Former social studies teacher explains the Constitution

If you have never read or studied the U.S. Constitution, know that its 4,543 words, including signatures, 7 Articles and 27 Amendments, are a constant source of debate.

It is a living document subject to change and interpretation. With this essay, we begin a series of increasingly detailed articles describing its origins and intents.

In 1787, the states called for a convention in Philadelphia to revise the "Articles of Confederation," the document written in 1781 outlining our first national government after we secured our independence from Great Britain. Those in attendance had been selected by the various state legislatures. The attendees chose George Washington to preside over the convention.

The "Articles" had created a nation called a confederation, which is a loose organization of states, each with its own constitution and willing to support each other in times of war. A powerless Confederation Congress oversaw the agreement. There was no president, court, or standing army or navy.

The original setup proved to be awkward and complicated. Businesses, private citizens and foreign nations conducting commerce across state lines ran into constant roadblocks because of differing laws and regulations. Changes were needed.

Just as in 1776 with the writing of the Declaration of Independence, representatives selected a diverse group to compose a new document. Those who wrote the Declaration were called the Founders. Those who would write a new Constitution were to be called the Framers.

James Madison, a respected scholar from Virginia, was selected to be the document's architect. Like any good leader, he welcomed proposals and changes from the representatives, but his ideas dominated the final draft.

An agreement was reached to ditch the Confederation and replace it with a central, federal government divided into three distinct branches.

A legislative branch was outlined in Article I. It was composed of two separate organizations. A Senate would have two members from each state and the makeup of a House of Representatives would be based on the population of each state. This branch would make the laws.

An executive branch was outlined in Article II. It was to be overseen by a president of the United States, to be elected by an Electoral College with instructions from eligible citizenry who would vote for its members. The executive branch would enforce the laws, conduct foreign relations and protect the country.

A judicial branch was outlined in Article III. It would be run by federal judges appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Judges, once approved, served for life. Judges would make sure the laws passed by the legislative branch and approved by the president were constitutional.

In all three Articles, the powers of that branch were defined. Any branch whose members employed their powers in a reckless or unconstitutional manner could be overruled by another branch. This concept was called "the balance of power," also referred to as "checks and balances."

Articles IV through VII further clarified the federal government, its power and how it operated. Article IV covered state issues and Article V covered the amendment process. Article VI dealt with national debt issues and the supremacy clause, and Article VII was about the ratification process. They were short and direct, with no more than four sections.

After the convention approved the Constitution, it had to be ratified by at least nine states to become the law of the land. The effort to get each state's approval included town hall discussions and presentations, legislative debates and distribution of copies of the proposal and supporting information.

James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were the major contributors to The Federalist Papers, written to explain the Constitution and why it was written the way it was. Their efforts succeeded.

By June 21, 1788, the states had approved the final document. Since its adoption, it has been amended only 27 times.

• Bruce Simmons of Aurora is a former teacher with more than 25 years' experience teaching social studies and humanities. This is one in a series of essays describing the history and meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The next installment will discuss some of the key Framers.

Bruce Simmons
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.