Know Your Rights: The United States Constitution
Authored by LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor, , Attorney at Law

Know Your Rights: The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution is the supreme law in the United States of America. It is also the oldest written constitution in the world. The U.S. Constitution creates a federal government and state governments. It grants each of these governments certain powers that are separate from one another, and it details the process these governments must follow to implement them. The Constitution also guarantees certain rights to all citizens of the United States.

In the late 1700s, the country's first government was failing due to financial problems. In February of 1787, Congress convened in Philadelphia to discuss a plan of law for the country. They began drafting the Constitution, which was adopted by the United States in September of the same year. The drafting and acceptance of the Constitution was a significant event in history because it created a national law that all citizens had to respect. It also guaranteed rights and equality to all people.

Today, the Constitution's law is still the highest in the United States. The United States Supreme Court still bases all of its decisions on the laws laid out in this document. In addition, every new law passed in the United States must not contradict any part of the Constitution. If laws already in existence are found to contradict this document, they will be declared unconstitutional.

Each U.S. state also has their own constitution, which must abide by all of the concepts of the U.S. Constitution. However, states are free to add more protection, just not less than the U.S. Constitution. The representatives and lawyers in Massachusetts adopted its Constitution in 1780, which is the oldest constitution of any U.S. State. State representatives and attorneys in Connecticut and Rhode Island adopted their first state constitutions in 1818 and 1843, respectively.

Events Surrounding the Constitution

The Library of Congress is the national library that is open for public research on various aspects of the Constitution and the functioning of the U.S. government. It is the oldest and largest federal cultural institution in America. Consisting of three buildings, it is located in Washington, D.C. and is affiliated with the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, located in neighboring Virginia. Creating the United States Exhibition is the website of an exhibition at the Library of Congress, which includes an exhibit related to the creation of the Constitution.

The Library's collections are "universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary" and include research materials from all parts of the world, in more than 450 languages. Centuries of Citizenship: This online exhibit highlights the key events that led to the development of the Constitution, as well as events that occurred after it was created.

For more information check out the links below:

Fathers of the Constitution

The "Founding Fathers" refers to the people who contributed to United States independence and the establishment of the States. The term "fathers of the constitution" is used liberally to describe those who helped draft the constitution, including the Articles of Confederation and Declaration of Independence. The most-well know of these founders include George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. However, there were many others who contributed to forming the nation that we are today. Below are links that provide more information on the founding fathers:

Others included John Adams who wrote "Defense of the Constitution of the Government of the United States of America", Thomas Paine who wrote "Common Sense," which influenced the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. Below are links to other important documents written by prominent founding fathers.

  • The Thomas Jefferson Papers: This is the website of the Thomas Jefferson Papers collection, which consists of 27,000 historical documents. 
  • The James Madison Papers: This is the website of the James Madison Papers, which include financial documents, correspondences, personal notes, and an autobiography.

In 1787, many of these men, and a representative from every state except Rhode Island, congregated in the Pennsylvania State House to participate in the Constitutional Convention. At an average age of 42, most fought in the American Revolution. It was here that George Washington was named a "presiding officer" and for the first semblance of the United States government was created in four months. On September 17, 1987, 39 of the original 55 delegates signed the Constitution. Below are additional resources.

Primary Sources

The original U.S. Constitution, signed in 1987, included 7 articles that laid the groundwork for a national government. First, the document created a separation of powers. This means that the federal government has 3 branches: Legislative, Executive and Judicial. The three branches allowed for a system of check and balances. The articles also laid out the rights and responsibilities of state governments, as well as their relationship to the federal government. Below are links to images of the U.S. Constitution.

Important aspects of U.S. history can also be found in other historical documents that helped form the groundwork of the Constitution. Below are links to several of these documents:

Finally, many believe that the Constitution is a "living document", because as time passes the Constitution inevitably must be changed to remain relevant to the present. This has been an on-going point of controversy, especially since the Constitution is constantly open to interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bill of Rights and Amendments

The first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights, reserves rights not specifically mentioned in the Constitution and reserves all powers not specifically granted by the federal government to the people or the States.

Included in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, are freedom of religion, freedom of speech, a free press, free assembly, the right to bear arms, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, security in personal property, the requirement of probable cause when issuing warrants; the right to a grand jury for capital crimes, the guarantee of a speedy trial and the prohibition of double jeopardy.

Below are links that provide more details about the first ten amendments.

Since 1789 the constitution has been amended many times. Most of the amendments, of which there are 27, are geared towards expanding civil rights, including the equal protection and due process clauses of the 5th amendment and 14th amendment and are the basis for many Supreme Court decisions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Below are link that provide information about Amendments 11-27.

  • Amendments 11-27: This page contains the text from Amendments 11 through 27 of the Constitution.
  • Bill of Rights: This page contains the text from the Bill of Rights.
  • The Bill of Rights: This page contains information about the Bill of Rights and links to related historical documents.
  • Bill of Rights: This page has an interactive image of the Bill of Rights, as well as information about the document.
  • Thirteenth Amendment: This page includes an interactive image of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. It also has information about its creation.
  • Fourteenth Amendment: This page has information about the 14th Amendment and an interactive image. The 14th Amendment was related to civil rights.
  • Fifteenth Amendment: This page contains information about the 15th Amendment, which gave voting rights to African Americans.
  • Platt Amendment: This page provides an explanation and image of the Platt Amendment, which was an agreement made between the United States and Cuba to protect Cuba from foreign interventions.
  • Sixteenth Amendment: This page explains the 16th Amendment, which imposed federal income tax on United States citizens.
  • Seventeenth Amendment: This page depicts and explains the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which mandated the direct election of Senators.
  • Nineteenth Amendment: This page explains the 19th Amendment, which gave voting rights to women.
  • Social Security Act Amendments: This page describes and depicts the Social Security Act Amendments, which created Medicare.

Educational Resources

Once a year on September 17th, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, any educational institution that receives federal funding must provide a course to students dedicated to the Constitution on this day. This "Constitutional Day" law was passed in 2004. State governments may also mandate that constitutional studies be integrated into educational curriculums. Additionally, societal expectations and educational traditions have demonstrated that maintaining constitutional studies in school is vital to sustaining the values of a free government.

Students currently study the constitution through required courses in American history, government, and civics. The courses are usually required in a junior high-middle school American history course, in a high school American history course and in a high school American government or civics course.

It is important for students to learn how to apply the principles and values of the Constitution to the current state of the government and legal controversies. Below are various resources to assist in developing valuable lesson plans for students.

For Kids


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