There’s a lot of information in the first sentence in the oldest working constitution in the world. Take a constitutional law or history class, and you’ll get an earful. But if you want to know what the Constitution really says, in its original seven articles and following 27 amendments, here’s a breakdown:
Article One: The legislative branch
In Section one, the gist is that Congress—which has a House of Representatives and a Senate—makes the laws.
Section two is about the House: Members must be 25 years old and citizens for at least seven years prior to election, and they serve for two years. They have to live where they’re elected. Then we get to membership numbers, which means states with bigger populations get more House members.
There’s a part in here about how to add the number of people: Slaves originally counted as three-fifths of a person, and Native Americans didn’t count at all.
Amendment time! The 13th, 14th, and 15th
The Reconstruction Amendments redefined what it means to be a citizen. After the Civil War, the 13th ended slavery.
The 14th defines people’s citizenship and rights: Citizens are born here or naturalized, and states can’t make laws that deny people rights to “life, liberty, and property.”
The 15th says the right to vote cannot be “denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Section three is about the Senate: Members must be 30 years old and citizens for at least nine years prior to election, and they serve for six years. They live where they’re elected. There are two from each state. Senators are divided into thirds, with one third serving two years, another third serving four, and the final third serving all six.
The vice president of the U.S. is the president of the Senate and breaks ties, and the Senate acts as a jury for all impeachments, with two-thirds vote required to convict the person on trial.
Amendment time! The 17th.
The 17th shifted the appointment of senators from the state legislature to the people.
Section four is about how to elect people. It says that each state can decide where, when and how to hold elections for senators and representatives, but that Congress can change this for representatives if it feels like it.
Amendment time! The 20th.
The 20th was added here to mandate that Congress meet once a year on the first Monday of December, unless members agree to a different date.
Section five goes into some detail about how Congress works. The first clause states House members judge if other members have been properly elected. If two people argue about who won an election, their house has to figure it out. It states that members have to meet quorum—meaning more than half of members must attend a meeting for it to be legit—and if people don’t show up, they can be penalized.
Section five also states each house gets to determine how they want to run the meetings and punish bad behavior, and two-thirds majority can actually kick a member out! It says Congressional meetings must be written down. The final clause states that either house can’t take more than three days off while in session unless the other house says it’s okay.
Section six is about how Congress members get paid: Apparently, they vote on it! There is a fun fact here though: Congress members can’t be arrested while they’re in, or on their way to or from, meetings in session, “except [for] Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace.”
Section seven talks about how bills become law. I think Schoolhouse Rock summarizes that best, so check out the video on YouTube.
Section eight lists other powers of Congress: creating and collecting taxes, borrowing money from and regulating trade with other countries and creating rules for immigrants and bankruptcies—all of which must be the same in every state.
Congress coins money and determines its value and punishment for counterfeiters, establishes post offices and postal roads, create copyright laws, sets up courts lower than the Supreme Court, defines and punishes pirates (Yes, pirates! Yarr!), declares war and establishes armed forces, which can be used for domestic or foreign issues.
Congress organizes, arms and disciplines the armed forces and lets each state appoint their military officers.
Congress can only fund armies for two years at a time. This splits the power of standing armies, something the founding fathers were wary of. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but Congress pays them.
Section nine is where habeas corpus comes from. It means if you’re in jail, you have the right to a judge and hearing, unless, and this is tricky, “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” Insert lawyers here.
It says you can’t pass a retroactive law, meaning if something becomes illegal, it’s only illegal from that point forward. Also, no bills of attainder can be passed, which means people can not be guilty of a crime without a trial.
Section nine also establishes that states can’t tax other states for importing or exporting goods. Also, Treasury money can’t be taken out unless Congress says so, and Congress must provide a written account of money spent. Finally, no one in the U.S. gets any fancy titles like duke, baron, prince, etc., nor can anyone take gifts from foreign countries.
Section 10 repeats section nine on the state level. States can’t make treaties with other countries, make currency, pass any of those pesky bills of attainder or retroactive laws or give any one those fancy titles. States can’t engage in war unless they’re invaded.
Article Two: the executive branch
This article establishes the office of the president and vice president and sets term limits and age minimums. The president must be born in the U.S.
Amendment time! The 12th.
The 12th Amendment restructured how the president and vice president are elected by introducing the electoral college. Some interesting factoids: The president and the vice president have to be from different states. If there’s a tie, then the House votes for the president, and if there’s a tie for vice president, the Senate votes.
This article also states that the vice president takes over the presidency if the president dies, resigns or is unable to do the job. The president also gets paid, and there’s an oath that must be taken.
Section two describes the president’s powers: leading the armed forces, appointing cabinet members, staying executions and pardoning people (except impeachments!), making treaties and appointing ambassadors, Supreme Court judges and other vacancies that occur during their term if the Senate is not in session.
Section three states the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union. This is where we get the State of the Union address!
The final section discusses how to oust a president or vice president. Impeachment doesn’t mean kicked out of office. It means the House accuses the executive of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” then then Senate holds a trial.
Article Three: the judicial branch
Section one establishes the Supreme Court as the highest court in the country and says Congress can establish lower courts. It also states judges serve for life with “good behaviour.” This section states judges get paid, and their salaries cannot be lowered while they’re in office.
Section two clarifies the Supreme Court decides: “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States” and any treaties enacted, “all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls,” cases dealing with ships at sea and in U.S. ports, controversies between the U.S. and other countries.
The Supreme Court processes all appeals from lower courts. There are several routes depending on what kind of trial it is, but if a case is appealed enough, it will get to the Supreme Court, where currently nine justices will make a final decision.
Amendment time! The 11th.
The 11th Amendment discusses how states and people in them can sue other states and people in them.
Section three defines treason as waging war against the U.S., fighting for U.S. opposition or “giving [enemies] Aid and Comfort.” It also states that to be convicted of treason, there must be either two witnesses who actually saw the treason or a confession.
If convicted, Congress decides how a person is punished, but this has limits. Congress cannot punish the family or heirs of the convicted person, and it can only take property from the treasoner while they are alive.
Article Four: States’ Relations
Section one outlines that all states must respect the laws of court decisions and other states.
Section two says all citizens have the same rights and protections of all other citizens. Criminals can be brought back to the state in which they committed a crime; here’s where bounty hunters come from.
Section three discusses how new states are created: Congress says “okay,” and that’s pretty much it. Additionally, Congress has authority over federal land, and “nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to” change any claims a state or Congress has over property.
Section four guarantees to every State a has representative democracy and protection from invasion” It goes on to say if a state asks for help, Congress will help, and if the state legislature cannot convene for any reason, then the state’s executive branch (i.e. the governor) will intervene.
Article Five: Mode of Amendment
When two-thirds of both Houses feel it’s necessary, it can propose Amendments. Congress will send the proposed amendment to the states, and if three-fourths of the states agree, the amendment is ratified—written into the Constitution.
Another way to make an amendment happen is if two-thirds of the states ask for a Convention to propose any number of amendments, and three-fourths of the states must approve all amendments for them to be ratified.
There are two exceptions: The first deals with slavery and is now moot; the second says no state can lose its right to equal representation in the Senate.
Article Six: Prior Debts, National Supremacy, Oaths of Office
Article Six addresses several things rather quickly.
First, the U.S. will pay all debts owed before the Constitution was enacted. The Constitution is declared “the supreme Law of the Land,” and therefore no other law in the nation can contradict it. Third, all members of each branch of government are bound by oath to uphold the Constitution. It also says there cannot be religious requirements to work for the government.
Article Seven: Ratification
Article seven states that only nine of the then 13 states needed to approve the Constitution for it to be made law for those states.
Stop! Amendment time!
The First Amendment says Congress cannot establish any law that favors any religion, nor can it make laws to limit the free practice of any religion. It also states Congress cannot make laws that limit speech, press “or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Finally, Congress cannot make any laws that limit people’s rights to ask the government to change laws they might find harmful.
The Second Amendment is either the right to own weapons or wear sleeveless t-shirts. The country is still confused.
The Third Amendment states, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner.” The flipside is that Congress can make a law that during wartime, homeowners have to house soldiers. This law hasn’t been made, but it’s totally possible.
The Fourth Amendment is where the phrase probable cause comes from. This Amendment protects you and your property from being searched or seized without a warrant.
The Fifth Amendment is a big one. It states that no person can be tried for a serious crime—punishable by death—unless a grand jury has indicted that person. During wartime, if the accused is in the armed forces, there may be exceptions. The exceptions are not listed, so bring in that team of lawyers again to sort it out.
Ever heard of double jeopardy? That’s here, too. If you’ve been tried for a crime, you can’t be tried for the exact same crime again if a jury found you not guilty. Once you’re declared not guilty, that’s it. There are appeals of course, but that’s not the same thing.
The Fifth ends with several heavy hitters. A person cannot “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” which is where the phrase pleading the fifth comes from, “nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property.” Basically, every citizen is entitled to “due process,” or fair treatment through the judicial system, and the government can’t simply take your property.
The Sixth Amendment goes into what due process looks like. This includes a speedy, public trial by an impartial jury. The Sixth also ensures the accused not only knows what the accusation is but also gets to see and hear the witnesses against them. The accused also gets a lawyer and witnesses on their side who must appear in court.
The Seventh Amendment states if there’s a lawsuit for more than $20, a person has a right to a jury trial. Why $20? It’s almost nothing now, but in the 1700s, it was a lot more. Nobody messes with the Seventh, and nearly all cases that aren’t settled go to a jury trial.
The Eighth Amendment says no excessive bail or fines and no cruel and unusual punishments.
The Ninth Amendment clarifies that there are of course more rights people have that aren’t listed in the Constitution.
The 10th Amendment states the powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution belong to the states or to the people.
We covered the 11th–15th, 17th and 20th Amendments, so:
The 16th Amendment states Congress can collect income taxes as it sees fit, regardless of what the states have to say about it.
The 18th Amendment and the 21st go hand in hand. The former made alcohol illegal, and the latter repealed the former. Easy peasy. Let’s do shots!
The 19th Amendment let women vote, which was difficult to ratify considering that only men were voting. The campaign against institutional sexism continues!
The 22nd Amendment set a two-term limit for presidents. It was approved by Congress in 1947 and ratified in 1951 after Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president, held office from 1933 until his death in 1945, winning four presidential elections.
The 23rd Amendment gave Washington, D.C. the rights to three electoral votes in presidential elections.
The 24th Amendment says you can’t tax people to vote.
The 25th Amendment outlines the process of the vice president assuming the office of president in the case of the president’s death, resignation or removal from office.
The 26th Amendment allows people to vote beginning at age 18.
The 27th Amendment says if pay rates for Congress members change, the new rate won’t go into effect until after the next election.
My passion for language led me to PSU’s Honors College, linguistics department and Vanguard where I’ve found my heart, my voice and my conviction. After working with such an inspiring team and community, I’ve changed career goals: Instead of editing, I’d like help reshape educational policy in the U.S.