] (1993), Thomas asserted that the people who wrote the Eighth Amendment at the end of the eighteenth century never intended for the provision to protect incarcerated people. Thomas claimed that the Eighth Amendment does not apply to the treatment of convicted offenders in prison.

In contrast, Chief Justice Earl Warren believed that the meaning of the Constitution can change as society changes. Warren and several of his colleagues believed that the Constitution embodies ideals of human dignity that are flexible enough to adapt to new situations that arise in society. Therefore, in Trop v. Dulles[case]Trop v. Dulles[Trop v. Dulles] (1958), Warren declared that the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment must be defined according to the evolving standards of decency that develop as society progresses. Critics of Warren’s approach to constitutional interpretation complain that such flexible interpretation merely permits justices to say that the Constitution means whatever they want it to mean. Critics of Thomas’s approach, in contrast, complain that interpretation by original intent locks society into the rules of the eighteenth century without recognizing that society has changed drastically, with the emergence of new problems and different values. In general, the majority of justices take a flexible approach to constitutional interpretation, but many of them are self-conscious about the risks of interpreting the Constitution inappropriately according to their own personal values and are generally cautious about announcing new meanings for the document’s provisions.

The Court and the Constitution

The nature of the constitutional questions brought to the Court changed along with American society, according to the particular controversies that affected government and society at different moments in history. During the first eighty years of the Constitution’s history, the Court faced significant questions about the constitutional provisions defining the powers of government. The constitutional governing system of the United States was, in effect, an experiment. It was uncertain whether the scheme of government established by the Constitution would succeed and endure. The Court helped solidify the success of the Constitution through decisions addressing disputes about governmental powers. In McCulloch v. Maryland[case]McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] (1819), the Court interpreted the Constitution as barring states from imposing taxes on the federal government and its agencies. Without the Court’s decision, the federal government would have been weaker and more vulnerable to assertions of authority by the states. In Gibbons v. Ogden[case]Gibbons v. Ogden[Gibbons v. Ogden] (1824), the Court asserted the authority of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce when states had begun to assume such powers for themselves. The Court’s decision helped to strengthen the federal government and diminish the risk that states would use economic policies to compete with one another and thereby harm the national economy.

The Court’s decision in Marbury v. Madison[case]Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] (1803) established judicial reviewJudicial review, which is the power of judges to review and invalidate actions by other branches of government. Judicial review is a very significant power that is not expressly stated in the Constitution. The Court asserted the existence of the power and then employed it to strike down a congressional enactment. By establishing and using the power, the Court made the judicial branch a powerful, equal partner with the other branches of government and helped establish a workable balance of power between the three branches of government.

The Court cannot solve all disputes about governmental power through its interpretations of the Constitution. Some disputes are worked out through political conflicts between the legislative and executive branches of government. During the Civil WarCivil War (1861-1865), these disputes were resolved by warfare. The war served to settle debates about the relationship of the federal government with the states when the states that asserted their independence and autonomy under the Confederate flag lost the war. For the Court, the end of the war simply brought forward new issues about the meaning of the Constitution in a country undergoing the processes of industrialization and urbanization. The Court also faced questions about the legal protections possessed by newly freed slaves.

At the close of the Civil War, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (the Civil War AmendmentsCivil War Amendments) were added to the Constitution. These amendments sought to prohibit slavery, protect people’s legal rights from violation by state and local governments, and prevent racial discrimination in voting rights. Between the end of the Civil War and the dawn of the twentieth century, Court decisions affecting racial discrimination did little to improve the lot of African Americans. In the Slaughterhouse Cases[case]Slaughterhouse Cases[Slaughterhouse Cases] (1873), the Court declined to identify specific rights protected by the Civil War Amendments. When southern states began enacting extensive, systematic laws to segregate African Americans in schools and other public places and services, the Court endorsed these discriminatory laws in Plessy v. Ferguson[case]Plessy v. Ferguson[Plessy v. Ferguson] (1896). These cases in the late nineteenth century demonstrated that the Court’s justices have no special capacity to recognize truth and justice. As human beings who happen to have been selected to serve, they are always susceptible to following and reflecting the prevailing attitudes and prejudices of their era. Few whites believed that African Americans were equal to them as human beings during the nineteenth century, and the Court’s interpretations of the Constitution reflected this view.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the Court faced many issues concerning economic regulation and social welfare. Many new social problems developed as the country experienced significant industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Federal and state governments responded to these problems by enacting legislation to protect workers. However, the Court used its power of judicial review to systematically invalidate laws mandating minimum wages, laws establishing permissible working hours, and laws intended to limit the exploitation of child laborers. For example, in Hammer v. Dagenhart[case]Hammer v. Dagenhart[Hammer v. Dagenhart] (1918), the Court declared that the federal government lacked the authority under the Constitution to regulate the transport and sale of goods made by child laborers. The Court’s decisions impeded governmental regulation of the economy until the 1930’s, when the composition of the Court changed significantly and the Court began to defer to legislative and executive decisions about economic regulation.

After the 1930’s, the Court took a more active interest in interpreting the constitutional amendments that established rights for individuals. In a series of cases over the course of several decades, the Court applied most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights against the states by declaring that they had been incorporated into the due process clause of the Fourteenth AmendmentFourteenth Amendment. Before this time, the Bill of Rights protected citizens against actions by only the federal government. Because the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to give individuals rights against actions by state and local government, it became the vehicle through which the Court’s interpretations of the Constitution applied other rights against the states.Incorporation doctrine In the course of broadening the definitions of constitutional rights, the Court moved aggressively against racial discrimination. Using the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court prohibited racial discrimination in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] (1954). The Court also interpreted constitutional provisions about congressional power to permit the enactment of statutes against discrimination by private businesses and individuals in Katzenbach v. McClung[case]Katzenbach v. McClung[Katzenbach v. McClung] (1964). By the end of the 1970’s, the Court had identified new rights affecting racial equality, gender equality, protection of defendants in the criminal justice process, freedom of speech and religion, and many other aspects of American life.

In the final decades of the twentieth century, the Court’s composition changed in a conservativeJudicial conservativism direction. The new justices reconsidered many of the prior decisions expanding rights for criminal defendants and others. In new decisions interpreting the Bill of Rights, the Court reshaped constitutional law by narrowing the scope of many rights and permitting states to have greater authority over their own affairs. The Court also limited the authority of the federal government to enact legislation under the claim of economic regulation. In United States v. Lopez[case]Lopez, United States v.[Lopez, United States v.] (1995), the Court declared that Congress lacked the authority to create a statute making it a crime to carry a gun in a schoolyard. In a move back toward the nineteenth century decisions that imposed clear limits on federal authority, the Court decided that states should regulate such matters because they were not directly related to interstate commerce and the economic matters that the Constitution clearly placed under federal authority.

The Constitution provided the design for the U.S. system of government. On its own, however, the Constitution could not ensure that the government would be durable and workable. The Court made major contributions to the stability and workability enjoyed by the Constitution through its decisions interpreting the document in order to define the powers of government and clarify the extent to which individuals possess protected constitutional rights.

Further Reading
  • A detailed history of constitutional law is presented in Melvin Urofsky’s A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988). Detailed examinations of Court decisions interpreting the Constitution are found in Daniel Farber, William Eskridge, and Philip Frickey’s Constitutional Law: Themes for the Constitution’s Third Century (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1993) and Gerald Gunther’s Constitutional Law (11th ed., Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1985). The theories and approaches employed by the Court justices in interpreting the Constitution are discussed in John H. Garvey and T. Alexander Aleinikoff’s Modern Constitutional Theory (3d ed., St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1994) and Michael McCann and Gerald Houseman’s Judging the Constitution (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1989). The personal stories of individual citizens who took their constitutional claims all the way to the Supreme Court are presented in Peter Irons’s The Courage of Their Convictions (New York: Free Press, 1988) and Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy’s In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action (New York: William Morrow, 1991). The procedures and processes used by the Court in interpreting the Constitution are discussed in David O’Brien’s Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics (2d ed., New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

Articles of Confederation

Bill of Rights

Black, Hugo L.

Constitutional Convention

Constitutional interpretation

Constitutional law

Federalism

Fundamental rights

Judicial review

Race and discrimination

Rule of law

States’ rights and state sovereignty

Thomas, Clarence

Warren, Earl

Categories: History Content