The United States Constitution came into force in 1789 and is made up of seven articles that form the supreme law of the United States of America. The first three articles talk about separation of powers between the three arms of government namely the executive, legislature and the judiciary. The executive holds the office of the President, the legislature holds the bicameral congress and the Judiciary consists of the Supreme Court. Articles 4, 5 and 6, talks about the doctrine of federalism and outlines the rights and responsibilities of both the federal government and the state governments. Article seven outlines the procedures used by the thirteen states to ratify it.
The constitution has been amended 27 times and the first ten amendments are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was established to ensure the protection of civil rights and liberties and regulate the government.
Events leading up to the development of the constitution
The Continental Congress took over as the provisional government of the United States after the United State separation from Britain. The second Continental Congress established the first American constitution known as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. This constitution limited the powers of the central government and most decisions required unanimous agreement by all the thirteen states. The other major problem was the central government lacked sufficient funds to run itself as it constantly ran in to trouble when collecting taxes from member states. The central government had no capacity to raise a proper army or even pay the troops so its protection of its sovereignty was still at stake. Member states were making private deals with other territories such as Canada and imposing taxes on their exports. Britain continued its onslaught on the United States by funding raids by Creek Indians in Georgia.
The Confederation Congress convened a meeting of states to recommend a plan of government. This new plan sought to strengthen the central government and provide it with powers to enable the government conduct its business. After a series of discussions and compromise the states finally reached an agreement to form a republican form of government. The Connecticut Compromise or the Great Compromise established that state power be determined by population and they would vote. The Three Fifths Compromise sought to determine the Presidential term, method of selection and the power accorded to the office and the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. A committee of five was established to draft a detailed constitution in 1787. The members of this committee were: John Rutledge (South Carolina), Edmund Randolph (Virginia), Nathaniel Gorham (Massachusetts), Oliver Ellsworth (Connecticut), and James Wilson (Pennsylvania). Their report was further analyzed and amendments made, some of the delegates were not satisfied but some signed the document. The document was ratified in 1788 by first, 11 states then a year later by all the thirteen.
The Bill of Rights
The U.S. Bill of Rights is a group of 10 amendments that sought to guarantee and protect basic individual freedoms. Although its application was made at the federal level the Fourteenth Amendment made it mandatory for these rights to be applied in state governments after they were incorporated. The amendment process was started by James Madison of Virginia who introduced 39 amendments on June 8. 1789 which later formed the Bill of Rights submitted for ratification on September 25, 1789.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This amendment sought to protect the freedom of religion, press, speech and assembly and establishing the separation between the church and the State.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
This amendment sought to protect the citizens from a tyranny regime that is oppressive or results to violence against its own people by giving the people the right to bear arms for defense and resistance.
Subsequent judicial rulings have continued to refer and make interpretations of this amendment to include that this amendment is limited especially with regards to purpose of bearing arms, the manner it is carried and the type of weapon being carried.
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This amendment sought to protect citizens from intrusion of their private space in the form of searches and seizures. This is the reason why law enforcement agents need a search warrant to search your premises because if they don’t the evidence collected may not be admissible in court.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
This amendment seeks to protect people against double jeopardy and self-incrimination. This is what is known as “Pleading the fifth” when being cross-examined in court and is applied when the line of questioning may lead to self-incrimination.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
This protects free people and convicts from being subjected to harsh conditions during a judicial process.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The ninth amendments compensates for mans imperfection because the constitution and Bill of Rights are both documents developed by man they are not perfect and not exhaustive. Thus it protects other rights that are not explicitly stated in the documents.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.