The Constitution and the Bill of Rights

The former colonies, now "the United States of America", first operated under an agreement called the Articles of Confederation (1781). It was soon clear that this loose agreement among the states was not working well. The central, federal government was too weak, with too few powers for defense, trade, and taxation. In 1787, therefore, delegates from the states met in Philadelphia. They wanted to revise the Articles, but they did much more than that. They wrote a completely new document, the Constitution, which after much argument, debate, and compromise was finished in the same year and officially adopted by the thirteen states by 1790.

The Constitution, the oldest still in force in the world, sets the basic form of government: three separate branches, each one having powers ("checks and balances") over the others. It specifies the powers and duties of each federal branch of government, with all other powers and duties belonging to the states. The Constitution has been repeatedly amended to meet the changing needs of the nation, but it is still the "supreme law of the land". All governments and governmental groups, federal, state, and local, must operate within its guidelines. The ultimate power under the Constitution is not given to the President (the executive branch), or to the Supreme Court (the judicial branch). Nor does it rest, as in many other countries, with a political group or party. It belongs to "We the People", in fact and in spirit.

In this way, Americans first took for themselves the liberties and rights that elsewhere were the privileges of an elite few. Americans would manage their own laws. And, of course, they would make their own mistakes.

They stated in the first ten Constitutional Amendments, known together as the Bill of Rights, what they considered to be the fundamental rights of any American. Among these rights are the freedom of religion, speech, and the press, the right of peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government to correct wrongs. Other rights guarded the citizens against unreasonable searches, arrests, and seizures of property, and established a system of justice guaranteeing orderly legal procedures. This included the right of trial by jury, that is, being judged by one's fellow citizens.

The great pride Americans have in their Constitution, their almost religious respect for it comes from the knowledge that these ideals, freedoms, and rights were not given to them by a small ruling class. Rather, they are seen as the natural "unalienable" rights of every American, which had been fought for and won. They cannot be taken away by any government, court, official, or law.

The federal and state governments formed under the Constitution, therefore, were designed to serve the people and to carry out their majority wishes (and not the other way around). One thing they did not want their government to do is to rule them. Americans expect their government to serve them and tend to think of politicians and governmental officials as their servants. This attitude remains very strong among Americans today.

Over the past two centuries, the Constitution has also had considerable influence outside the United States. Several other nations have based their own forms of government on it. It is interesting to note that Lafayette, а hего of the American Revolution, drafted the French declaration of rights when he returned to France. And the United Nations Charter also has clear echoes of what once was considered a revolutionary document.