What are the rules and ideas that guide a nation? In a written constitution, each country lists the rules its citizens are supposed to follow. The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1788, is the oldest written constitution in the world. It has served as a model for many other countries. At the same time, each constitution is unique. These excerpts from constitutions show what each country values.
People visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where they can see the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
A nation's history can affect its constitution. For example, both Germany and Japan, which started wars in the 1940s, have constitutions that forbid going to war. In South Africa, the laws used to be very unfair to black people. Now its constitution protects all of its citizens.
Skillbuilder Citizenship skills Understand Point of View
point of view
Information can come from many different sources, including newspapers, books, and television. Each source of information has one or more points of view. A point of view is the way someone thinks about an issue, an event, or a person. A point of view is affected by a person's experiences and beliefs.
Understanding different points of view can help you understand the decisions and behavior of others. It can also help you form your own opinions. Part of being a good citizen is listening to and respecting different points of view.
“Who authorized them to speak the language of We, the People, instead of We, the States?…National Government…will destroy the state governments and swallow the liberties of the people without giving previous notice [warning].??
— Patrick Henry
“We have seen the necessity of the Union, as our bulwark [protection] against foreign danger, as the conservator of peace among ourselves, as the guardian of our commerce [trade].??
— James Madison
Step 1: Identify the point of view. What is the subject, and what does the writer or speaker think about it?
Step 2: Identify the source of the information. Do you know of any experiences that may have influenced the writer or speaker?
Step 3: Summarize the writer or speaker's point of view in your own words. If you know about the person's experiences, explain how they might have influenced his or her point of view.
Practice the Skill
Read the passages on page 310 about the debate over whether the national government should have more power than the states. Then answer these questions.
What is Patrick Henry's point of view?
What is Madison's point of view?
How might Madison's experience at the Continental Congress have affected his point of view?
Apply the Skill
Choose a topic below or one of your own. Write a paragraph expressing your point of view on the subject. Describe any personal experiences that affect your point of view.
Some towns have decided to start and end school later in the day. They are trying to give young people more time to sleep.
A national helmet law has been suggested. Everyone who uses skates, bikes, and skateboards would need to wear a helmet.
checks and balances
Find mend in amendment. An amendment is a way to mend, or fix, a problem.
Categorize As you read, list the jobs of each branch of the federal government.
Build on What You Know Builders make a plan before they build a house. The ounders of the United States made the Constitution as a plan for the nation's government.
Main Idea The Constitution describes how the United States government works.
“We the People of the United States …??
These are the first words of the Constitution, and they have a special meaning. They tell us that our country is a democracy. A democracy is a government in which the people have the power to make political decisions. Citizens in a democracy take part in making laws and choosing leaders. In the United States, citizens usually make those decisions through representatives whom they elect.
The United States Constitution is the plan for our democracy. In the Preamble, or beginning, the authors listed their goals for the country. They hoped to create a country where people were safe, could live together in peace, and could have good lives. The rest of the Constitution describes how the government works.
The Constitution This important document is on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Branches of Government
State of the Union Once a year, the President gives a speech called the State of the Union Address. The seal (above) is the symbol of the President.
The Constitution divides the national government into three parts, or branches: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. Each branch does a different job.
The legislative branch makes laws for the country. This branch is called Congress. Congress has two parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state elects two senators to the Senate. Each state also elects a certain number of representatives to the House. The number of representatives from each state depends on its population.
Congress has the power to raise money through taxes or by borrowing. It uses this money to pay for goods and services such as an army, roads, and national parks.
The executive branch can suggest laws. It also carries out the laws made by Congress. The head of this branch is the President. United States citizens elect a President every four years. The President is the commander of the United States military.
The judicial branch decides the meaning of laws and whether laws have been followed. Many courts across the nation make up the judicial branch. The highest court is the Supreme Court.
You remember that the Articles of Confederation created a weak federal government. The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government more power, but it does not give its leaders unlimited power. The Constitution is a plan for a limited government. Everyone must follow the law, including those who run the government.
REVIEW What are the jobs of each branch of the national government?
Limits on Government
Main Idea The Constitution puts limits on the power of the government.
James Madison and the other authors of the Constitution created a government with three branches to make sure that the government's powers were limited. No single person or branch has the power to run the United States government alone. Power is divided among the branches.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention also worried that one branch might become stronger than the other two. They set up checks and balances to keep this from happening. Checks and balances are a system that lets each branch limit the power of the other two.
The chart below shows examples of checks and balances. The President makes treaties and chooses judges. The President can also veto, or reject, laws made by Congress. Congress may reject judges selected by the President and treaties made by the President. Only Congress can declare war. The Supreme Court decides whether laws are unconstitutional. Laws that are unconstitutional do not follow rules laid out by the Constitution. If a law is unconstitutional, the law is no longer in effect.
Checks and Balances This diagram shows some of the ways that each branch of the national government can check the power of the other two branches.
The Constitution created a federal system. Remember that under a federal system, the national government and the state governments each have certain powers. This system gives the national government more power than it had under the Articles of Confederation.
The federal government has power over issues that affect the whole country. Its jobs include defending the country, printing money, running the Post Office, and regulating trade between states.
Federal System Some powers belong only to the national government, while others belong to state and local governments. SKILL Reading Diagrams What are two powers that the state governments and the national government share?
States have more power over local issues. Public education and elections are two state responsibilities. The federal and state governments share certain powers as well. For example, federal and state governments both collect taxes and set up court systems.
Even though the federal government's power is limited, the Constitution makes its laws stronger than state laws. When a state law and a federal law do not agree, the federal law must be obeyed.
REVIEW Why did the authors of the Constitution create checks and balances and a federal system?
Main Idea The Constitution is designed so that it can be changed.
The Right to Vote Over time, amendments to the Constitution have protected the right to vote for more citizens. The chart on the right shows three amendments that have affected who can vote.
The authors of the Constitution knew that the nation would grow and change. They included a way to add amendments to the Constitution. An amendment is a change to the Constitution. Usually, an amendment is proposed by two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Three-fourths of the states must ratify, or officially accept, the amendment. Only then is the amendment part of the Constitution.
Many Americans demanded that a Bill of Rights be added to the Constitution. People wanted to be sure that the stronger federal government would recognize the rights of individuals.
State constitutions listed the rights of citizens and people wanted the U.S. Constitution to do so as well. Thomas Jefferson wanted a Bill of Rights
“to guard the people against the federal government …??
James Madison agreed. He wrote amendments listing rights that were to be protected. In 1791, the 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights were ratified.
Some of Madison's amendments are famous. The First Amendment protects many important rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The Tenth Amendment says that the federal government only has the powers given to it by the Constitution. All other powers belong to the states or to the people.
The Growth of Democracy
Speaking Out Americans have often worked together to demand their rights. These women demanded the right to vote.
In 1790, the Constitution did not protect the rights of all Americans. Thousands of African Americans remained in slavery. Some states allowed only white men who had a certain amount of land or money to vote. The rights of women, African Americans, American Indians, and poor people were not recognized.
Ideas about democracy have changed since 1790, and the Constitution has changed with them. Different groups have fought for their rights and won.
Amendments have been added to the Constitution to protect the voting rights of men and women of all races. Today the equal protection promised by the Constitution is given to more citizens than ever before.
REVIEW Why does the Constitution include a way to make amendments?
The federal government is divided into the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
Checks and balances keep any one branch from becoming too powerful.
The Constitution divides power between the federal government and the states.
The Constitution can be changed by amendment.
Why It Matters …
The Constitution desribes the rules for the government under which you live today.
VOCABULARY Use democracy and amendment in a paragraph about the Constitution.
READING SKILL Think about the categories of jobs the federal government does. What jobs can the legislative branch do that other branches cannot?
MAIN IDEA: Government Which powers do the states have that the federal government does not have?
MAIN IDEA: Government What must happen for an amendment to become part of the Constitution?
CRITICAL THINKING: Conclude Why did the authors of the Constitution want a limited government?
CRITICAL THINKING: Summarize How do the judicial and executive branches limit the power of the legislative branch?
RESEARCH ACTIVITY Find out who represents you in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The President is also your representative. List these people. Explain what each person's job is and how he or she represents you.