James Madison declared, "In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce." The Constitution was designed to serve the interests of the people -- rich and poor, Northerners and Southerners, farmers, workers, and business people. Through the years, the Constitution has been interpreted to meet the changing needs of the United States.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention believed strongly in the rule of the majority, but they wanted to protect minorities against any unjustness by the majority. They achieved this goal by separating and balancing the powers of the national government. Other basic constitutional aims included respect for the rights of individuals and states, rule by the people, separation of church and state, and supremacy of the national government.
|Suffragists marched on Washington, D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913, one of many demonstrations held over the years to gain the vote for women. The Capitol is in the background. (The Library of Congress) |
The Constitution has been amended 27 times, including the Bill of Rights. Amendments may be proposed by two-thirds of each house of Congress or by a national convention called by Congress at the request of the legislatures in two-thirds of the states. An amendment becomes part of the Constitution after being ratified either by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states or by conventions in three-fourths of the states. Congress decides which form of ratification should be used and how much time the states have to consider each amendment. In many cases, Congress has chosen a seven-year period for such consideration.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention knew they could not write laws for every possible situation. Therefore, they gave Congress the right to pass all laws that are "necessary and proper" to carry out powers granted by the Constitution to the President, Congress, and federal courts. Congress has passed laws to establish such administrative organizations as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Postal Service. Congress also has passed laws to regulate interstate commerce, thereby controlling many aspects of the U.S. economy.
COURT DECISIONS. Federal and state judges apply the Constitution in many court cases. The Supreme Court has the final authority in interpreting the meaning of the Constitution in any specific case. The court has the power of judicial review -- that is, it can declare a law unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has this power largely because of the decision of Chief Justice John Marshall in the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Since that time, the court has ruled that more than 125 federal laws and hundreds of state laws were unconstitutional.
|Civil War portrait of Abraham Lincoln; in the background is the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to slaves in states then in rebellion against the Union. Slavery was finally abolished by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. (The Library of Congress, text: The National Archives)|
PRESIDENTIAL ACTIONS. Strong Presidents have used their authority to expand the simple words of the Second Article of the Constitution into a source of great presidential power. Such Presidents include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Washington, for example, made the President the leading figure in foreign affairs. Lincoln used the powers set forth in the article to free the slaves from the southern states in rebellion during the Civil War (1861-1865).
CUSTOMS have made the Constitution flexible and have added to the powers of the national government. For example, the President's cabinet developed from the words in the Second Article that permit the chief executive to "require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices."
STATE AND PARTY ACTIONS. The Constitution provides for a general method of electing a President. It does not mention political parties. But state laws and political party practices have changed the constitutional system of voting into the exciting campaigns and elections that take place today.
The Constitution has continued to develop in response to the demands of an ever-growing society through all these methods. Yet the spirit and wording of the Constitution have remained constant. People of each generation have applied its provisions to their own problems in ways that seem reasonable to them.
The British statesman William E. Gladstone described the Constitution as "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." In a world of change and struggle, the American people have no more precious possession than this great document. The complete text of the Constitution of the United States, with explanatory notes, is presented on the following pages.