U.S. Government for Kids: Constitution & Law 101
America is a unique country with many basic rights and freedoms not found in other nations. When the Pilgrims migrated to America, they came over looking for a better life, a less oppressive life than a life under a king’s rule. The Constitution, the governing document of the United States, was written with that specific desire in mind – the desire for freedom under fair governance.
America declared its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, with the Declaration of Independence. Once it became an autonomous nation, America needed to draft its own set of rules. At that time, there were 13 colonies that made up the United States of America, and in May of 1787, well-educated representatives from each state – except Rhode Island, which chose not participate – began working on drafting the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Included in the delegates were famous patriots George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. It took the men four months to come up with the Constitution’s original draft.
Aside from ensuring that the government did not hold autocratic rule over the people, the patriots drafting the Constitution wanted to give the people and the states special power so their wishes could not be denied by any one leader. With so many men having different opinions as to how the new country should be run, there needed to be an established leader to preside over the Constitutional Convention, and George Washington was elected president of the meetings.
In keeping with the fairness the delegates desired in the Constitution, fairness was exercised during its drafting as well. Even though there were 55 delegates total, each represented state only received the right to cast one vote on each issue. This prevented a larger state with several representatives from having more power than a smaller state that only sent a few men. All delegates could certainly express their opinions, but when it came time to vote, each state could only vote once.
The men came from varied backgrounds, and there were several different ideas. When it came time to decide upon how Congress would be formed, two different plans took center stage: the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. The Virginia Plan proposed that each state have a number of congressional representatives based upon its population; the New Jersey Plan proposed that a set number of representatives from each state be allowed.
Both of these plans might sound familiar, and they are what eventually became known as the Great Compromise, proposed by Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut. Sherman suggested that the new country adopt a two-house legislature – or governing body – and use both plans in Congress. The result is what Americans know today as Congress’s House of Representatives and Senate. The number of representatives each state is allowed in the House depends on the population of that state; the Senate holds two members from every state, regardless of the state’s population.
Once all 4,300 words of the original Constitution were agreed upon, Gouverneur Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania, jotted them down by hand into a single document. The original draft of the Constitution of the United States of America was signed on September 17, 1787, by 39 of the attending delegates. In keeping with presenting the power to the people and their states, the Continental Congress – America’s governing body at that time – voted to send the Constitution to each state for ratification, or acceptance, on September 20. This began the United States checks-and-balances form of governance.
Many state delegates refused to ratify the Constitution because they felt that it did not adequately protect the rights of the individual people. James Madison wrote 12 amendments to the original Constitution and presented them at the newly formed Congress’s first meeting in 1789. Congress approved ten of Madison’s amendments, and this group, known as the Bill of Rights, was added to the Constitution. Right away, the balance of powers between federal and state governments was working.
The checks and balances within the Constitution not only afforded each state certain controlling rights over the legislation within the state, but it also divided the power at the federal level into three branches, each designed to hold the others accountable. The three branches of the federal government are the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, and each has its own set of responsibilities and powers that work together to ensure that no one branch holds exclusive power.
The legislative branch of the federal government is Congress, and it includes the members of the House of Representatives and Senate. Congress drafts the laws by writing bills, which must be approved in both the House and the Senate. Congressional powers divided by the House and Senate include the country’s spending bills, which are approved first by the House, and the power to impeach – or accuse – elected officials, which falls to the Senate.
The U.S. Supreme Court heads the judicial branch of the federal government, and this branch is in charge of reviewing and interpreting the laws passed by Congress. The Supreme Court decides how the Constitution should be interpreted and applied to Americans in their everyday lives. It also handles legal issues arising at individual state levels and makes final decisions on legal issues appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
The executive branch is headed by the president of the United States, and the president’s job is to enforce the laws. The president enforces federal laws, has the power to veto legislative laws, and recommends new laws. The president is also in charge of the armed forces of the United States and directs the country’s national defense and foreign policies. The president is also the U.S. representative in charge of all ceremonial duties.
This three-pronged form of governance originally written into the U.S. Constitution is an effective way to keep all governing activities in check and balanced. This balance is quite effective. For example, if Congress passes a law that the president feels is detrimental to the U.S. and its people, the president may veto the law. If Congress feels the president’s veto is not in the country’s best interest, it can override the president’s veto and pass the law after all, provided that two-thirds of Congress votes against the president’s veto. The Supreme Court can step in and declare any law unconstitutional and override both Congress and the president. No single entity can write, enact, and enforce a single law alone.
The checks and balances go beyond the activities of each federal branch of government. It is the people of the United States who vote for their members of Congress and for the president and the vice president. The president selects the members of their cabinet, a group of top advisers and agency leaders, but the members must be approved by Congress. The president also chooses new members of the Supreme Court, but Congress approves them.
The United States is more than 225 years old, and many things have changed since the forefathers drafted the original constitution. Fortunately, they thought about that, too, and they wrote a provision allowing amendments to the Constitution. These amendments enact new laws that bind the federal government and the people of the United States, most bringing about positive change. For example, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in the U.S., and the 15th and 19th amendments gave the right to vote to everyone, regardless of their race or gender, respectively.
This being said, it isn’t easy to amend the Constitution. After James Madison drafted the first ten approved amendments to the Constitution, only 17 additional amendments have been approved to date. This does not mean that people have not tried to amend the Constitution on several occasions. Since its original signing in 1787, there have been more than 9,000 amendments to the Constitution proposed. Of those 9,000, only 27 passed. That is one sound legal document!
To learn more about the Constitution of the United States and United States law, please click on the following links:
- Kids in the House Middle School Glossary
- The Constitution of the United States
- Why a Constitution?
- Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution
- Constitution – Travel Back in History
- James Madison’s Contribution to the Constitution
- Know Your Rights – A Guide to the U.S. Constitution
- Bill of Rights Institute Video Library
- Explore the Constitution
- Interactive U.S. Constitution
- U.S. Constitution for Kids
- Branches of Power Game
- Celebrate the Constitution Game
- Branches of Government Game
- Constitution IQ Quiz
- The U.S. Constitution Quiz
- Interactive Signing of the U.S. Constitution
- The Constitution for Kids
- Time for Kids Explains the U.S. Constitution
- The U.S. Constitution Amendments
- U.S. Constitution Facts
- The History Channel U.S. Constitution Videos
- 10 Facts About the Constitution
- History for Kids – The U.S. Constitution
- The Constitution of the United States in Simple English
By Ted Burgess