Understanding the Constitution

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The government of the United States is based upon written documents that were approved by delegates of the citizens of each colony or state. The first document in the history of the American government is the Declaration of Independence. The thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the war for freedom from Great Britain, the colonies banded together under a government ruled by a document written in 1777 called the Articles of Confederation. After the war, the Articles of Confederation defined the government of the new country.

American leaders quickly discovered that the government under the Articles of Confederation did not work well. Leaders from each of the former colonies met in Philadelphia in 1787 and voted to change the Articles of Confederation. The result of the meeting was the Constitution of the United States which continues to be the foundation of American government. The Constitution was ratified in 1788. Ratified means approved.

However, a number of American leaders did not think that the Constitution as originally written gave enough rights to American citizens. These leaders remembered the oppressive actions of Great Britain in ruling the colonies and wanted to ensure that the new government was not allowed to repeat some of these actions. By 1791 all the states ratified ten amendments to the original Constitution. The first ten amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. For example, the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Other amendments to the Constitution are important to how American government operates. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that were adopted between 1865 and 1870 after the Civil War guaranteed civil rights to citizens. The Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment declared that former slaves were U.S. citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment is known as the voting rights amendment which said men of any race could vote. Yet it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920 that women were allowed to vote. The Seventeenth Amendment said that Senators should be elected by citizens instead of appointed by officials.