Constitutional Basics

“A republic, if you can keep it.” –Benjamin Franklin

The United States Constitution is the longest operating written charter of government in the world. It was drafted in 1787, ratified in 1788 and was operating over the first eleven ratifying states by 1789. It has been amended 27 times since its adoption.

Deemed necessary because the Articles of Confederation were insufficient to govern the country, the Constitution created a new government with the power and flexibility to govern the United States of America, a new republic.

Though the Preamble to the Constitution makes clear that the federal government is of the people and is not imposed on the people by the states, the states were and remain an integral part of the constitutional structure. The Constitution was ratified by states, rather than the populace. Similarly, the Constitution is amended only if a supermajority of states agrees to the amendment. 

The Constitution is made up of seven original articles and 27 amendments. Each of the original articles lays out a key facet of the structure, operation, implementation of the Constitutional government. 

Outline of Articles I – VII of the Constitution

Article NumberArticle Description
ICreated the Legislative Branch.
IICreated the Executive Branch.
IIICreated the Judicial Branch.
IVCrafts the relationship between states, explaining the obligations that states owe to each other.
VExplains how the Constitution can be amended.
VIExplains the transition from the Articles of Confederation  government to the Constitutional government and notes the supremacy of the United States Constitution and federal law.
VIIExplains how the Constitution is ratified.

The Declaration of Independence

How “United” were the States at the time of the Declaration?

The Declaration of Independence was the American colonists’ first significant step toward acting independently of Great Britain and in concert with one another. But to what extent did the Declaration unite these former colonies?

On one hand, the Declaration proclaims that the states are not only independent of Great Britain, but independent of each other: “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” Indeed, many of the founding generation considered themselves primarily citizens of their states as opposed to Americans.

The Declaration also asserted powers for a group of independent states: “as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” The Declaration therefore proclaimed to the world that the states constituted independent sovereignties.

On the other hand, however, the Declaration of Independence in many respects presupposes an underlying unity that knits these states together more closely than other free and independent sovereignties. The Declaration opens by declaring that the states are acting as a corporate body: “The United States of America.” It also refers to the individuals composing the United States as one people: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .” Do the individuals who compose other alliances (for instance, the members of the United Nations or even the European Union) consider themselves “one people?”

Finally, the Declaration closes with a mutual pledge that surpasses what one sovereign state would normally offer to another if it were forming a mere wartime alliance: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”