We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. Do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This is the introduction to the Constitution, telling us its purpose. “We the people” defines the heart behind it. The people were going to rule themselves.
Article One says that the United States Congress (the legislative branch) will make the laws for the United States. Congress has two parts, called “Houses”: the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. This Article says who can be elected to each part of Congress, and how they are elected.
The House of Representatives has members elected by the people in each state. The number of members from each state depends on how many people live there. Each member of the House of Representatives is elected for two years.
The Senate has two members, called Senators, from each state, no matter how many people live there. Each Senator is elected for six years. The original Constitution allowed the state legislatures to choose the Senators, but this was changed later by the Seventeenth Amendment.
Article One also says how the Congress will do its business and what kinds of laws it can make. It lists some kinds of laws the Congress and the states cannot make.
Article One also makes rules for Congress to impeach and remove from office the President, Vice President, judges, and other government officers.
Article Two says that the President, Vice President, and executive offices (the executive branch) will carry out the laws made by Congress. This article says how the President and Vice President are elected, and who can be elected to these offices. The President and Vice President are elected for four years by a special Electoral College chosen by the states. The Vice President takes over as President if the President dies, resigns, or is unable to serve.
Article Two also says that the President is the Commander-in-Chief in charge of the United States military. He can make treaties with other countries, but these must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate. He appoints judges, ambassadors, and other officers, but the Senate also must approve these appointments. The President can also veto bills. However, Congress can override the veto and make the bill into a law anyway.
Article Three says there will be a court system (the judicial branch), which includes the Supreme Court. The Article says that Congress can decide which federal courts, besides the Supreme Court, are needed.
Article Three says what kinds of “cases and controversies” these courts can decide. It also requires trial by jury in all criminal cases, and defines the crime of treason.
States’ powers and limits
Article Four is about the states. It says that all states must give “full faith and credit” to the laws of the other states. It also says that state governments must treat citizens of other states as fairly as they treat their own citizens, and must send arrested people back if they have been charged with a crime in another state and fled.
Article Four also says that Congress can make new states. There were only 13 states in 1787. Now there are 50 United States. It says Congress can make rules for Federal property and can govern territories that have not yet been made into states. Article Four says the United States must make sure that each state has a republican form of government, and protect the states from invasion and violence.
Process of amendment
Article Five gives two ways to amend, or change, the Constitution.
- Congress can write a change, if two-thirds of the members in each House agree.
- The state governments can call a convention to write changes, although this has not happened since 1787.
Any change that is written by Congress or by a convention must be sent to the state legislatures or to state conventions for their approval. Congress decides whether to send a change to the legislatures or to conventions. Three-fourths of the states must approve a change for it to become part of the Constitution.
An amendment can change any part of the Constitution, except one—no amendment can change the rule that each state has an equal number of Senators in the United States Senate.
Article Six says that the Constitution, and the laws and treaties of the United States, are higher than any other laws. It also says that all federal and state officers must swear to “support” the Constitution.
Article Seven says that the new government under the Constitution would not start until conventions in at least nine states approved the Constitution.