Episode 6 (formerly 1506): The Constitution and Federal Government


“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

This is the famous preamble to the US Constitution. Written at the beginning of this historic document, the preamble is a summary, or mission statement, describing the goals the Founding Fathers hoped to accomplish. The Founding Fathers were a group of important statesmen, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The Constitution was written in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was ratified in 1789 and replaced the Articles of Confederation, which had governed the original 13 US states since the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The Constitution was the first of its kind and has become the model for other constitutions in other countries. It originally consisted of only five pages, and remains the shortest existing constitution of any country in the world today.

In 1791, the first 10 amendments were ratified and became additions to the Constitution. These ten amendments are referred to as the Bill of Rights. It guarantees personal, individual freedoms for citizens. Since then, only 17 more amendments have been added to the Constitution. Of course, volumes of constitutional laws have been written over the years to clarify and enhance the concepts set forth by the Constitution.

The main idea behind the Constitution is separation of governmental power so that the federal government does not have too much control. To this end, three branches of government were established: legislative, executive and judicial. This system is designed so that no branch has more power than the other. It is known as the system of checks and balances.

The legislative branch includes Congress and is responsible for making laws. It consists of a bicameral legislature made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. All of the members of Congress are elected by the people. Two senators are selected from each state to make up the Senate. The House of Representatives is comprised of 435 representatives. The number of representatives from each state is based on population.

The executive branch is tasked with carrying out the laws made by Congress. This branch consists of the president, vice-president, the Cabinet and executive departments and committees. The president’s Cabinet, whose members head the executive departments, are also considered his expert advisors. The people elect the president and vice-president. The rest of the executive branch is appointed by the president and approved by Congress.

The third branch, the judicial branch, interprets the laws made by the legislative branch and decides if the laws violate the Constitution. This branch consists of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Its nine judges are appointed by the president and approved by Congress.

Additionally, another way that the power is distributed in the United States is that the individual states can make their own laws. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution says that any power not specifically granted to the federal government falls to the states. Most states have their own constitutions with three branches of government, similar to the federal model.

Today, the original copy of the Constitution resides in the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. You can visit it as a tourist. You can also visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which is now a part of the Independence National Historical Park.

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