History of the United States Constitution

The United States Constitution has served as the supreme law of the United States since taking effect in 1789. The document was written at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention and was ratified through a series of state conventions held in 1787 and 1788. Since 1789, the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times; particularly important amendments include the ten amendments of the United States Bill of Rights and the three Reconstruction Amendments.

Page one of the original copy of the United States Constitution

The Constitution grew out of efforts to reform the Articles of Confederation, an earlier constitution which provided for a loose alliance of states with a weak central government. From May 1787 through September 1787, delegates from twelve of the thirteen states convened in Philadelphia, where they wrote a new constitution. Two alternative plans were developed at the convention. The nationalist majority, soon to be called "Federalists", put forth the Virginia Plan, a consolidated government based on proportional representation among the states by population. The "old patriots", later called "Anti-Federalists", advocated the New Jersey Plan, a purely federal proposal, based on providing each state with equal representation. The Connecticut Compromise allowed for both plans to work together. Other controversies developed regarding slavery and a Bill of Rights in the original document.

The drafted Constitution was submitted to the Congress of the Confederation in September 1787; that same month it approved the forwarding of the Constitution as drafted to the states, each of which would hold a ratification convention. The Federalist Papers, were published in newspapers while the states were debating ratification, which provided background and justification for the Constitution. Some states agreed to ratify the Constitution only if the amendments that were to become the Bill of Rights would be taken up immediately by the new government. In September 1788, the Congress of the Confederation certified that eleven states had ratified the new Constitution, and directed that elections be held. The new government began on March 4, 1789, assembled in New York City, and the government authorized by the Articles of Confederation dissolved itself.

In 1791, the states ratified the Bill of Rights, which established protections for various civil liberties. The Bill of Rights initially only applied to the federal government, but following a process of incorporation most protections of the Bill of Rights now apply to state governments. Further amendments to the Constitution have addressed federal relationships, election procedures, terms of office, expanding the electorate, financing the federal government, consumption of alcohol, and congressional pay. Between 1865 and 1870, the states ratified the Reconstruction Amendments, which abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection of the law, and implemented prohibitions on the restriction of voter rights. The meaning of the Constitution is interpreted by judicial review in the federal courts. The original parchment copies are on display at the National Archives Building.


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