Home page

Last update:
  Mike Todd

The American Constitution

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

So reads the preamble of the American Constitution. Proposed in 1787, and effective from 1789, it sets out the basic mechanics and principles of how the American government should work. And because it embodies the principles involved in the foundation of the union, it has become of overriding importance in almost all aspects of American life. However, it isn't the first Constitution - that honour goes to the constitution adopted in Hartford, Connecticut, in January 1639.

The amendments, some of which were proposed very soon after the Constitution was ratified, add a number of rights that are not embodied in the main text, but also bring the operating sections up to date.

Because the Constitution and its Amendments present a very long document, I've split the texts into five sections:

Article 1   Articles 2-7
Amendments 1-10   Amendments 11-18   Amendments 19-27

The original text is only sectioned into Articles. For clarity, ease of reference and to conform to other references, I've numbered the sections and sub-sections. Some sections have been changed by amendments, others are obsolete (they have dates included that are long past) - where necessary, a pointer to any relevant amendments has been made in the margin.

Below, I've included some notes and comments on interesting aspects of Constitution, but I should stress that these are personal views and interpretations. However, I have used a number of historical and modern commentaries on which to base them.

Most people outside the US know only of the 1st and 5th Amendments, at least by their numbers.

The 1st Amendment establishes the principle of free speech. However, it only does this in terms that prevent Congress making laws which restrict free speech. Although many people quote their "first amendment rights" when being prevented from saying something, there is no such fundamental right.

The infamous 5th Amendment gives the right not to incriminate oneself. In reality, the 5th Amendment embodies a number of protections for those being tried. This includes the right not to be tried twice for the same crime (the so-called double-jeopardy protection, although technically this is limited to being prevented from being "put in jeopardy of life or limb").

But other amendments also embody well-known events in American political history. For instance, the 13th Amendment is the one which abolishes slavery; the 18th introduced prohibition (removed by the 21st); and the 19th Amendment introduces women's suffrage.

The 2nd Amendment is the one which provides the right to "bear arms". The wording is very precise - it reads "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed".

The purpose of this Amendment hinges on the use and meaning of the word militia. By the end of the 19th century, the term was used to mean the whole body of men who could be called upon for military service, and many argue that the 2nd Amendment was written to ensure that this body of men remained skilled in the use of weapons.

The flaw in this argument is that a hundred years earlier, at the time the Amendment was written, the word had a very different meaning. It meant those actually already in service and not those who potentially could be in service.

On the other hand, it does say "the right of the people", and lifted out of context this is used to argue that this gives the right of everyone to own a weapon. Although Americans generally don't see this distinction, the rest of the world is often puzzled by it.

It's interesting to note that the first ten amendments (the so-called Bill of Rights) started off as twelve. The first two were not ratified, so what is now the 1st Amendment was originally the third when it was proposed. Of those two, the second was never ratified, but the first was short of one state for its ratification - and when it was ratified in 1992, it became the 27th Amendment, over 200 years after it was proposed!

The Constitution also has something to say on what happens if an official in public office misbehaves - this is impeachment, and is described on another page.

One of the most prominent aspects of the Constitution in recent years is the section of the Constitution that allows the President to be impeached. The word impeach simply means charge (an official) with an offence whilst in public office. But it is a highly loaded word, both politically and emotionally. The Constitution actually says nothing specific about under what circumstances anyone can be impeached. It simply defines the final process - that of the trial and penalties.

Article 3, section 2.3 of the Constitution lays down that all crimes shall be tried by jury, except in cases of impeachment and Article 1, section 3.6 provides that only the Senate may try an impeachment. They must be under oath (or affirmation) to do so, and to be found guilty under this process there must be a vote of two-thirds of the Senate. In the event of the President being tried, 3.6 requires that the house be presided over by the Chief Justice, to avoid the conflict of having the Vice President, who would normally preside.

Should the trial be successful, section 3.7 defines the maximum penalties that the Senate can impose. These are limited basically removal from office, and disqualification from holding any official office, although it doesn't preclude a criminal trial.

Article 2, section 4, requires that the President, Vice President, and all civil officers, must be removed from office if they are impeached, and then convicted of, "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors".

So what does all this mean in reality. Well, impeachment is simply the process by which the individual can be charged with an offence - they are innocent until proven guilty. And it also doesn't mean that they will be removed from office. It simply means that they will face a formal trial in the Senate.

Impeachment proceedings can be brought for any offence - there is no requirement in the Constitution that it can only be for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors"; these are merely the circumstances under which removal from office is obligatory - although, because the process is so cumbersome and time-consuming, it is rarely used and is limited to "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors".

The whole business of impeachment gave those writing the Constitution no end of headaches. There was a strong voice saying that it was unwise to allow the President to be impeached, because it would make him too dependent on the (partisan) legislature, particularly as, at that time, they were the people that elected him in the first place. But Benjamin Franklin disagreed, suggesting that impeachment was better than the alternative - assassination! His view prevailed, although they further struggled over the wording of the conditions for removal from office - in the first draft, it was "neglect of duty, bribery, maladministration and corruption".

States also have impeachment processes built into their local constitutions, and these too provide for removal from office in the event of a successful impeachment. The only exception is Oregon.

There have been numerous examples of the impeachment process - for details see Who Has Been Impeached.