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How to Understand the U.S. Constitution

The United States' government and laws are founded on the U.S. Constitution. Here's how to understand this historic document.

Instructions

  • TIP: The Supreme Court's power to decide that a law is unconstitutional is known as "judicial review," and was established in 1803 with the Marbury v. Madison case.
  • Step 1: Examine the remaining sections. Articles IV through VI outline the states' role, create a Constitutional amendment process, and define the document's legal status. Article VII declares that 9 states needed to agree to ratify the Constitution.
  • Step 2: Consider the constitutional amendments; the first 10, known as the Bill of Rights, specify liberties such as freedom of speech, press, and religion, the right to a speedy trial, and protection against self-incrimination. Another 17 amendments have been added as the needs and attitudes of subsequent generations evolved.
  • FACT: Though Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, Connecticut is known as the Constitution State.
  • Step 3: Learn about the judicial branch in Article III. In addition to establishing the Supreme Court, this section of the Constitution discusses the extent of the federal courts’ judicial power and provides a definition for the crime of treason.
  • TIP: The interaction between branches of government is referred to as a system of "checks and balances," which the framers designed to ensure that no one branch -- executive, judicial, or legislative -- would ever have too much power.
  • Step 4: Review Article I, which explains Congress' powers and responsibilities. The Constitution provides for a bicameral legislature: a Senate in which each state has 2 delegates that serve 6-year terms, and a House of Representatives with members elected based on state populations and who serve 2-year terms.
  • TIP: Article I also establishes that the Vice President will serve as President of the Senate and will have the power to break any voting ties in the Senate.
  • Step 5: Investigate Article II, which covers the responsibilities of the President and the election process. It also outlines Congress' ability to limit the President’s authority.
  • Step 6: Study the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It explains why, in 1787, delegates at the Federal Convention, known as the framers, sought to improve upon the Articles of Confederation, America's original constitution, and form a more perfect union.

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