Content approved by Jerry Parker
If you asked someone what the three most important documents are in U.S. history, one of them would surely be the Constitution. This document outlines how our government works, what legal rights we have, how the government works, and even the way that we can change the Constitution as our country changes. It’s a living document created in the 18th century. Today, a lots our laws are tied to the Constitution and how we interpret it.
What Is Constitutional Law?
Constitutional law as an area of study in school is the study of this document and how we apply it to our lives. As a legal field, constitutional law is related to the rights laid out in a constitution, what they mean, and how they are applied.
The U.S. Constitution contains some of our most important laws, such as the Bill of Rights. This is the name for the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and these amendments protect rights such as the right to free speech, the right to a trial by jury if you’re accused of a crime, and the right to not be punished in a cruel or unusual way if you’re convicted of a crime.
Timeline of Events
The U.S. Constitution is a very old document, dating back to just after the American Revolution. In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to create our government as we know it today. Our entire government structure is determined by the articles of the Constitution, so this large task took quite a long time to complete.
On Sept. 17, 1787, the delegates signed the final version of the Constitution. The first man to sign it was George Washington, who would become our first president! Before we could start running the country under the Constitution, it had to be ratified, or approved, by nine out of the 13 states at the time. In June of 1788, New Hampshire became that ninth state, making the Constitution the law of the land. However, many of the ratifying states only agreed to it under the condition that the Constitution was immediately amended.
Bill of Rights and Amendments
The Constitution is what we call a living document, meaning that it can be changed as time goes by. When we make a change or addition to the Constitution, it’s called an amendment. An amendment is usually proposed by Congress, where it needs to be approved by two thirds of the representatives. Then, it’s sent to the states for their approval. If it’s ratified by three quarters of the states, it becomes part of the Constitution.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution have a special name: the Bill of Rights. These are a list of rights that are given to the people and protected by law. The Bill of Rights protects rights such as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to not be tried twice for the same crime. The last two amendments in the Bill of Rights are broad and meant to give the people as many rights as possible: They tell us that any right that is not assigned to the federal government in the Constitution belongs to either the states or the people.
Balance of Powers
In our federal government, there are three major parts, called branches, and they all work together to balance each other’s power so one branch isn’t too strong. This system is called “checks and balances.” The three branches are the legislative branch, which makes the laws, the executive branch, which enforces the laws, and the judicial branch, which analyzes the laws. The duties of these three branches are outlined in the Constitution, as are their powers over the other branches. For example, the Constitution says that Congress gets to make the laws, but it also says that the president can veto a law and the Supreme Court can determine that a law violates the Constitution.
Founders of the Constitution
You may recognize many of the names of what we call the “Founding Fathers.” These are people the people who helped to create our system of government, and their names are on monuments and buildings all over the country. George Washington is the most famous of this group, which also includes Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. These people were leaders of the community who took on the responsibility of creating our government. They came from a variety of backgrounds, but most of them were rich and well-educated.
Games and Lessons
- Rebuild the Bill of Rights
- Lesson: Constitution for Kids
- Do I Have a Right?
- Power Play
- That’s Your Right
- Who Is Your Founding Father?
- Bill of Rights Match Game
- Constitution Quiz
- The Creation of the Bill of Rights
- Name That Founding Father
- Checks and Balances
- Life Without the Bill of Rights
- Talking About My Constitution
- Court Quest
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