Have you really changed the American Constitution?
"A constitution that is supposed to last for a long time and consequently has to be adapted to various human crises must contain appropriate precautions."
- John Marshall, President of the Supreme Court, McCulloch ./. Maryland (1819)
The United States Constitution is the central instrument of American government and the supreme law of the country. For 200 years it has guided the development of government institutions and serves as the basis for political stability, individual freedom, economic growth and social progress.
The American Constitution is the oldest written constitution in the world that is still in force. It served as a model for a number of other constitutions worldwide. The constitution owes its constancy to its simplicity and flexibility. It was originally created at the end of the 18th century as a framework for the rule of more than four million people in 13 very different states on the American Atlantic coast. Its basic provisions have been so carefully crafted that, with just 27 amendments, they now meet the needs of more than 260 million Americans in 50 even more diverse states stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
The road to a constitution was neither straightforward nor easy. After intense debate and six years of experience with an earlier federal union, a draft was drawn up in 1787. The 13 British colonies in America declared their independence from the motherland in 1776. A year earlier, war had broken out between the colonies and Great Britain, a war of independence that lasted six bitter years. During the war, the colonies - now called the United States of America - drafted a treaty that linked them as a nation. The treaty, known as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was passed by a congress of states in 1777 and formally signed in July 1778. The agreement became binding upon ratification by the 13th State, Maryland, in March 1781.
The "Articles of Confederation" envisaged a loose association of states and a federal government with very limited powers. The federal government depended on the goodwill of the state legislature on important matters such as defense, public finance, and trade. This system didn't exactly promote stability or strength. Within a very short time everyone became aware of the Confederation's weakness. Politically and economically, the young nation was on the brink of chaos. In the words of George Washington, who was to be elected the first President of the United States in 1789, the 13 states were held together by an "imaginary bond".
It was in these dire circumstances that the United States Constitution came into being. In February 1787, the Continental Congress, the legislature of the republic, issued a call for states to send delegates to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to revise the articles. The Constituent Assembly (Constitutional Convention) was convened on May 25, 1787 in the Independence Hall (Independence Hall), where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 11 years earlier. Although the delegates were only authorized to change the articles of the Confederation, they ignored the articles and began drafting a charter for an entirely new, more centralized form of government. The new document, the Constitution, was completed on September 17, 1787 and officially adopted on March 4, 1789.
The 55 delegates who drafted the constitution were composed of the most outstanding leaders, the founding fathers of the new nation. They represented a multitude of interests and were people of various origins and social classes. However, they all agreed on the central goals set out in the preamble to the Constitution: "We, the people of the United States, are guided by the intention of perfecting our covenant, realizing justice, securing domestic calm for them Providing national defense, promoting the common good, and the happiness of freedom to preserve ourselves and our descendants, establish and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. "
UNITY DESPITE DIVERSITY
The main aim of the Constitution was to create a strong, elected government under the direct will of the people. The concept of self-government was not developed by Americans. Indeed, by that time England already had a certain degree of self-government. But the degree to which the Constitution tied the United States to power through the people was unique, even revolutionary, compared to other governments in the world. By the time the Constitution was adopted, Americans already had considerable experience in the art of self-government. Long before independence was declared, the colonies were functioning government units controlled by the people. After the War of Independence began - between January 1, 1776 and April 20, 1777 - 10 of the 13 states passed their own constitutions. Most states had a governor elected by the state legislature. The legislature itself was elected by the people.
The articles of the Confederation tried to unite these self-governing states. The constitution, on the other hand, established a strong central or federal government with far-reaching powers to steer relations between states and sole responsibility in areas such as foreign affairs and defense.
Many people found it difficult to accept centralization. America was predominantly settled by Europeans who had left their homeland in order to escape religious or political oppression as well as the rigid economic structures of the Old World, which forced people into certain social positions regardless of their ability or energy. These settlers highly valued personal freedom and were suspicious of any power - especially the power of governments - that might restrict individual freedoms.
The diversity of the new nation was also a formidable obstacle to unity. The people who were given the right to elect and control their central government by the 18th century constitution were of different origins, of different faiths, and of different interests. Many came from England, but Sweden, Norway, France, Holland, Prussia, Poland and many other countries also sent immigrants to the New World. There were different beliefs, most of which were vehemently represented. There were Anglicans, Catholics, Calvinists, Huguenots, Lutherans, Quakers, Jews. The economic and social spectrum ranged from landed gentry to African slaves and servants who had to work off debts. But the backbone of the nation was the middle class - farmers, businessmen, artisans, sailors, ship carpenters, weavers, carpenters, and many others.
Americans then, as now, had very different views on almost anything, including the separation from the British Crown. During the American Revolutionary War, large numbers of British loyalists - known as the Tories - fled the country and settled mostly in the eastern part of Canada. Those who stayed formed a considerable counterbalance, although they disagreed among themselves on the reasons for opposition to independence and the nature of the deal with the new American republic.
Over the past two centuries the American people have become more diverse. Nonetheless, the unity so important to the nation was strengthened. Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries, an endless stream of immigrants brought their skills and cultural heritage to the growing nation. Pioneers crossed the Appalachian Mountains to the east, settled in the Mississippi Valley and the Great Plains in the center of the continent, then crossed the Rocky Mountains and reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean - 4,500 kilometers west of the first colonies of the Atlantic coast. With the expansion of the nation, all settlers recognized the great treasure of natural resources: a large stock of timber, enormous coal, copper, iron and oil reserves, abundant hydropower and fertile soils.
Their own form of diversity grew out of the wealth of the new generation. Special regional and economic interest groups emerged. East coast shipowners encouraged free trade. Midwestern manufacturers advocated import tariffs to protect their position in the growing US market. Farmers demanded low freight costs and high goods prices, millers and bakers were in favor of low grain prices and railway operators were in favor of the highest possible freight costs. New York bankers, southern cotton farmers, Texas cattle farmers, and Oregon lumberjacks all had different views about the economy and the role of government in governing it.
The task of the constitution and the government created by it was to permanently bring these conflicting interests together, to create a common basis and at the same time to protect the fundamental rights of all people.
Indeed, compared to the complexity of contemporary systems of government, the problems of governance over 4 million people in much less developed economic conditions appear small. The fathers of the constitution thought not only of the present, but also of the future of the nation. They were aware of the need to create a structure of government that would work not only during their lifetime but also for generations to come. Therefore, a provision has been included in the Constitution allowing the instrument to be amended if social, economic or political conditions so require. 27 amendments have been passed since ratification and the flexibility of the constitution has proven to be one of its greatest strengths. Without this flexibility, it would be inconceivable that a document drafted more than 200 years ago could still effectively serve the needs of 260 million people and thousands of government entities at all levels of the United States today. Nor could it have been applied with equal force and precision to the problems of small villages and large cities.
The constitution and the federal government are at the top of the government pyramid, which includes local and state responsibilities. In the US system, each level of government has a high degree of autonomy, with responsibilities specifically reserved for it. Competence disputes are resolved by courts. However, there are issues which affect national interests and which require simultaneous cooperation at all levels of government. There are also provisions for this in the constitution. For example, public schools in the United States are largely administered by local authorities who adhere to state guidelines. But the federal government also supports schools as literacy and education are matters of great national concern. It also enforces uniform standards to promote equal opportunities in education. In other areas, such as housing, health and welfare, there is a similar partnership between the different levels of government.
No product of any human society is perfect. Despite the changes, the United States Constitution is likely to still contain flaws that will only become apparent as the difficult times to come. But two centuries of growth and unparalleled prosperity have demonstrated the foresight of the 55 men who laid the foundations for the American system of government in the summer of 1787. Archibald Cox, former US Assistant Attorney General, put it this way: "The original Constitution, despite the significant changes, still serves us well in every area of American life because the Constitutional Fathers were smart enough to say enough but not too much .... With the success of the plan presented in the Constituent Assembly, and with the expansion of the country and the increase in wealth, materially as well as the realization of the ideals, the Constitution gained far more majesty and authority than any another person or body. "
THE DRAFT CONSTITUTION
The period between the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 was marked by weakness, disagreement and turmoil. The articles of the Confederation contained no provisions on the executive branch to enforce the law or on a nationwide judicial system to interpret it. A legislative congress was the only organ of national government, but it did not have the power to do anything against the will of the states. He could - in theory - declare war and build an army, but he could not force a state to provide the assigned troop strengths or to provide the necessary weapons and equipment. For its activities, it was dependent on financial resources from the individual states, but did not have the means to punish a state for failing to contribute to the federal budget. Control of taxation and tariffs was left to the states, and each state could introduce its own currency. In disputes between states - and there were many unresolved disputes across state lines - Congress played the role of mediator and judge, but could not force a state to accept its decision.
The result was chaos. Without the power to raise taxes, the federal government went into debt. Seven of the 13 states printed large amounts of paper money - high face value but low purchasing power - to pay for war veterans and a number of creditors, as well as to settle debts between smallholders and large plantation owners.
In contrast, the Massachusetts legislature introduced a strictly limited currency and high taxes. This led to the formation of a small peasant army led by Daniel Shays, a former army captain in the War of Independence. In an attempt to take over the Massachusetts Capitol, Shays and others called for an end to foreclosures and unjust mortgages. Troops were sent to quell the uprising, but the federal government took note of the incident.
The lack of a single, stable currency hampered trade between states and with other countries. It wasn't just the value of paper currency that varied from state to state. Some states (such as New York and Virginia) even imposed tariffs on products entering their ports from other states, provoking retaliation. States could say, as did the chief financial inspector at the federal level, that "our public reputation is gambled away." These problems were exacerbated by the fact that the newly independent states had forcibly separated from England and were no longer given preferential treatment in British ports. When US Ambassador John Adams tried to negotiate an economic agreement in 1785, the British refused on the grounds that the individual states were not bound by it.
A weak central government, with no power to back up its policies with military strength, was also inevitably constrained in foreign policy. The British refused to withdraw their troops from the forts and trading posts in the young nation's Northwest Territory, as promised in the 1783 Peace Treaty that marked the end of the War of Independence. The situation was made worse by British officers on the northern borders and Spanish officers in the south, who supplied weapons to the various Indian tribes and encouraged them to attack American settlers. The Spaniards, who controlled Florida and Louisiana, and the territory west of the Mississippi River, refused to allow western farmers to use the port of New Orleans to ship their produce.
Although there were signs of the young nation's growing prosperity in some areas, domestic and international problems increased.It was becoming increasingly clear that the central Confederation government was not strong enough to build a solid financial system, regulate trade, enforce treaties, or, if necessary, use military strength against foreign adversaries. Internal rifts between farmers and traders, debtors and creditors, and between states became more serious. In view of the still very present Shay uprising of desperate peasants in 1786, George Washington warned: "In every state there is a powder keg that could catch fire with just one spark."
The feeling of a possible catastrophe and the need for far-reaching change permeated the constituent assembly, which began its deliberations on May 25, 1787. All delegates believed that an effective central government with broadly enforceable powers would have to replace the powerless congress created by the articles of the Confederation. Right at the beginning of the process, the delegates agreed that the new government should be composed of three separate branches - the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. Each should have specific powers to balance those of the other two. It was also agreed that the legislature, like the British Parliament, should consist of two chambers.
Beyond that, however, there were considerable differences of opinion, which at times threatened to let the assembly fail and the proceedings to be ended suddenly before a draft constitution was drawn up. The larger states argued in favor of the proportional representation system in the legislature - each state should have voting rights according to its population. The smaller states feared the dominance of the larger ones and insisted on an equal distribution of votes for all states. The problem was settled in the "Great Compromise", a measure according to which in one chamber of the Congress there was an equal distribution of votes for all states and in the other chamber proportional representation applied. Each state should have two seats in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the number of seats should depend on the size of the population. Since the House of Representatives was seen as more receptive to the mood of the majority of the population, the House of Representatives was given the authority to introduce all laws relating to the federal budget and revenue.
The "Great Compromise" put an end to the rift between the large and small states, but delegates worked out a number of other compromises over the long summer. Some delegates, who feared an excessive transfer of powers to the population, spoke out in favor of the indirect election of all federal employees; others advocated a voter base that should be as broad as possible. Some wanted to exclude the western areas from possible sovereignty; others saw the nation's future strength in the pristine areas beyond the Appalachians. There was a need to balance particular interests, combining different views on the conditions, powers and method of selection of the president and conflicting ideas about the role of the judiciary.
The professional competence of the delegates at the meeting made it easier to reach compromises. Only a few of the great leaders of the American Revolutionary War were absent: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - both future presidents - served as American ambassadors in France and England. John Jay served as the Confederation Secretary of State. A handful of other people, including Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, did not attend because they believed the government structure at the time was solid. Of those in attendance, the Chairman of the Assembly, George Washington, commander of American forces and hero of the Revolutionary War, was by far the most prominent. Benjamin Franklin, the wise, mature scientist, scholar, and diplomat also attended. In addition, there were outstanding men such as James Madison from Virginia, Governor Morris from Pennsylvania and Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant young lawyer from New York.
Even the youngest delegates, still in their twenties or thirties, were already showing their political and intellectual abilities. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in Paris to John Adams in London: "It is truly a gathering of demigods."
Some of the ideas enshrined in the Constitution were new, but many came from British government tradition and the practical experience of self-government among the 13 states. The Declaration of Independence was an important guideline in focusing the delegates on the ideas of self-government and the protection of basic human rights. The writings of European philosophers such as Montesquieu and John Locke also influenced the delegates.
At the end of July, the Assembly appointed a committee to draw up a document based on the agreements reached. After another month of discussion and fine-tuning, a second committee, chaired by Governor Morris, produced the final version, which was submitted for signature on September 17th. Not all delegates were satisfied with the result. Some left the ceremony, and three of the remaining refused to sign: Edmund Randolph and George Mason from Virginia and Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts. Of the 39 signatories, probably none were completely satisfied. Their views were cleverly summed up by Benjamin Franklin, saying, "There are several areas in the Constitution that I cannot currently agree to, but that does not mean that I will never agree to them." However, he accepts the constitution "because I do not expect anything better and because I cannot rule out that that is already the best".
RATIFICATION: A NEW BEGINNING
The way was now clear for the arduous ratification process, that is, the adoption of the constitution by at least nine states. Delaware was the first state to act, followed by New Jersey and Georgia. Approval in Pennsylvania and Connecticut was given by a comfortable majority. A bitter debate broke out in Massachusetts. The state ultimately linked ratification to the addition of the 10 amendments, which guaranteed some basic rights, including freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly, as well as the right to a jury and the prohibition of unreasonable searches and arrests. A number of other states added similar clauses, and the 10 amendments - now known as the Bill of Rights - were incorporated into the constitution in 1791.
In late June 1788, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire gave their approval, meeting the requirement for ratification by nine states. The constitution was now legally in force. But two powerful and decisive states - New York and Virginia - remained undecided, as did the two smaller states of North Carolina and Rhode Island. It was evident that the Constitution would be shaky without the approval of New York and Virginia.
Virginia was deeply divided, but the influence of George Washington in favor of ratification won the state legislature by a narrow majority on June 26, 1788. In New York, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay teamed up to put together a staggering set of written arguments in favor of the Constitution - The Federalist Papers - in a narrow poll victory on July 26th. In November, North Carolina also agreed. Rhode Island lasted until 1790, when its position as a small and weak state surrounded by a large and powerful republic became untenable.
Government building began shortly after Virginia and New York ratified it. On September 13, 1788, Congress designated New York as the seat of the new government. (The capital was relocated to Philadelphia in 1790 and Washington in 1800.) The first Wednesday of January 1789 was set as election day for the President's electors. On the first Wednesday in February the president was elected by the electors and on the first Wednesday in March the new session of the new Congress opened.
According to the constitution, the legislature of a state has the authority to decide how the electors for the president, as well as representatives and senators, are to be selected. Some states voted for direct popular elections, others for legislative elections, and a few for a combination of both. The rivalries were great and delays in the first elections under the new constitution were inevitable. For example, New Jersey was in favor of direct elections but declined to set a date for the closing of polling stations, which remained open for three weeks.
The full and final establishment of the constitution took place on March 4, 1789. By this time, however, only 13 of the 59 representatives and 8 of the 22 senators had arrived in New York. (The seats allotted to North Carolina and Rhode Island were not filled until those states ratified the Constitution.) Eventually, quorums were reached on April 1 in the House of Representatives and on April 6 in the Senate. The two houses then met together to count the electoral votes.
It was no surprise that George Washington was unanimously elected first president and John Adams of Massachusetts vice president. Adams arrived in New York on April 21 and Washington on April 23. They were sworn into office on April 30, 1789. The establishment of the new government was complete. The work to preserve the world's first republic had only just begun.
THE CONSTITUTION AS THE SUPREME LAW
The United States Constitution describes itself as the "supreme law of the country". Courts interpreted this clause to mean that a constitution or law passed by a state legislature or national congress will not have the force of law if they contradict the American constitution. Rulings made by the Supreme Court over two centuries have confirmed and reinforced this line of constitutional supremacy.
Final authority was given to the American people. It can change fundamental laws, if it chooses, by changing the constitution or, at least in theory, drawing up a new one. Yet the people do not exercise their power directly. They delegate day-to-day government work to public officials who are both elected and appointed.
The power of public representatives is restricted by the constitution. Your public actions must be in accordance with the Constitution and the laws that are themselves enacted in accordance with the Constitution. Elected representatives must regularly run for re-election, where their performance is carefully scrutinized by the public. Appointed representatives serve the person or agency who appointed them and may be dismissed at any time. The exceptions are those appointed by the President for life to the Supreme Court and other federal judges so that they are free from political obligations or influence.
In general, the American people express their will at the ballot box. However, through the impeachment procedure, the constitution makes provisions for the dismissal of public representatives from their office in the event of serious misconduct or criminal acts. Article II, Section 4 reads: "The President, Vice President, and all civil servants of the United States shall be removed from office if convicted of treason, bribery, or other serious crimes and misdemeanors."
Impeachment is a misconduct charge brought by a legislature against a government official. It does not, as is commonly believed, refer to a conviction for these offenses. As further stated in the Constitution, the House of Representatives must initiate the charge of misconduct by voting on impeachment. The accused public official is heard in the Senate, with the President of the Supreme Court presiding over the hearing.
Impeachment is seen as a drastic measure that has been very rarely used in the United States. Since 1797, the House of Representatives has initiated impeachment proceedings against 16 federal officials - two presidents, a cabinet member, a senator, a Supreme Court judge, and 11 federal judges. Of the federal officials who were impeached, seven were sentenced by the Senate - they were all judges.
In 1868 President Andrew Johnson was impeached in connection with the proper treatment of the defeated confederate states after the American Civil War. However, the Senate lacked a vote for the two-thirds majority necessary for a conviction, and Johnson ended his term regularly. In 1974, as a result of the Watergate Affair, President Richard Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment but before the full House of Representatives could vote on the process.
Most recently, in 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. After a hearing, the Senate acquitted the President of both allegations and found him not guilty of perjury by 55 votes to 45 and not guilty of obstruction of justice by 50 votes to 50. The impeachment of the president would have required a guilty verdict with a majority of 67 votes on both allegations.
The basics of the system of government
Although the Constitution has been modified in many ways since its adoption, the same principles continue to apply as in 1789:
- The three branches of government - executive, legislative, judicial - are divided and different from each other. The powers of the three are exactly balanced by the powers of the other two. Each of the powers serves as a control to prevent the others from too much power accumulation.
The Constitution, together with the laws passed under its provisions and treaties, drawn up by the President and approved by the Senate, stands above all other laws, executive decrees and regulations.
- All people are equal before the law and have the same right to protection by the law. All states are equal and none receives special treatment from the federal government. Within the limits of the constitution, each state must recognize and respect the laws of the other. State governments, like the federal government, must be democratic, with ultimate authority with the people.
- The people have the right to change the form of the federal government through legal means which are laid down in the constitution itself.
Amendments to the constitution
The authors of the constitution were aware that changes would be necessary from time to time if the constitution is to keep pace with the growing nation. They were also aware that the constitutional amendment process should not be easy in order to prevent ill-considered and hasty changes. For the same reason, they wanted to make sure that no minority can interfere with actions that are desired by the majority. Their approach was to develop a two-pronged process of amending the constitution.
The Congress can introduce a constitutional amendment with a two-thirds majority in both houses. Another possibility is for the legislature in two-thirds of the states to ask Congress to convene a national assembly to discuss and work out a constitutional amendment. In both cases, three-quarters of all states must approve an amendment before it goes into effect.
Apart from the direct amendment of the Constitution, the effect of its provisions can be changed through legal interpretation. In the early history of the republic, the 1803 Supreme Court established the legal principle of judicial review in the Marbury vs. Madison case. that is, the power of the court to interpret the laws of Congress and determine their constitutionality. The principle also includes the power of the court to explain different sections of the constitution, as it has to be adapted to changing legal, political, economic and social conditions. Over the years, a number of court rulings on topics ranging from government regulation of radio and television to the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings updated constitutional law without making substantial changes to the constitution itself.
Laws passed by Congress to implement the provisions of the Basic Law or to adapt to changed conditions expand and change - in a subliminal way - the meaning of the constitution. To some extent, the principles and regulations of the many federal government agencies have similar implications. The acid test in both cases consists in the confirmation by the courts that the legislation and principles are in accordance with the will expressed in the constitution.
The Bill of Rights
The constitution has been amended 27 times since 1789, and it is very likely that it will continue to be amended in the future. The most extensive changes were made in the two years after their adoption. During this period, the first 10 amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were added. Congress accepted these amendments in their entirety in September 1789, and by the end of 1791 11 states had ratified them.
The initial opposition to the Constitution did not come from those who opposed a strengthening of the federal union, but from statesmen who believed that particular emphasis should be placed on the rights of the individual. One of them was George Mason, author of the Declaration of Rights of Virginia, the forerunner of the Bill of Rights. As a delegate to the Constituent Assembly (Constitutional Convention), Mason declined to sign the document because, in his opinion, it did not adequately protect individual rights. Mason's resistance nearly prevented Virginia from ratifying it. Because Massachusetts held similar views, the state made ratification conditional on the addition of specific guarantees of individual rights. By the time the First Congress was convened, there was almost unanimous opinion in favor of adopting such amendments, and the Congress was drafting it in a short time.
These additional articles are still valid today as they were written two centuries ago. The first ensures freedom of religion, speech and press, freedom of assembly and the right to petition the government to put an end to grievances. The second guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms. The third stipulates that troops may not be housed in private accommodation without the consent of the owner. The fourth protects against arbitrary searches, arrests and confiscations of property.
The next four amendments deal with the judicial system. The fifth prohibits indictment without an indictment order by a large jury in the case of more serious offenses. It prohibits repeated charges for the same offense, prohibits punishment without prior due process under law and statute, and provides that a defendant can refuse to testify if he is incriminating himself. The sixth ensures an immediate and public trial in criminal proceedings. It provides for criminal proceedings to be conducted by an impartial jury, guarantees the right to legal counsel for the defendant, and provides that witnesses can be compelled to be present at the trial and to testify in the presence of the defendant. The seventh article calls for a jury trial in civil litigation where the amount in dispute is over $ 20. The eighth prohibits unreasonably large deposits or fines, as well as cruel or unusual penalties.
The last two of the ten amendments contain very broad statements about the constitutional authority. The ninth declares that the list of individual rights is not exhaustive and that citizens also have other rights that are not specifically listed in the constitution. The tenth provides that powers which the Constitution has neither transferred to the federal government nor withdrawn from states are reserved for the state or the people.
Important protection of individual freedoms
The ingenuity of the Constitution in organizing the state apparatus at the federal level gave the United States extraordinary stability over two centuries. The Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments made basic human rights the core of the United States legal system.
In times of national crisis, governments have been tempted to suspend these rights in the interests of national security, but in the United States such attempts have been made reluctantly and with the most scrupulous precautions. For example, during a war, military authorities censored mail between the United States and other countries. This was especially true for mail from contested areas to families at home. But not even during war was the constitutional right to a fair trial abolished. Individuals charged with a crime - including citizens of hostile states charged with espionage, threatening the state and other dangerous activities - have the right to defend themselves. In the American system, the presumption of innocence applies until guilt is proven.
Constitutional amendments added after the Bill of Rights cover a wide range of topics. One of the most far-reaching articles is the 14th, ratified in 1868. It gives a clear and simple definition of citizenship and guarantees equal treatment before the law. At its core, the Fourteenth Amendment requires states that they comply with the rights provided for in the Bill of Rights. Other amendments restricted the federal government's legal powers, changed the method of voting in presidential elections, banned slavery, banned refusal to vote on the basis of race, color, gender or previous servitude, expanded the powers of Congress to collect taxes on individual income and determined direct election as the voting mode for the US Senators.
Among the most recent amendments are the 22nd, which limits the presidential term to two terms, the 23rd, which gives citizens of the District of Columbia the right to vote, and the 24th, which gives citizens the right to vote regardless of poll tax granted, the 25th Amendment, which stipulates that the position of Vice-President must be filled again if it becomes vacant by half the term, the 26th, which reduces the right to vote to 18, and the 27th, which changes with the Salary of Senators and Members of Parliament.
Crucially, the majority of the 27 amendments emerged from ongoing efforts to expand civil rights or political freedoms, while few deal with expanding the basic structure of government drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.
THE FEDERAL SYSTEM
The fathers of the constitution had some clear goals in mind. You wrote them down with amazing clarity in a 52-word, six-point preamble to this important document.
The problem of building "a more perfect union" was the obvious problem of the 13 states of 1787. It was quite clear that almost any other union would come closer to perfection than that which existed under the articles of confederation. But developing another structure to replace it involves difficult decisions.
"... to create a more perfect union"
All states bitterly defended the independent powers they had since breaking with England eleven years earlier. Finding the balance between state rights and the needs of federal government was no easy task. The authors of the Constitution did this by leaving the states with the powers necessary to regulate the daily lives of citizens, provided that those powers did not conflict with the needs and well-being of the nation as a whole. The division of power known as federalism is basically the same as it is today. Each state's competencies in local affairs - such as education, public health, business organization, working conditions, marriage and divorce, local taxation, and general police powers - are so widely recognized and accepted that two neighboring states often have very different laws on the same issues .
As clever as this constitutional system was, the controversy over the rights of states continued until 75 years later, in 1861, a four-year war broke out between the states in the north and those in the south. The war became known as the Civil War or War Between the States. The underlying problem was the federal government's right to limit slavery in the younger states. The Northerners insisted that the federal government had this right, while the Southerners believed that each state should make its own decisions about slavery. When a group of southern states tried to break away from the Union, war broke out and was fought with the aim of preserving the republic. With the defeat of the southern states and their re-entry into the Union, the primacy of the federal government was reinforced and slavery abolished.
"... for the realization of justice"
The core of American democracy is reflected in the Declaration of Independence. There is the well-known sentence "All people are created equal", and the following statement "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, which include life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness".
The constitution makes no distinction based on a person's wealth or status. Everyone is equal before the law and anyone who breaks the law is equally subject to conviction and punishment. The same goes for civil disputes related to property, legal agreements and business deals. Open access to justice is one of the most important guarantees in the Bill of Rights.
"... to ensure calm inside"
The stormy birth of the United States and the unexplained circumstances along America's western border convinced Americans of the need for internal stability to allow the new nation to grow and prosper. The federal government created by the constitution had to be strong enough to protect states from outside invasion and from internal disputes and violence. Continental America has not been invaded by a foreign nation since 1815. State governments were generally strong enough to maintain order within their own borders. But behind them stood the terrifying power of the federal government, enabled by the constitution to take the steps necessary to maintain the peace.
"... for a common national defense"
Despite the secured independence, the young nation was faced with very real dangers from many sides at the end of the 18th century. On the western border, settlers were permanently threatened by hostile Indian tribes. In the north, the British still owned Canada, the eastern provinces of which were home to many vengeance American Tories who had remained loyal to the British Crown during the War of Independence. The French owned the vast territory of Louisiana in the continental Midwest. In the south, the Spaniards owned Florida, Texas, and Mexico. All three European powers had colonies in the Caribbean, alarmingly close to the American coast. In addition, the European nations were embroiled in a number of wars that also swept across the New World.
In the early years, the main objective of the constitution - "common defense" - focused on developing the areas behind the Appalachians and negotiating peace with the Native American tribes who lived in those areas. Within a short period of time, the outbreak of war with England in 1812, military disputes with Spain in Florida, and the war with Mexico in 1846 underscored the importance of military strength.
As the United States grew in economic and political power, so did its defense strength. The Constitution divides the responsibility for defense between the legislative and executive branches: Congress alone has the power to declare war and provide adequate financial resources for the defense, while the President is the commander in chief of the armed forces and has primary responsibility for national defense.
"... to promote the common good"
At the end of the War of Independence, the United States found itself in a difficult economic situation. Their resources were exhausted, their credit ratings were shaky, and their paper money was almost worthless. Commerce and industry practically came to a standstill. The states and the Confederation government were heavily in debt. People were not in direct danger of starvation, but the prospects for economic development were very slim.
One of the first tasks of the new national government was to put the economy on a solid footing. The first article of the constitution stipulated that: "Congress has the right to impose and collect taxes ... in order to meet payment obligations, for ... the general good of the United States."
The power to raise taxes enabled the government to pay off its war debts and put the currency on a more solid footing. A finance minister was appointed to deal with the nation's tax affairs and a foreign minister to deal with relations with other states. In addition, a minister of war was appointed to be responsible for the nation's military security and a minister of justice to serve as the chief judicial officer of the federal government. Later, as the country expanded and the economy became more complex, the well-being of the people required the creation of additional executive ministries.
"... the happiness of freedom to preserve ourselves and our descendants"
The emphasis on personal freedom was one of the most prominent features of the new American republic. Having experienced political or religious oppression, many Americans were determined to preserve freedom in the New World. In transferring power to the federal government, the creators of the constitution were careful to protect the rights of all people by restricting the powers of both the federal and state governments. As a result, Americans can move from place to place, make their own decisions about work, religion, and political views, and go to court for justice and protection when they feel these rights are restricted.
Original text: "The Constitution: An Enduring Document " from the booklet "Outline of the U.S. Government," published by the Department of State's International Information Programs, (published on America Service, July 15, 2005)
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