By Hon. Jack Brooks, Chairman, Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives.
For over 200 years, the Constitution has served as the cornerstone of our Nation's democracy and the principal guarantor of freedom and equality for all Americans. Yet, as important as these functions are, this remarkable document performs a perhaps even more vital role as a visible and enduring common bond between the diverse people of this great Nation. Thus, in light of our recent celebration of the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, it is particularly appropriate that the House of Representatives issues this pamphlet edition of the Constitution.
The genius of the Founding Fathers is reflected in the intricate set of checks and balances the Constitution builds into our system of government. By preventing any one of the three branches from acquiring dominance over the others, these structural and procedural safeguards have preserved a fundamental, albeit not always neat, separation of powers. Moreover, although developed over two centuries ago, they continue to perform this essential function despite the dramatic societal, technological, economic, and political changes in the United States over the past two centuries. The Framers made the conscious decision of choosing constitutional generality over the overly specific civil codes of the European nations. By so doing, they wisely built in a flexibility to accommodate change so that a living instrument of government could be passed down to succeeding generations.
Just as important as the governmental structure established by Articles I through VII of the Constitution are the personal freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Approved by the First Congress in 1789 and ratified by the States in 1791, the first ten amendments to the Constitution--the Bill of Rights--assure basic individual liberties essential to a free and democratic society. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments continued the mission of the Bill of Rights by abolishing slavery, by assuring citizens due process in actions taken under color of State governments, and by taking the first steps toward providing suffrage for citizens regardless of race. These Constitutional guarantees have not only stood as a bulwark against governmental abuses in this country, but they have also provided inspiration to people around the world in their quest for individual freedom and liberty.
In an effort to make the Constitution both more accessible and understandable to the public, the House of Representatives has authorized the publication of this pamphlet edition. The document includes the text of the Constitution and all 27 amendments, together with ratification notes and a historical note prepared by Raymond W. Smock, the Historian of the House of Representatives. In addition, it provides information on proposed amendments approved by the Congress but not ratified by the States, and an analytical index.
The Constitution has served us well for over 200 years, but it will continue as a strong, vibrant, and vital foundation for freedom only so long as the American people remain dedicated to the basic principles on which it rests. Thus, as the United States sets a course into a third century of constitutional democracy, let us renew our commitment to, in the words of the Constitution's Preamble, "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . .".
June 24, 1992.
The Delegates who convened at the Federal Convention on May 25, 1787, quickly rejected the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation and agreed to construct a new framework for anational government. Throughout the summer months at theConvention in Philadelphia, delegates from 12 States debated theproper form such a government should take, but few questioned the need to establish a more vigorous government to preside over the union of States. The 39 delegates who signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, expected the new charter to provide a permanent guarantee of the political liberties achieved in the Revolution.
Prior to the adoption of the Federal Constitution, an Articles of Confederation, drafted by the Continental Congress and approved by 13 States, provided for a union of the former British colonies. Even before Maryland became the last State to accede to the Articles in 1781, a number of Americans, particularly those involved in the prosecution of the Revolutionary War, recognized the inadequacies of the Articles as a national government. In the 1780s these nationally-minded Americans became increasingly disturbed by the Articles' failure to provide the central government with authority to raise revenue, regulate commerce, or enforce treaties.
Despite repeated proposals that the Continental Congress revise the Articles, the movement for a new national government began outside the Congress. Representatives of Maryland and Virginia, meeting at Mt. Vernon to discuss trade problems between the two States, agreed to invite delegates from all States to discuss commercial affairs at a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786. Although delegates from only five States reached the Annapolis Convention, that group issued a call for a meeting of all States to discuss necessary revisions of the Articles of Confederation. Responding to this call and the endorsement of the Continental Congress, every State except Rhode Island selected delegates for the meeting in the State House at Philadelphia.
The document printed here was the product of nearly 4 months of deliberations in the Federal Convention at Philadelphia. The challenging task before the delegates was to create a republican form of government that could encompass the 13 States and accommodate the anticipated expansion to the West. The distribution of authority between legislative, executive, and judicial branches was a boldly original attempt to create an energetic central government at the same time that the sovereignty of the people was preserved.
The longest debate of the Convention centered on the proper form of representation and election for the Congress. The division between small States that wished to perpetuate the equal representation of States in the Continental Congress and the large States that proposed representation proportional to population threatened to bring the Convention proceedings to a halt. Over several weeks the delegates developed a complicated compromise that provided for equal representation of the States in a Senate elected by State legislature and proportional representation in a popularly-elected House of Representatives.
The conflict between large and small States disappeared in the early years of the republic. More lasting was the division between slave and free States that had been a disturbing undercurrent in the Convention debates. The Convention's strained attempt to avoid using the word slavery in the articles granting recognition and protection to that institution scarcely hid the regional divisions that would remain unresolved under the terms of union agreed to in 1787.
The debates in the State ratification conventions of 1787 and 1788 made clear the need to provide amendments to the basic framework drafted in Philadelphia. Beginning with Massachusetts, a number of State conventions ratified the Constitution with the request that a bill of rights be added to protect certain liberties at the core of English and American political traditions. The First Congress approved a set of amendments which became the Bill of Rights when ratified by the States in 1791. The continuing process of amendment, clearly described in the notes of the following text, has enabled the Constitution to accommodate changing conditions in American society at the same time that the Founders' basic outline of national government remains intact.