United States Constitution Explained

The United States Constitution is the highest law of the land. The Constitution defines the role of the federal government and grants the people of the United States various liberties. It is the country’s most fundamental document.

Individual states are free to draft, ratify and amend their own constitutions and develop a code of state law, but the Constitution clearly stipulates that state law cannot violate the principles of the U.S. Constitution. By mandating the supremacy of the Constitution, the framers of the document guaranteed a level of legal and political uniformity among the states. In many ways, the “supremacy clause” of the Constitution is what makes the states “united.”

Who wrote the U.S. Constitution?

Many think that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution. He did not. During the Constitutional Convention, the meeting during which delegates from the states met to write the document, Jefferson was overseas, fulfilling his duties as the American Minister in France. Writing the Constitution was largely a group effort, although scholars consider James Madison the Father of the Constitution, because he assumed a leadership role at the Convention and championed the cause of a strong central government to unify the disparate states.

Jefferson was, however, the driving force behind the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, within which many of the United States’ most characteristic individual liberties are enumerated, including the freedom of speech, the right to trial by jury and protection from spurious search and seizure. Although Jefferson urged the adoption of the Bill of Rights, James Madison was, again, its primary author. That Jefferson is so widely thought the author of multiple formative U.S. documents is testament to the power and radical importance of the Declaration of Independence, for which he has more, but by no means sole responsibility.

What made the Constitution necessary?

Following the victory over the British during the American Revolutionary War, the United States was on its own. The states, whose economic interests and political predispositions sometimes clashed, faced the challenges of becoming a united nation.

The young nation needed a reference book, a system of organization and a clearly delineated chain of command. It needed to publish its principles and the ways it would operate; the country needed to define the duties, responsibilities and rights of both citizens and their representative leaders.

The Articles of Confederation preceded the Constitution, but did not give enough power to a central government to unify a nation. The Articles established neither a federal court nor an executive branch. The government needed to codify a means by which to tax citizens for their common benefit and reduce the nation’s debt; develop and enforce the laws of the land; negotiate with the Native Americans and foreign nations; and regulate domestic and international trade.

The Constitution and its Amendments, as well as federal and state law, are the United States’ responses to these issues, and countless more. The Constitution established a system of federal government that permits states freedom to differ from one another, but remain ultimately united. Federal powers and responsibilities are divided between three distinct branches of government: the executive, to enforce laws; the legislative, to make laws; and the judicial branch, to interpret law.

No constitution is perfect, and the U.S. Constitution is no exception to the rule. However, because the framers described the means by which the document can be expanded, updated, enforced or interpreted in different ways over time, the Constitution can remain a meaningful, effective and beneficial document as the country evolves.