A constitution may be defined as the system or body of fundamental principles according to which a nation or state is constituted and governed. A good example of a written constitution in this sense is the Constitution of the United States, formed in 1787. It is a relatively brief document of some 12 pages. The Constitution of the United States is the source of government authority and the fundamental law of the land. For over 200 years it has guided the evolution of governmental institutions and has provided the basis for political stability, individual freedom, economic growth and social progress.
The Constitutional Convention which was to adopt a new constitution, officially opened on May 25, 1787, in Philadelphia. The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution included most of the outstanding leaders, or Founding Fathers, of the new nation. In the course of the Convention the delegates created a new form of government for the United States. The Constitution set up a federal system with a strong central government. A federal system is one in which power is shared between a central authority and its constituent parts (states), with some rights reserved to each.
The states preserved their own independence by reserving to themselves certain well-defined powers (education, taxes and finance, internal communications, etc.). The powers which were given to the Federal Government are those dealing with national defence, foreign policy, the control of international trade, etc.
Under the Constitution power was further divided among the three branches of the national government: legislative (the Congress), executive (the President) and judicial (the Supreme Court). Each was given its own authority.
These three powers established a so-called system of the checks and balances. This system gives each branch the means to restrain the other two. For example, the President has the power to veto acts passed by Congress, but the Congress may override the veto by a two-thirds majority. But the Supreme Court has the power to declare Acts of Congress (or of any State legislature) or the actions of a President to be illegal (or unconstitutional) if they are in conflict with the Constitution.
The Constitution provided the election of a national leader, or president. It provided also that federal laws would be made only by a Congress consisting of representatives elected by the people. The Constitution set up a national court system headed by a Supreme Court. This fundamental document provided the clearest example of a practical separation of the three principal branches of power.
The drafters of the Constitution saw that the future might bring a need for changes that is why they provided a method of adding amendments. The document that emerged from their deliberations in September 1787 was brief – a preamble and seven articles - over the past 200 years 26 amendments have been adopted, but the basic document, the Constitution itself, has not been changed.
But when the Constitution was first proposed and adopted, there was widespread dissatisfaction of the American people, because it did not contain guarantees of certain basic freedoms and individual rights. It also recognized slavery and did not establish universal suffrage.
In 1791 the Congress was forced to adopt the first 10 amendments to the Constitution dealing with civil liberties. They were called collectively the "Bill of Rights". From these amendments the Americans received guarantees of such basic rights as freedom of speech, the press and religion, the right of peaceful assembly, freedom from unreasonable search, arrest and seizure. The Bill of Rights also deals with the system of justice. Meanwhile, slavery was abolished many years later, by the thirteenth amendment (1865), and universal suffrage was guaranteed by the fifteenth amendment (1870).
Under the Constitution, no member of one branch of government may be a member of either of the two others. The President of the United States is not and cannot be a member of Congress (the legislative branch). Any member of Congress who wishes to become President of the United States must resign from that body before accepting the Presidency (Gerald Ford resigned from Congress in 1975 on becoming President). At the same time the President may or may not be a member of the political party with a majority in Congress. No member of the Government (the executive branch) with the exception of the Vice President (who presides over the Senate) may also be a member of Congress.
The Congress is empowered by the Constitution to remove government officials, including the President, from office, only by an impeachment process. Impeachment is a charge of misconduct brought against a government official or President by a legislative body.
Each state has its own Constitution. The State Constitutions have a similar structure with the Constitution of the United States. As a rule they include the preamble, the Bill of Rights, as well as provisions dealing with local interests: the division of powers, suffrage and elections, taxes and finance, education, etc.