Howard Chandler Christy/The Indian Reporter

Civics in Action
August 2020

The Constitution



By Rebecca Zissou

Making America’s Rules

5-Minute Guide to the U.S. Constitution

How the U.S. Constitution came to be—and what it means for you

More than 230 years after our nation’s leaders signed the U.S. Constitution, the document continues to affect the lives of Americans—including you!

In the scorching-hot summer of 1787, American leaders gathered in a cramped room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Worried that spies might listen in, they closed the windows and doors. The air was stuffy and smelled like sweat.

But the 55 men had bigger things to worry about than the stink. A few years earlier, the United States had won its freedom from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Now it was time to create what would become the nation’s most important document—the U.S. Constitution.

A constitution is a set of rules for how a nation will be run. In 1787, the U.S. was a new country. Coming up with rules to run it wasn’t easy. The men often disagreed on what to include in the Constitution.

On September 17, 1787, our nation’s founders created a document that still shapes Americans’ lives. That day, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, signed the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It set up our federal, or national, government, as well as the government’s relationship with the states and citizens. Amendments—which were added later—spell out important changes, including guarantees of Americans’ rights. Read on for an overview of the Constitution and how it works.

Library of Congress

Deciding on a Plan

Creating Our Government

By the fall, they had a plan. They would set up a government with three branches, or parts. The president, the Congress, and the Supreme Court would each lead a branch. Each branch would be separate and have its own responsibilities. But they would share power and work together to run the nation. In addition, each branch would be able to check, or limit, the power of the other branches. Click here to learn more about the three branches of government.

American colonists won independence from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). After the war, leaders from the 13 original states worked to establish a country whose federal government had limited power.

On May 25, 1787, delegates from most states met in Philadelphia for what became known as the Constitutional Convention. The delegates—including George Washington, who went on to become the nation’s first president, and James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution because of his key role—debated for nearly four months. Finally, 39 of the 55 delegates signed a newly written Constitution.

Help Is Just Upstairs

How to Read the Constitution

After the leaders agreed on the rules, they still faced one challenge. Someone had to write them all down! Luckily, an office worker named Jacob Shallus was upstairs. He had fought in the Revolutionary War. Now he agreed to help his nation again.

Shallus had just 40 hours to take rough drafts and notes from the meeting and copy them into one document. He used a goose feather dipped in ink as a pen. When he made a mistake, he scraped the ink off the parchment with a knife. (Parchment is a material made from animal skin that people used to write on.)

The document has three main sections. Here’s a breakdown of each part:

  • Preamble: This introduction describes the purpose of the document and the government.
  • Articles: Seven articles establish how the government is structured and how the Constitution can be changed.
  • Amendments: The Constitution has a total of 27 amendments. The first 10, added in 1791, are known as the Bill of Rights. (Learn more about your First Amendment rights.)

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A National Treasure

Separation of Powers

On September 17, 1787, most of the leaders signed the Constitution. Soon the U.S. government was up and running.

Today, you can see the Constitution on display in Washington, D.C. And every September 17, we celebrate this national treasure on Constitution Day.

The framers of the Constitution envisioned a country in which no single person or group could hold too much power. As a result, the Constitution established three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch is separate and has its own responsibilities. In addition, each branch can check the power of the other branches.

This system of “checks and balances” is considered one of the most effective models of government in world history. Launch the slideshow below to learn more about how each of the three branches operates—and how the three work together to govern our nation. Click here to learn more about the three branches of government.