The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America, the basis for the structure of the U.S. government, and the primary source for all legislative, executive, and judicial authority. Signed on September 17, 1787, the document became the first permanent constitution of its kind. The signing of the U.S. Constitution is commemorated with Constitution Day celebrations on September 17 of each year.
Originally consisting of seven articles, the Constitution outlined the framework for the newly established American government. As America has expanded over the past 232 years, the document has been amended to address the nation’s evolving needs. Join HeinOnline as we research the story behind the drafting, signing, and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
WORLD CONSTITUTIONS ILLUSTRATED
There are many locations in HeinOnline to discover source material for researching the United States Constitution. However, one database holds much of the relevant primary source content and is thus a perfect starting point.
HeinOnline’s World Constitutions Illustrated enables legal scholars to research the constitutional and political development of every country in the world, including that of the United States of America. The database includes:
- The current constitution for every country in its original language format with an English translation
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- Constitutional periodicals
- Thousands of classic books
- Other related works, such as the World Factbook
- Links to scholarly articles and online resources
- Bibliographic references
- And much more!
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WORLD CONSTITUTIONS ILLUSTRATED
Before the Constitution
STRAINS ON THE COLONIAL RELATIONSHIP
By the early 1770s, discontentment with British rule had pervaded the empire’s colonies in the New World. King George III had restricted the expansion of American settlements, required the colonists to house British soldiers, and increasingly taxed the colonies to pay for the French and Indian War. Read this letter from Samuel Adams and James Otis, Jr. which heightened the tension between Massachusetts and the empire by responding to the actions of Great Britain.
American colonists began to demonstrate their frustrations with the British Empire, in part by boycotting British goods. In December of 1773, a group of colonists from the Massachusetts Bay Colony further expressed their disapproval by throwing chests of imported tea into the Boston Harbor. Read John Adam’s diary entry regarding the Boston Tea Party.
To punish the Massachusetts colonists, British Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in 1774, pieces of legislation which eliminated the colony’s ability to self-govern, closed the port of Boston, and changed the stipulations for trials to potentially allow British officials to escape justice.
THE FIRST CONTINENTAL CONGRESS
Believing that the British empire had violated their rights (both constitutional and natural), the Massachusetts Bay colonists and others viewed the Intolerable Acts as cruel and unnecessary punishments. Sympathetic to the Massachusetts cause, ten of the thirteen colonies elected representatives to form separate Provincial Congresses. Later, twelve of the thirteen colonies sent their respective delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. View a list of delegates to the First Continental Congress and their credentials.
From September 5 to October 26, 1774, the First Continental Congress discussed a plan of response to the coercive acts of Great Britain. Ultimately, the Congress created and signed its Declaration and Resolves in which they agreed to do the following:
- Petition King George to repeal the Intolerable Acts and address other concerns.
- Address the people of Great Britain in a call to join the colonists in their efforts to redress their grievances.
- Notify the inhabitants of the colonies, offering an explanation of the choices made by the Congress.
- Address the inhabitants of the Province of Quebec in another plea for support.
- Officially boycott British trade if the acts were not repealed.
A War for Revolution
The documents from the First Continental Congress were successfully delivered to London in November of 1774. Read the proceedings of the House of Lords and House of Commons relating to the American colonies.
Uncomfortable with the increasingly rebellious mindset prevalent in America, the British government prepared to respond with force. A secret expedition to Concord, Massachusetts was thus planned, with the intent of destroying the town’s weapons and supplies. Unfortunately for the British troops, the Boston militia discovered the plans for the expedition. To warn Concord of the incoming British, Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott, and William Dawes began their famous midnight ride on April 18, 1775.
At sunrise on April 19, the American Revolutionary War began with the battles of Lexington and Concord.
The Second Continental Congress
Soon after the battles, the Second Continental Congress convened with representatives from 12 of the 13 colonies, this time with Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson among them. Over the course of the war, the Congress acted as the national government and was thus responsible for raising armies, appointing diplomats, discussing strategy, and drafting treaties. After the war, the Congress functioned as the provisional government of the new United States until March 1, 1781.
Achievements of the Second Continental Congress:
- A Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, explaining the rationale for taking up arms and beginning the American Revolutionary War.
- The Olive Branch Petition, one last attempt to avoid war with Great Britain. King George refused to read the petition.
- Resolution for Independence (Lee Resolution), a formal statement from Congress declaring the thirteen American colonies independent from Great Britain. The resolution called for the creation of three committees to prepare three separate documents:
- The Declaration of Independence, explaining the reasons behind the Revolutionary War and announcing the newly formed union’s entry onto the global stage.
- Model Treaty (or the Plan of 1776), a framework for future treaties and other foreign correspondences between the newly established American government and other nations. The plan led to the signing of two treaties with France:
- The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, a draft of the first constitution for the new union of states.
Establishing a New National Government
the constitutional convention of 1787
The Articles of Confederation were passed on November 15, 1777 after more than a year of debate. The first constitution of the United States of America, the Articles’ core purpose was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states while clarifying their relationship to a relatively weak central government. However, as America grew, many discovered that the central government created was too limited in its ability to govern. Requests for changes to the Articles led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
From May 25 to September 17, delegates from twelve state legislatures met to propose and debate changes to the Articles of Confederation. George Washington was elected as the President of the Convention, and Chancellor George Wythe was appointed Chair of the Rules Committee. (View George Wythe’s personal collection of materials relating to law, history, philosophy, science, and mathematics in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics.)
After arriving at the Convention, delegates soon agreed that mere changes to the Articles of Confederation would not suffice. The Articles were later replaced by the first draft of the United States Constitution, and as such, the national government outlined by the Articles was eliminated.
DRAFTING THE CONSTITUTION
Among the many additions to the new Constitution, the creation of three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—served to establish a stronger federal government. The Convention covered a series of issues important to the states, including the people’s representation in Congress, the incorporation of slaves in that representation, the creation of executive power, and the declaration of the people’s rights.
- Representation in Congress
The issue of the structure of Congress slowed the proceedings for months, but eventually ended in what is now known as the Great Compromise, a plan for a legislature composed of two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House would be elected by the people, proportional to each state’s population. The Senate would be chosen by their respective state legislators.
- Executive Power
The delegates additionally discussed the idea of a national chief executive. Though fearful of concentrating too much power in one person, the Convention generally agreed that a separate chief executive independent of Congress was necessary. The issue became the method of electing the president—whether it be direct election by the people or indirect, chosen by state or national legislatures. In the end, the Convention again compromised in the creation of the Electoral College—a body of electors whose purpose was to elect the President. In 1804, the responsibility for electing the Vice President was given to the Electoral College, as well.
- Slave Representation
After agreeing to the concept of proportional representation in the House of Representatives, the Convention moved on to the issue of who could be counted in determining a state’s total population. If slaves were included in the number, slave states would have increased representation in the House and the Electoral College. After much debate, the Three-Fifths Compromise—counting three out of every five slaves as people—allowed the slave states’ populations of enslaved people to be partially factored in when determining their representation in these two bodies.
- Declaration of Rights
By September 12, after nearly four months at the Convention, it was proposed that a full bill of rights be established, outlining the basic individual rights that could not be violated by the new government. The original motion for a bill of rights, put forth by George Mason, failed. In 1789, James Madison drafted twelve articles of amendment which Congress soon approved and submitted to the states for ratification. It was not until 1791 that Articles 3 through 12 were ratified and added to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights. In 1992, Article Two, dealing with pay increases and decreases for members of Congress, was added to the Constitution as the 27th Amendment. Article One, addressing the number of seats in the House of Representatives, is still pending before the states.
Though it has been amended a number of times since the Bill of Rights, the Constitution of the United States of America remains the oldest written and codified national constitution still in force today.
Coming Soon: State Constitutions Illustrated
Loving the convenience and depth of World Constitutions Illustrated? Stay tuned for our next release: State Constitutions Illustrated! The most comprehensive state constitution research platform, State Constitutions Illustrated will contain historical and current constitutions for all fifty states in their original texts from the session laws and corresponding state constitutional conventions. This database will also include multiple editions as published over time as well as pre-statehood primary source and legal materials. Keep an eye out for this unique compilation of nearly 9,500 state constitutions and constitutional documents.
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