Civics 101: The United States Constitution

J. H. Osborne • Jul 4, 2018 at 1:00 PM

To mark Independence Day, the official birth of the United States, the Times News is launching a weekly series called “Civics 101.”

We believe a strong democracy depends on people understanding how their government works and what their duties and responsibilities are as citizens.

We know that in your busy daily life, you don’t have the time to read long, detailed stories about civics, so future installments will be informative, but brief.

Our first topic: the United States Constitution, which famously begins “We the people…” establishing the idea of self-government. That self-government takes the form of elected representatives at the local, state and federal levels.

According to the National Archives:

• "The Constitution contains a preamble and seven articles that describe the way the government is structured and how it operates. The first three articles establish the three branches of government and their powers: Legislative (Congress), Executive (office of the President,) and Judicial (Federal court system). A system of checks and balances prevents any one of these separate powers from becoming dominant. Articles four through seven describe the relationship of the states to the Federal Government, establish the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, and define the amendment and ratification processes."

The Constitution has been amended 27 times since 1787, most recently in 1992 (We’ll be covering the amendments, the first 10 of which make up the “Bill of Rights,” in future columns).

• For a few years post Revolutionary War, the U.S. operated under the Articles of Confederation, "which gave the Confederation Congress the power to make rules and request funds from the states, but it had no enforcement powers, couldn’t regulate commerce, or print money. The states’ disputes over territory, war pensions, taxation, and trade threatened to tear the young country apart. Alexander Hamilton helped convince Congress to organize a Grand Convention of state delegates to work on revising the Articles of Confederation."

• The Constitutional Convention convened in May of 1787. By mid-June they decided to completely redesign the government. There was little agreement about what form it would take, but three months of heated debate ultimately produced compromise and state delegates approved the draft of the Constitution on September 15, 1787.

• George Washington was the first of 39 of the 42 men present to sign the Constitution.

Going forward, “Civics 101” will appear on the front page of the Times News each Monday. Email your suggestions for topics to [email protected], with “civics” in the subject line.



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