The U.S. Constitution

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the key tenets of the U.S. Constitution, including the powers given to each branch of government by the Constitution
  • Analyze the provisions and nature of the United States Constitution, including such concepts as federalism
  • Understand what the different branches of government do, their separation of powers, and how they check and balance each other

Understanding the Constitution

The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is comprised of seven articles, or sections, and, perhaps surprisingly, the original document is not very long. You can read the entire U.S. Constitution here. All four pages of the original U.S. Constitution were written on parchment. Here’s a simple breakdown of the seven sections of the Constitution:

Article 1 Legislative Branch: the U.S. Congress makes the laws for the United States. Congress has two parts, called “Houses,” the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Article 2 Executive Branch: the President, Vice-President, Cabinet, and Departments under the Cabinet Secretaries carry out the laws made by Congress.
Article 3 Judicial Branch: the Supreme Court decides court cases according to US Constitution. The courts under the Supreme Court decide criminal and civil court cases according to the correct federal, state, and local laws.
Article 4 States’ powers: States have the power to make and carry out their own laws. State laws that are related to the people and problems of their area. States respect other states’ laws and work together with other states to fix regional problems.
Article 5 Amendments: The Constitution can be changed. New amendments can be added to the US Constitution with the approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress (67, 281) and three-fourth vote by the states (38).
Article 6 Federal powers: The Constitution and federal laws are higher than state and local laws. All laws must agree with the US Constitution.
Article 7 Ratification: The Constitution was presented to George Washington and the men at the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, Representatives from twelve out of the thirteen original states signed the Constitution. From September 1787 to July 1788, the states met, talked about, and finally voted to approve the Constitution.

Table 1. Major Clauses in the Constitution

Interpreting documents written hundreds of years ago can sometimes be difficult. Your historical hack at the end of this unit will teach you how to break down documents to make them more understandable, but let’s try it now! Read the key clause and decide for yourself what it means. Then, reveal the interpretation we’ve given you. Were you close?

The Key Clauses  Annotation of the Clauses
Article I, Section 2. Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. What do you think this means?

Article I, Section 3. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. What do you think this means?

Article I, Section 8: The “Necessary and Proper Clause.” To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof. What do you think this means?

Article I, Section 9: The Slave Importation Clause. The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person. What do you think this means?

Article II, Section 1. Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector. The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves. And they shall make a list of all the persons voted for, and of the number of votes for each; which list they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates, and the votes shall then be counted. The person having the greatest number of votes shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such majority, and have an equal number of votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by ballot one of them for President; and if no person have a majority, then from the five highest on the list the said House shall in like manner choose the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each state having one vote; A quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. In every case, after the choice of the President, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal votes, the Senate shall choose from them by ballot the Vice President. What do you think this means?

Article III. The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. What do you think this means?

Article IV, Section 1. Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved and the Effect the effect thereof. What do you think this means?

Article IV, Section 2. No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due. What do you think this means?

Article VI. The Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land. What do you think this means?

Article VII. The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the states so ratifying the same. What do you think this means?

Try It

As an optional review activity, you can work through this interactive to learn more about the specifics of each section of the Constitution. You can use the first slide as a table of contents to jump to the seven different sections.

The Constitution in Practice

Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

Although debates over slavery and representation in Congress occupied many at the convention, the chief concern was the challenge of increasing the authority of the national government while ensuring that it did not become too powerful. The framers resolved this problem through a separation of powers, dividing the national government into three separate branches and assigning different responsibilities to each one. They also created a system of checks and balances by giving each of three branches of government the power to restrict the actions of the others, thus requiring them to work together.

This infographic includes three boxes with Executive, Judicial, and Legislative headings. The powers listed for the executive branch are: President is commander-in0chief of the nation’s armed forces; President is responsible for conducting foreign affairs; President appoints federal judges, ambassadors, and the heads of executive departments; President may grant pardons to those who have broken federal laws; President has the power to veto legislation passed by Congress. The powers listed for the judicial branch are: Supreme Court hears cases involving federal law and is the nation’s final court of appeal; Supreme Court has the power to declare laws and actions by the executive branch unconstitutional; Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over impeachment trials. The powers listed for the legislative branch are: Congress has the power to pass legislation; Congress may declare war; Senate has the power to ratify treaties signed by the president; Senate must give its consent to the president’s appointment of federal judges, ambassadors, and the heads of executive departments; Congress may impeach the president and remove him or her from office; Congress may establish the number of Supreme Court justices and regular the Court’s jurisdiction.

Figure 1. To prevent the national government, or any one group within it, from becoming too powerful, the Constitution divided the government into three branches with different powers. No branch could function without the cooperation of the others, and each branch could restrict the powers of the others.

Congress was given the power to make laws, but the executive branch, consisting of the president and the vice president, and the federal judiciary, notably the Supreme Court, were created to, respectively, enforce laws and try cases arising under federal law. Neither of these branches had existed under the Articles of Confederation. Thus, Congress can pass laws, but its power to do so can be checked by the president, who can veto potential legislation so that it cannot become a law. Later, in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, the U.S. Supreme Court established its own authority to rule on the constitutionality of laws, a process called judicial review.

Other examples of checks and balances include the ability of Congress to limit the president’s veto. Should the president veto a bill passed by both houses of Congress, the bill is returned to Congress to be voted on again. If the bill passes both the House of Representatives and the Senate with a two-thirds vote in its favor, it becomes law even though the president has refused to sign it.

Congress is also able to limit the president’s power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces by refusing to declare war or provide funds for the military. To date, Congress has never refused a president’s request for a declaration of war. The president must also seek the advice and consent of the Senate before appointing members of the Supreme Court and ambassadors, and the Senate must approve the ratification of all treaties signed by the president. Congress may even remove the president from office. To do this, both chambers of Congress must work together. The House of Representatives impeaches the president by bringing formal charges against him or her, and the Senate tries the case in a proceeding overseen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The president is removed from office if found guilty.

According to political scientist Richard Neustadt, the system of separation of powers and checks and balances does not so much allow one part of government to control another as it encourages the branches to cooperate. Instead of a true separation of powers, the Constitutional Convention “created a government of separated institutions sharing powers.” For example, knowing the president can veto a law he or she disapproves, Congress will attempt to draft a bill that addresses the president’s concerns before sending it to the White House for signing. Similarly, knowing that Congress can override a veto, the president will use this power sparingly.

Federal Power vs. State Power

The strongest guarantee that the power of the national government would be restricted and the states would retain a degree of sovereignty was the framers’ creation of a federal system of government. In a system of federalism, power is divided between the federal (or national) government and the state governments. Great or explicit powers, called enumerated powers, were granted to the federal government to declare war, impose taxes, coin and regulate currency, regulate foreign and interstate commerce, raise and maintain an army and a navy, maintain a post office, make treaties with foreign nations and with Native American tribes, and make laws regulating the naturalization of immigrants.

All powers not expressly given to the national government, however, were intended to be exercised by the states. These powers are known as reserved powers. Thus, states remained free to pass laws regarding such things as intrastate commerce (commerce within the borders of a state) and marriage. Some powers, such as the right to levy taxes, were given to both the state and federal governments. Both the states and the federal government have a chief executive to enforce the laws (a governor and the president, respectively) and a system of courts.

Photo a shows the outside storefront and sign for a medical marijuana doctor. Photo b shows a wedding cake topper with two males in tuxedoes.

Figure 2. Reserve powers allow the states to pass intrastate legislation, such as laws on commerce, drug use, and marriage (a). However, sometimes judicial rulings at the federal level may supersede such legislation, as happened in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court case regarding marriage equality (b). (credit a: modification of work by Damian Gadal; credit b: modification of work by Ludovic Bertron)

Although the states retained a considerable degree of sovereignty, the supremacy clause in Article VI of the Constitution proclaimed that the Constitution, laws passed by Congress, and treaties made by the federal government were “the supreme Law of the Land.” In the event of a conflict between the states and the national government, the national government would triumph. Furthermore, although the federal government was to be limited to those powers enumerated in the Constitution, Article I provided for the expansion of Congressional powers if needed. The “necessary and proper” clause of Article I provides that Congress may “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing [enumerated] Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

The Constitution also gave the federal government control over all “Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” This would prove problematic when, as the United States expanded westward and population growth led to an increase in the power of the northern states in Congress, the federal government sought to restrict the expansion of slavery into newly acquired territories.

Watch It

In this video, Dr. Scot Schraufnagel explains how the principles of republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances are laid out in the Constitution.

You can view the transcript for “Principles of the United States Constitution | American Government” here (opens in new window).

Try It


bicameral: having two legislative houses, an upper and a lower house

checks and balances: the ability for each of three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) to restrict, or “check” the actions of the others

Connecticut Compromise: also known as the Great Compromise, Roger Sherman’s proposal at the Constitutional Convention for a bicameral legislature, with the upper house having equal representation for all states and the lower house having proportional representation

electoral college: the mechanism by which electors, based on the number of representatives from each state, choose the president

proportional representation: representation that gives more populous states greater political power by allowing them more representatives

three-fifths compromise: the agreement at the Constitutional Convention that each enslaved person would count as three-fifths of a White person for purposes of representation