United States Constitution

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The signing of the United States Constitution with George Washington , Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton (from right to left in the foreground), by Howard Chandler Christy .

The Constitution of the United States of America ( English United States Constitution ), adopted on 17 September 1787 during the year 1788 ratified , sets the political and legal order of the United States firmly. It provides for a federal republic in the form of a presidential system .

The constitution was drawn up by delegates from twelve of the thirteen founding states of the United States that met at the Philadelphia Convention . It replaced the previously valid articles of confederation and established a strong central power with a president at the top who is both head of state and government. At the same time, it prescribes a separation of powers known as “ checks and balances ” , in which the organs of government, legislation and the judiciary act separately from one another and control one another through far-reaching interconnections. Like the separation of powers, other constitutional principles also arise from political concepts that were developed and disseminated in the Age of Enlightenment , including the Bill of Rights as a binding catalog of fundamental rights and the commitment to justice and law.

The original constitution consists of seven articles. It was supplemented by 27 articles over two centuries, ten of which were added as the Bill of Rights immediately after the constitutional bodies were formed. Of all the Republican constitutions in force today, that of the United States is one of the oldest.



The articles of confederation served as a precursor to the constitution.

During the American War of Independence , the thirteen colonies formed a loose confederation of states under the articles of confederation in 1781 with a weak central government, which consisted only of the continental congress as a permanent assembly, with an average term of office of two years for MPs. The Congress was not allowed to raise taxes and was dependent on the individual states in carrying out its decisions, since it had neither an executive nor a judicial authority at its side. Furthermore, Congress had no influence on import tariffs and other trade barriers between states. The text of the confederation articles could only be changed with the consent of all member states. The states attached little importance to the central government and often did not send any delegates at all, so that the Congress remained without a quorum for long periods of time.

Just five years after the Articles of Confederation had been adopted, representatives from five states met for the Annapolis Convention in September 1786 to discuss the necessary changes to articles - in particular to improve international trade. They decided to convene an assembly of representatives from all member states to work out constitutional amendments. The Continental Congress formally endorsed this plan on February 21, 1787. All states except Rhode Island accepted the invitation and sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention, which began work on May 25, 1787.

Although the Congress decision only provided for the elaboration of changes to the existing confederation articles, the 55 delegates decided instead to draft a new constitution and meet in camera. To explain the delegates' proposals and defend the new constitutional content, Alexander Hamilton , James Madison and John Jay published the Federalist Papers , which to this day are considered important commentaries on the constitution.

One of the sharpest debates during the convention was about the competencies of the new congress and its composition. A proposal presented on May 29 and supported by Madison, known as the Virginia Plan , provided for the creation of a two-chamber parliament whose members should be elected in proportion to the population sizes in the states . The first chamber should elect the deputies of the second. This regulation was intended to reduce the importance of governments in the states for the benefit of their people. At the same time, it was intended to prevent a few countries with a low population from blocking laws that were supported by a majority of the population.

The opposite position arose on June 15 in William Paterson's New Jersey Plan : Congress should continue to exist as before with equal representation of all states, which would favor the small states proportionally, but receive additional powers. Both proposals provided, in the sense of a clear strengthening over the confederation articles, that laws of the Congress should have priority over those of the federal states. The solution was found on June 27 in the Connecticut Compromise , which combined the proportional representation of the Virginia Plan with the equal distribution of the seats of the New Jersey Plan in two separate but equal chambers.

Another long controversial point was the question of what role the executive power should play and who should play it. Different variants, from the individual governor to a kind of government committee, each elected by Congress, were discussed. The delegates, still influenced by the War of Independence, which ended a few years ago, initially rejected a strong national executive due to the proximity to the British monarchy. The idea of ​​a multi-member government with shared competencies was rejected, as was the proposal for an advisory body for the president contained in the Virginia Plan. The agreement was reached on September 4th: states would appoint electors who would elect a president and a vice-president for a four-year term. The President's job would be to enforce the laws and control the Congress through a veto. A direct election of the president was rejected as impractical. This means that (from today's point of view only formally) the strengthening of the states can be recognized again, which have always been free to use the respective legal basis for determining electors, whereby in the beginning the organs of the states delegated their electors directly and when electing the president could throw their own highest interests in the balance.

The interests of the small states should also be safeguarded one more time by casting two equal votes per elector, putting them together with the closed support of one of several opposing candidates in second place, even if they would prefer different hopeless candidates in the first place could be decisive for the election of the president. The small states would also benefit from an election without a winner, as the decision would be shifted to the House of Representatives and, contrary to the basic principle of this chamber, the respective MPs of a state would have to appear as a delegation with only one vote, i.e. all equally. These considerations, however, were based on the assumption that a handful of capable statesmen would usually run against each other on the basis of their abilities only, and turned out to be unusable due to the early development of party politics: the electors were accordingly from their respective party sworn to choose the same two candidates together; a stalemate between two party colleagues was very likely, and considerations of the small states played no role in a system of only two very contrary parties. In 1804 the procedure was limited to one vote for the President and one for the Vice-President, which are not added together.

In 1957, the American Bar Association erected a monument at Runnymede to highlight the importance of the Magna Carta for American law and the constitution.

Many of the other constitutional concepts were based on social ideas from antiquity and government traditions of the British constitutional monarchy . For example, the constitution based its legal understanding directly on Article 39 of the Magna Carta of 1215:

“No free man should be arrested, imprisoned, robbed of his goods, ostracized, banished or otherwise attacked; nor will we do anything else to him, or have him thrown into prison, than by the legal judgment of his own kind, or by the state law. "

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 also served as the source for the constitution's catalog of fundamental rights. The commandment of jury courts , the right to possess weapons and the prohibition of cruel and extraordinary punishment, as set out in the first amendments, go back to this document.

Furthermore, the fathers of the constitution were influenced by the works of Montesquieu , who outlined a system of government based on the separation of powers. The history of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands , which in 1781 had already had a constitution for two centuries, was also significant, although it was not present in a single closed text. So said Benjamin Franklin , "In was the love of liberty and its defense, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands our model," while John Adams noted, the origins of both republics resembled each other so much that the history of a only a copy of the other to seems to be. For some time, the question has been discussed whether the Indians , namely the Iroquois and their tribal constitutions with their sophisticated system of checks and balances , could have had an influence on the US constitution. Benjamin Franklin at least "served the impressive federation of the 'six Iroquois tribes' as a model for the federal concept of the state".

Conclusion and signature

Syng inkstand , the inkwell used by the delegates when the draft constitution was signed

The delegates finished their work on September 17, 1787 with a closing remarks by Benjamin Franklin - Delegate of the State of Pennsylvania . Franklin stated that even the final design was not entirely satisfactory, but that perfection could never be achieved. He supported the new constitution and also asked all critics to adopt it. Franklin was the only founding father of the United States who also signed the Declaration of Independence and the Peace Treaty with the Kingdom of Great Britain prior to the Constitution .

The thirteen states approved the constitution in the following order. The number of votes relates to separately convened ratification assemblies that voted in the respective state.

  date Country be right approval
Yes No
1 December 7, 1787 Delaware 30th 0 100%
2 December 12, 1787 Pennsylvania 46 23 67%
3 December 18, 1787 New Jersey 38 0 100%
4th January 2, 1788 Georgia 26th 0 100%
5 January 9, 1788 Connecticut 128 40 76%
6th February 6, 1788 Massachusetts 187 168 53%
7th April 28, 1788 Maryland 63 11 85%
8th May 23, 1788 South carolina 149 73 67%
9 June 21, 1788 New Hampshire 57 47 55%
10 June 25, 1788 Virginia 89 79 53%
11 July 26, 1788 new York 30th 27 53%
12 November 21, 1789 North Carolina 194 77 72%
13 May 29, 1790 Rhode Island 34 32 52%


The constitution is divided into a preamble and seven articles. The first three articles essentially set out the main features of the separation of powers.


“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. "

“We, the people of the United States, are guided by the purpose of perfecting our covenant, working justice, maintaining domestic calm, providing national defense, promoting the common good and the happiness of freedom ourselves and to preserve our descendants, establish and establish this constitution for the United States of America. "

- Original text of the preamble to the United States Constitution

The preamble to the constitution consists of a single sentence that introduces the document and its purpose. The preamble itself does not confer any power and does not prohibit any actions, but only explains the background and meaning of the constitution. A reference to God is deliberately not found, as the constitution is a purely secular document. The preamble, especially the first three words “We the people”, is one of the most frequently cited sections of the Constitution.

Legislative power (legislature)

The Capitol , seat of the United States Congress

The first article describes the legislative power filled by Congress . At the federal level, the Congress has exclusive legislative powers that may not be delegated to other institutions. His areas of responsibility listed in the constitution include budget and tax law, naturalization law, commercial law, patent and copyright law, the right to declare war and the establishment and maintenance of a standing army. At the same time, the constitution also establishes areas in which Congress has no power to legislate, including the collection of export taxes, the repeal of the habeas corpus , the conviction of individuals without due process, and the conferment of titles of nobility.

The Congress consists of two chambers: a House of Representatives directly elected by the people of the states for two years and a Senate (formerly elected by the parliaments of the states for six years) today elected by the people (17th Amendment) . The minimum requirements to run for a seat in the House of Representatives, i.e. H. for the passive voting rights are a minimum age of 25 years, a permanent resident in the State responsible, and the existence of citizenship for at least seven years. Similar requirements apply to the Senate, but the minimum age here is 30 years and the minimum period for citizenship is nine years.

Elections to the House of Representatives take place in all states, which for this purpose are divided into constituencies based on their population . Each constituency elects a seat in the chamber according to the principle of majority voting . The allocation of seats to the states is carried out by Congress on the basis of a census carried out every ten years by the Census Bureau . Each state has at least one seat. The respective parliament is responsible for the further division of the state into constituencies. Every citizen who is actively eligible to vote in their state to vote for the largest federal chamber of parliament under local laws has the right to vote. The House of Representatives elects a speaker as chairman .

Until the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, the senators were not elected directly but by the state parliaments. Each state has exactly two seats in the Senate. The election is staggered so that a third of the senators are elected every two years. The Vice President of the United States is also the President of the Senate. However, the Chamber also elects a President Pro Tempore , who takes over the chairmanship in day-to-day business. In practice, however, another senator from the party of the President Pro Tempore usually chairs the chair; these are usually relatively newly elected senators who can familiarize themselves with the rules of procedure of the Senate.

The members of the chambers receive compensation for their services from the current budget . Furthermore, they receive political immunity and have absolute freedom of expression in plenary. In terms of the separation of powers, they are not allowed to hold any other state offices or accept them during their term of office.

Both chambers are largely equal and independent. They set their own rules of procedure and decide independently on complaints and exclusions from their members. However, they must always meet together and agree on the beginning and duration of their meeting periods. Likewise, each legislative proposal must be approved in the same form by both chambers before it is submitted to the President for signature. The President has the right to reject adopted laws. The law must then be passed by both chambers with a two-thirds majority in order to lift the president's veto . A dissolution of one or both chambers, for example to bring about new elections, is not possible.

Executive power (executive)

The White House , seat of the President of the United States

The second article defines the office of the President who has executive power. The terms of office of the President and the Vice-President are four years; the constitution did not limit the number of re-elections until the 22nd Amendment passed in 1951. Any citizen can run for president if he or she has been a citizen of the United States since birth , is at least 35 years old, and has been a permanent resident of the United States for at least 14 years.

The election takes place in two stages. First, as many electors are appointed in each state as the state has members in Congress. The states regulate the manner of the appointment independently, the Congress only determines the date of the appointment and the casting of votes. Since 1824, a general election has been held in each state to appoint electors. The electors announce which candidate they will vote for before the election, but are only legally bound by law in 26 states and Washington DC Governorate. The original constitutional text stipulated that the electorate would meet in the capitals of the respective states after their appointment and cast their votes for two candidates. The candidate who received the most votes became President, and the candidate with the next highest number of votes became Vice-President. Only the candidate who received an absolute majority of the votes was elected. If no candidate achieved an absolute majority, the House of Representatives decided. After the presidential election in 1796 , in which candidates from different parties were elected for president and vice-president, and the election of 1800 , in which there was a stalemate between two candidates from the same party, the voting mode was changed by a new amendment. Since then, the electors have separately cast one vote for the President and one vote for the Vice-President, which should avoid similar situations.

If the President resigns prematurely due to death, resignation or lack of ability to exercise office, the Vice President takes over the office. The order of succession to the President in the event that the office of Vice President is vacant can be determined by law by Congress. According to the original text, the office of vice-president remained vacant after his move to the presidency. It was not until 1967 that the constitution was amended so that in this case the president can appoint a new vice-president with the approval of two-thirds of both houses of congress.

As head of state and head of government , the president has extensive powers. He is in command of the armed forces, negotiates treaties with other countries on behalf of the United States and with the approval of the Senate, and appoints ambassadors, ministers, judges, and other officials with the approval of the Senate. The president is required to report the state of the nation to Congress from time to time , may convene one or both houses for a session, and schedule a break if the two houses cannot agree.

In addition, the President is responsible for the implementation of all laws passed by Congress. A cabinet in the sense of a multi-member government is provided by the constitution only insofar as the president has the right to ask the highest officials in writing for their advice. Ministers are not mentioned in the constitution, the ministerial office only developed in government practice. In contrast to other countries, the ministers are directly dependent on the president, have to follow his instructions and can be dismissed by him at any time.

The President, Vice President, and other federal government officials may be removed from office by Congress if they are proven to have committed treason, bribery, or other criminal offenses. The impeachment process must be initiated by a majority in the House of Representatives. For this purpose, concrete accusations are sent to the Senate, the veracity of which the Senators must determine on the basis of the evidence presented. If at least two-thirds of the senators believe the allegations are justified, the official is removed from office.

Judicial power (judiciary)

Seat of the Supreme Court

The third article determines federal jurisdiction . The article calls for the establishment of a Supreme Court and leaves the further development of the judicial system to Congress. Its judges are appointed for life by the President with the approval of the Senate, but can be removed from office by Congress in the event of gross violations.

The division of tasks between federal and state courts depends on the law governing the decision of a case. The federal courts have jurisdiction only in disputes that may arise out of the laws and treaties of the United States, for all cases involving ambassadors, ministers, consuls, or the law of the sea, cases involving the United States or two or more states are involved, and any lawsuit between one state or its citizens and citizens of another state. The Supreme Court only has jurisdiction as first instance if either party is an ambassador, minister, consul, or state. In all other cases, the court examines the decisions of other courts for legal errors only upon request .

The constitutional text does not provide for an explicit constitutional jurisdiction. However, the Supreme Court ruled in the Marbury v. Madison that he has the scrutiny right to declare federal laws unconstitutional and thus void. This principle was extended in the further case law to the laws of the federal states and has become a constitutional tradition, so that one can speak of a relatively high examination density. The examination of legislation can only take place in the context of a specific legal dispute. There is no abstract control of norms or a general check after the legislative process.

Criminal trials must be conducted with the help of a jury in the state where the crime was committed. The constitution also defines treason as an act that either leads to war against the United States or aids the country's enemies. A conviction is only possible if the act was seen by at least two witnesses or a confession is available. The conviction could not affect the offspring of the convict, as was previously possible under English law.

Federal structure

The fourth article regulates the relationship between the federal government and the states and between the states. In this article, the mutual recognition obligations found, for example ( english full faith and credit ) of legal acts and the prohibition of discrimination against citizens of other states. For example, an Arizona citizen in Ohio cannot be punished differently for the same offense than a local citizen.

On the other hand, the states are obliged to mutual legal assistance, to guarantee the general freedom of movement of all citizens and to maintain a republican form of government . This article also defines the steps necessary to create and add new states. In addition, Congress is given the power to independently dispose and use state-owned land and to pass laws for territories that do not belong to a state. The article also obliges the federal government to protect the states against invasions .

Constitutional amendments

Schematic representation of the constitutional amendment procedure

The fifth article sets out a comparatively complicated procedure for changing the constitution. On the one hand, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention assumed that the constitution could not last long without the possibility of amendment. It was foreseeable that the country would expand significantly, especially towards the west, and that circumstances could arise that were not foreseeable at the time of the constitutional convention. On the other hand, they also wanted to ensure that such changes were not too easy and prevent the implementation of ill-considered or hasty proposals. To balance these two goals and also to allow greater flexibility, unanimity , which prevailed in the articles of confederation, was replaced by a qualified majority. The panel created two different ways in which constitutional amendments can be proposed.

On the one hand, proposals for changes can be introduced directly by Congress, and on the other hand, Congress can convene a new constitutional convention at the request of at least two thirds of the states. In both cases, the changes that have been worked out would have to be submitted to Congress for approval, whereby the second variant of a constitutional convention, which in the end also requires the approval of the Congress Chambers, has proven to be extremely cumbersome compared to direct drafting by the Congress and has never been used.

To be valid as an official constitutional amendment, a proposal requires the approval of at least two-thirds of the votes in both chambers of congress. The changes then have to be ratified in three quarters of the states by the respective parliament or an assembly specially elected for this purpose; the congress determines whether or not special assemblies are to be elected, whereby in practice the state parliaments have established themselves as sufficient representatives. A veto by the governor of a state is not intended, but has been used by some governors in the course of history and has never had to be constitutionally clarified before the Supreme Court due to the achievement or failure of a three-quarter majority of states . Since the constitution does not contain any stipulations by when the approval of three-quarters of the states must be received, more recent amendments usually contain a time limit of seven years, the validity of which is, however, controversial. For example, proposed amendments are sometimes ratified by one state or another decades later.

There is no restriction with regard to the content of such changes, similar to the eternity clause in the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany , with the following exception: The equal representation of the federal states in the Senate can only be changed with the consent of all federal states concerned. For example, an amendment to the constitution with the aim of redistributing votes in the Senate according to population size would only be possible with the consent of all states.

In contrast to the constitutions of many other states, the new text is not incorporated into the old one, but appended at the end. This became a tradition after the passage of the Bill of Rights , the content of which follows the original constitutional text in the form of ten new articles. Provisions that have become obsolete due to such additional articles (in the original text or in earlier additional articles) are usually placed in square brackets in print editions.

Legal structure and transitional provisions

The sixth article states that the Constitution, statutes, and treaties that have the rank of statute constitute the highest law of the United States. This clause has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that federal laws must be subject to the constitution and unconstitutional laws are void. As a transitional provision, the article also stipulates that the debts of the Continental Congress will continue to exist even after the constitution has been ratified. The article also requires all MPs, senators, federal officials, and judges to take an oath of office on the constitution.


The seventh article finally contains prerequisites for the successful ratification of the Constitution. The draft was only to become legally binding after at least nine states had given their approval in special meetings. It did so on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to accept the Constitution. When the Continental Congress learned of the result of the vote, a transitional plan was drawn up under which the new government could begin its work on March 4, 1789.

Further development

The constitution has seen only 18 changes in more than 200 years since it was ratified. Since 1787 it has been expanded to include 27 additional articles (amendments) and its meaning and interpretation have been adapted to the changing historical circumstances through fundamental judgments by the Supreme Court. The self-image of the court as guardian of the constitution, which in the early years did not represent a consensus and the court decided on judgments such as Marbury vs. Madison (1803) himself had to work out, allows him to draw up binding interpretations of the constitution for other courts. Since such cases always reflect the current legal, political, economic and social circumstances, there is a pragmatic possibility of changing the constitution through judicial law instead of changing the actual text. Over the past two centuries, legal cases dealing with subjects as diverse as the rights of defendants in criminal trials or state regulation of radio and television have repeatedly resulted in changes in the interpretation of a section of the Constitution without a formal constitutional amendment as a basis.

Federal laws passed by Congress to implement the constitutional provisions expand and modify the interpretation of the constitution in just as subtle ways. The same applies to a large number of administrative ordinances that are issued in relation to constitutional provisions. The constitutional significance of such laws and ordinances is finally checked and determined in the sense of common law by the federal courts within the framework of permanent case law and with reference to precedents in favor of the most consistent case law possible.

18th century

The Bill of Rights , the constitution's catalog of fundamental rights

In the first session of Congress, James Madison proposed a catalog of fundamental rights to be added to the constitution. The catalog was created in response to criticism expressed in particular by certain states and important historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson . Above all, they complained that the strong national government could turn into a tyranny without further constitutional restrictions.

Twelve amendments were combined to form the Bill of Rights and submitted to the states for ratification by Congress in September 1789. Ten of the twelve articles had been ratified by a sufficient number of states by December 1791 and have been part of the constitution ever since. One of the two remaining articles remained unratified until Alabama's approval in 1992 and is now known as the 27th Amendment . It determines that resolutions of the Congress to increase one's own diet can only come into effect after the next election. The second proposed article, which could theoretically still be ratified, deals with the redistribution of seats in the House of Representatives after each census. Kentucky is the last state to ratify this article since 1792.

The first amendment grants freedom of expression and assembly as well as the right to petition . This article prohibits the introduction of a state religion by Congress and protects individual religious freedom .

The meaning of the second amendment is highly controversial as it relates to American gun law and, unlike the other amendments, has only been used extremely rarely by the Supreme Court. The article first speaks of the need for well-regulated / organized militias, before referring to the fact that the right to arms cannot be abolished. To what extent the ability to set up citizen militias or reserves is either transferable to the entire population or has meanwhile become obsolete, and to what extent access to weapons can be restricted or regulated, especially at state and municipal, but also at federal level, in compliance with fundamental law Subject of fierce debate. In 2008, the District of Columbia v. Heller decided for the first time in its history that the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to individual gun possession. Until then, the United States v. Miller of 1939 applied that the article only protects the possession of military weapons from an organized militia. Still, there are states and, even more so, major cities that continue to enforce harsh gun laws.

The third amendment prohibits the government from billeting soldiers in private housing without the consent of the owners. As in the case of the second amendment, there are few decisions that interpreted this article. So far, he has never been heard in the Supreme Court.

The fourth amendment prevents government searches, arrests and seizures without a judicial order. The exception is the legitimate assumption that a criminal offense has been committed (probable cause) . The Supreme Court derived from this article and others in the Griswold v. Connecticut has a general right to the protection of privacy, which has been comprehensively interpreted in further case law as a right to an abortion .

The fifth Amendment allows criminal trials for crimes only because of a charge ( english indictment ) by a grand jury , the multiple charges for the same offense and the imposition of penalties prohibits without proper court process ( due process ) . It constitutes a right to refuse to give evidence for the accused. This article also states that private property cannot be expropriated by the state without compensation.

The sixth, seventh and eighth amendments regulate the federal judicial system. The sixth amendment requires that criminal trials must take place at an appropriate speed (speedy trial) , that the accused have the right to a jury trial and legal counsel , and that the witnesses must be heard in the presence of the accused. The seventh amendment gives the right to a jury trial for civil litigation over $ 20. Finally, the eighth amendment prohibits disproportionate bail and fines, and cruel and unusual punishments. In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled on the Miranda v. Arizona that all suspects should be read aloud to their rights under the fifth and sixth amendments prior to questioning or arrest. This has since been referred to as Miranda Rights .

The ninth amendment explains that the listed civil rights should not be interpreted as exhaustive and that the population has other rights that are not listed in the constitution. The right to privacy is seen by many as such a right. Few cases before the Supreme Court have referred to this article.

The 10th Amendment states that powers not explicitly assigned to the federal government by the constitution or taken away from the states remain with the states and their people. This was to strike a balance between the federal government, states, and the people. In fact, this additional article no longer has any legal significance since the Supreme Court in the Garcia v. The San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority has determined that questions regarding this article will no longer be answered by jurisdiction.

The Eleventh Amendment limits the jurisdiction of federal courts over actions brought by citizens of one state against another. The article was in response to the Chisholm v. Georgia , where the Supreme Court ruled that states could be sued in federal courts by citizens of other states.

19th century

The 15th Amendment gave former slaves the right to vote.

The 1800 presidential election sparked a four-month constitutional crisis when both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received 73 votes in the Electoral College . In the event of a tie, the original constitutional text stipulated that the House of Representatives should determine which of the two candidates would become president. The losing candidate would serve as vice president. The crisis could only be ended after 35 post-election rounds, from which Jefferson emerged victorious. The amendment proposed in the 12th Amendment provided that electors should in future cast one vote for the President and one vote for the Vice-President separately. The article came into force in 1804 in time for the upcoming next presidential election.

As a result of the Civil War , three amendments were passed, all of which dealt with the slave problem in the United States. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865 and explicitly gave Congress the right to enforce its abolition. The 14th Amendment redefined citizenship law in 1868. From now on, everyone born in the United States automatically had full citizenship. At the same time, the article prohibits the withdrawal of individual rights and privileges without due process; this broad clause has become one of the most powerful in the entire constitution, and dozens of decisions by the Supreme Court refer to it. Finally, the article contains a general principle of equal treatment, which was of particular importance in the 20th century during the civil rights movement . The 15th Amendment in 1870 ruled that restricting the right to vote based on race, skin color, or previous slave status was against the constitution.

Turn of the century to the First World War

The constitution was amended in the 16th Amendment in 1913 to give Congress the right to levy a general income tax. Until 1913, the federal government was dependent on income from import duties and certain consumption taxes. Attempts by Congress to introduce a general income tax failed several times before the constitutional amendment at the Supreme Court, for example in 1895 in the Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co.

Also in 1913, the 17th Amendment was proposed to change the way senatorial elections were made. The original constitutional text stipulated that the senators would be appointed by the state parliaments. During the 19th century, Oregon and several other states used their legislative powers to elect their senators by popular vote. By 1912, 29 states had implemented this procedure. The constitutional amendment, approved a year later, provided for all senators to be directly elected by the population of the states. The right to appoint a substitute in the event of a senator's resignation, death, or removal from office has been transferred to state governors.

Women's suffrage was introduced in 1919 with the 19th Amendment.

In the course of the Progressive Era , Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1919, which banned the production, sale, transport, import and export of alcoholic beverages. Congress and states were responsible for enforcing the ban. The 21st Amendment , passed 13 years later, repealed alcohol prohibition and returned regulatory powers over alcoholic beverages to the states. The 21st Amendment was the only one that, because of its urgency, has been ratified by specially elected assemblies instead of the national parliaments.

Another concern of the Progressives was women's suffrage . The Constitution originally provided that in elections to Congress and the President, everyone who is actively eligible to vote for the largest Chamber of Parliament in their state has the right to vote. This left the states free to legally exclude groups from voting. The constitution was changed as early as 1870 to prohibit race, skin color and former slave status as exclusion criteria. Despite initial opposition from President Woodrow Wilson , gender was added as a forbidden exclusionary feature with the 19th Amendment .

Great Depression to World War II

Franklin D. Roosevelt, four-time President 1933–1945

By the global economic crisis triggered the Great Depression was the decisive election issue during the presidential 1932 election . The incumbent President Herbert Hoover spoke out against state influence and unsuccessfully relied on American individualism and "natural" economic improvement. Franklin D. Roosevelt won the election in November 1932 with 89% of the vote in the Electoral College , but was only able to take office on March 4, 1933 due to the provisions of the constitution. At the same time, Hoover had little political backing, so that government business effectively came to a standstill. A similar critical situation existed before in 1861, when several southern states left the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln , but Lincoln was not able to react to it as president until March. The 20th Amendment , ratified in 1933 , therefore stipulates that the inauguration should take place on January 20th of the year after the election. At the same time, the article canceled the provision that the MPs and senators in office before the election had to meet again for a compulsory session.

Until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment , the constitution contained no limit on how often a president could be re-elected, even if re-election at most once was tradition. President Franklin Roosevelt broke this convention during the 1940 presidential election in the shadow of the just broken out World War II . Roosevelt was able to rely on broad popular support and won the election with 55% of the direct vote and 85% of the vote in the Electoral College . Another re-election was Roosevelt at the height of World War II in 1944, but he died a few months later of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 63, putting the United States in the crucial final phase of the war and in negotiations with Stalin with an unforeseen Faced leadership changes. After the end of the war, the newly elected Congress set itself the goal of restoring tradition and limiting the number of possible re-elections. The constitutional amendment sets the term of office to a maximum of eight years. Vice-presidents who obtained the office of president without being elected and who held office for less than two years are excluded from this.

Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War

The 25th Amendment has governed the succession of the President since 1965.

According to Article II of the Constitution, the president is elected by electors chosen by each state. No right to vote was provided for residents of the District of Columbia , any more than for the other non-state territories of the United States. The 23rd Amendment , ratified in 1961, changed these regulations and gave the administrative district as many electors as the least populous federal state. In Congress, however, the district is still only represented by a non-voting representative.

In order to circumvent the prohibition on restricting the right to vote for blacks based on their skin color, as set out in the 15th Amendment, a number of states have started to impose poll taxes on all citizens. Failure to pay these taxes resulted in the loss of the right to vote. The relevant laws usually contained a regulation that exempted anyone from paying the tax whose ancestors were eligible to vote in a certain year prior to the war of civilization. The mostly very high taxes were in fact only collected from former slaves and immigrants, the practical consequence was their exclusion from the election. The 24th Amendment banned these taxes in 1962 during the civil rights movement .

In contrast to parliamentary systems of government , the United States constitution does not provide for the possibility of electing a new Congress or a new president outside of the fixed election dates. As a consequence, the succession plan in the event of resignation, incapacity or death of the President or Vice President had to be regulated comparatively extensively, as happened in 1965, under the impression of the Cold War and the Kennedy murder, with the 25th Amendment . The article stipulates that the vice-president moves up to the office of president if it is vacant; In the event that both offices are vacant, Congress can enact a statutory regulation. Today this provides that the parliamentary presidents and the federal ministers move up in a fixed order, so that there is a total of more than 20 persons who move up. At the same time, the President is granted the right, with the consent of both Houses of Congress, to appoint a new Vice-President if this post is temporarily vacant. In addition to the succession plan, the article provides that the president can declare his temporary incapacity. Likewise, with the approval of Congress, a majority of the cabinet can decide that the President is incapable of office. In both cases, the vice president takes over the business of government until the president either declares his authority, resigns, is removed from office or dies.

The provisions of the 25th Amendment were applied shortly after its adoption, when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned due to a political scandal in 1973 and President Richard Nixon appointed Gerald Ford as his new Vice President. With Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate affair in 1974, Ford became president and appointed Nelson Rockefeller vice president. The article is also used when the president has to undergo lengthy medical treatment, such as surgery, as in the case of Presidents Ronald Reagan in 1985 and George W. Bush in 2005.

Most states gave you the right to vote at age 21, and a few at 20 or 19 years of age. During the Vietnam War , some politicians, including several congressmen and President Lyndon B. Johnson , advocated that all conscripts should be eligible to vote; compulsory military service was valid from the age of eighteen. The reason was that the young soldiers' lack of the right to vote in anti-war protests was often cited as a justification for civil disobedience. The 26th Amendment , prohibiting age exclusion for those over the age of 18, was passed by Congress in 1971 and came into force that same year.

Failed changes

Since 1789, over 10,000 proposals for constitutional amendments have been submitted to Congress; in the last few decades there have been between 200 and 300 such proposals per session. Very few survived the committee work and were passed by Congress. The procedure for convening a constitutional convention has also been used a few times, but so far without success. In two cases - a proposal to reorganize the distribution of seats in 1960 and a proposal to limit national debt in the 1970s and 1980s - only two states were missing the majority required for a constitutional convention.

Of the 33 constitutional amendments that Congress submitted to the states for ratification, six failed because of the majority threshold, of which four could theoretically still be accepted. Since the 18th Amendment, every proposal, except for the 19th and unratified articles on child labor, has included an explicit time limit on ratification.

Major Events in the History of the Constitution

The following proposals are still pending ratification:

  • The Congressional Apportionment Amendment , proposed by the First Congress on September 25, 1789, was intended to establish a formula for determining the number of seats in the House of Representatives after each census. This proposal does not contain any time limit and could theoretically still be included in the constitution. However, the formula described is obsolete because it would only work with a population of up to ten million, a number the United States long ago exceeded.
  • The Titles of Nobility Amendment was proposed by the eleventh Congress on May 1, 1810 and would have automatically revoked citizenship from any American citizen accepting a foreign title of honor or nobility. Some believe that this proposal has actually been ratified by enough states and that it is not considered final because of a conspiracy. Other states can also agree to this application.
  • The Corwin Amendment , passed by the 36th Congress on March 2, 1861, would have prohibited the federal government from proposing constitutional amendments for the purpose of "interfering in, or abolishing, the internal institutions of the states," primarily to maintain slavery. Only two states ( Ohio and Maryland ) ratified it before the Civil War ; a third ratification by Illinois is controversial. Again, this proposal does not contain any time limit, but its provisions would probably be considered irrelevant due to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment.
  • The 68th Congress on June 2, 1924 tabled a motion without a time limit to enable the federal government to regulate child labor. This proposal to expand the constitution has since become obsolete, as the Supreme Court has since assigned this competence to Congress under existing constitutional law.
  • The Equal Rights Amendment , which provided equality between the sexes, was proposed by the 92nd Congress on March 22, 1972. It was ratified by 35 states and expired on June 30, 1982, as the threshold at that point was 38 - three quarters of the 50 states.
  • The District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment , which would have treated the county as a state for the purpose of distributing seats in Congress, was passed by the 95th Congress on August 22, 1978. The proposal expired on August 22, 1985 because only 16 states had ratified it.


While a fundamental criticism of the constitution is rarely voiced in professional circles, there are individual components that have repeatedly led to sometimes very heated political and social discussions.

Electoral College

The indirect mode of election for the offices of President and Vice-President was highly controversial at the time of the Constitutional Convention and has been a topic again and again in the last elections. For example, it is criticized that the electors elected by the population are not bound by their election promise and that a candidate who received fewer votes than another candidate can still win the election, as has happened five times so far ( Donald Trump / Hillary Clinton 2016, George W. Bush / Al Gore 2000 , Benjamin Harrison / Grover Cleveland 1888 , Rutherford B. Hayes / Samuel J. Tilden 1876 , John Quincy Adams / Andrew Jackson 1824 ). The latter is due to the majority voting system in almost all states, according to which all votes of a state go to the candidate who receives the majority within the state in the election of the electors.

freedom of speech

Compared to other countries, freedom of expression in the United States has been very liberal since the middle of the 20th century. In principle, Congress and the states have no right to restrict freedom of expression by law. The only exceptions to this are defamation, perjury and treason and in areas outside the public domain; the expression of extremist political opinions, on the other hand, is consistently permitted if there is no direct call for concrete acts of violence. This freedom of movement has led to conflict in the 1990s, when the Supreme Court banned flag desecration by burning in the Texas v. Johnson was ruled unconstitutional and Congress then unsuccessfully tried to overturn the sentence through new legislation. A proposal for a constitutional amendment to that effect has always failed in the Senate.

Unitary Executive

A “unitary executive” is an interpretation of the constitution which assumes a unified and complete executive power in the office of the president and regards cuts in his powers by courts or the congress as unconstitutional. The theory follows from the first sentence of the second article:

"The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America"

"The executive power rests with the President of the United States of America."

From this it is deduced, among other things, that the President is at the head of the entire federal government including all subordinate authorities and can act independently, especially in personnel decisions. Public officials appointed by him therefore work in his place and on the basis of the powers he has delegated, which he can revoke at any time. From this it is concluded that Congress should not create executive agencies outside the control of the President. From a legal point of view, the principle arises that one executive authority cannot sue another, since in such cases the president would be both plaintiff and defendant.

The theory became particularly explosive in the course of the Watergate affair , when President Nixon tried to prevent the publication of tapes that were incriminating him. He ordered incumbent Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson to dismiss Archibald Cox , chief investigator responsible for the break-in at the Watergate Hotel , and to appoint a new one. Richardson refused to obey and stepped back. When his deputy William Ruckelshaus also refused, Nixon dismissed him and appointed the solicitor General Robert Bork as acting Minister of Justice, who followed Nixon's instructions and dismissed Cox.

President George W. Bush has taken this theory as the basis for providing certain laws with a signing statement when they are signed, in which he expresses his view of how the law should be carried out.

Basic readings

Many legal scholars in the United States have a latent debate among themselves about the interpretation of the Constitution, the core question of which is the intentions of the authors of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, and how those intentions are dealt with today. The attitude of a lawyer is of political importance when he is nominated by the President as a judge for the Supreme Court, since his legal position also allows limited conclusions to be drawn about his political position. This affects highly controversial issues such as abortion and the limits to freedom of expression in the United States. In the course of time, several schools of thought have established how the constitution is to be handled in principle. In addition to legal studies, the interpretative debate also includes findings from historical studies, moral philosophy and research on the English language.


The originalism (English: Originalism , from the Latin: originis to German: "descent", "origin") measures the original intention of the fathers of the Constitution great importance to and always tried to reconstruct it in assessing constitutional questions. Originalists not only include the constitutional text itself in their decision-making process, but also all documents that were written in the course of its creation. This includes not only notes, speech manuscripts and marginal notes from the participants in the Philadelphia Convention , but also, for example, the federalist articles. The acting judge at the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas and the Associate Justice at the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia, who died on February 13, 2016, are considered prominent representatives of originalism .


The school of thought, which advocates a verbatim interpretation of the constitution, operates under the term textualism, also known as literalism in English . She rejects the inclusion of the documented development process and external comments such as the federalist articles. When it comes to handling the wording, the adherents of textualism are divided. While some relate the meaning of the wording to the use of the English language at the time of drafting, others advocate an interpretation according to English as it is used today.


For a contemporary interpretation of the Constitution of the United States occurs functionalism (functionalism) one, who is also under the terms instrumentalism (instrumentalism) or structuralism (structuralism) is known. He considers an interaction between the wording of the constitution and legal practice to be given and rejects the literal streams of interpretation as subjective .


Doctrinalism (doctrinalism) is based on the historical developmental steps of constitutional reality . On the basis of stare decisis , a method recognized in case law proceeds to regard judgments and decisions of previous chief judges as binding, unless the conditions for such a decision have changed.


In contextualism (contextualism) the intention of the founding fathers plays a role, but their political foresight is questioned in contrast to originalism. Contextualists relativize the importance of the authors of the constitution and try to place their regulations in the historical context. Their intentions should be taken into account, but not applied to today's cases in a way that is perceived as obstructive. The advocates of this view also speak of a living constitution, ie a "living constitution" that is not "trapped in the past like an insect in amber".

Application examples

In teaching and research, the different readings are weighed against one another using recurring examples. For example, the constitution provides for the formation of land and naval forces and the existence of militias , but the participants in the Philadelphia Convention were not familiar with aviation. Therefore, representatives of a particularly literal interpretation of the constitution doubt the existence of the air force as an independent armed forces and demand their decentralization.

See also


Web links

Commons : United States Constitution  - collection of pictures, videos, and audio files

National Archives

Official government sites

Unofficial sites

Individual evidence

  1. Website ( Memento of the original from December 6, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. of the United States Government Printing Office - The oldest is the Constitution of the Republic of San Marino , which came into effect in 1600. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.gpoaccess.gov
  2. ^ Charles Thompson: Journals of the Continental Congress. 1787, accessed June 23, 2007 .
  3. James Madison: The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. September 4, 1787, accessed June 23, 2007 .
  4. “Nullus liber homo capiatur, vel imprisonetur, aut disseisiatur, aut utlagetur, aut exuletur, aut aliquo modo destruatur, nec super eum ibimus, nec super eum mittemus, nisi per legal judicium parium suorum vel per legem terre.”
    Magna Carta Libertatum, original text , German translation
  5. ^ "In love of liberty and in the defense of it, [the Republic of the United Provinces] has been our example" - Dutch-American Heritage Day. Embassy of the Netherlands in Washington DC, accessed June 23, 2007 .
  6. ^ "The originals of the two Republics are so much alike that the history of one seems but a transcript from that of the other" - John Adams: Memorial to Their High Mightinesses, the States-General of the United Provinces of the Low Countries. April 19, 1781. Retrieved May 29, 2019 .
  7. See quote from a review on Aug. 8, 2005 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thomas Wagner: " Iroquois and Democracy - A Contribution to the Sociology of Intercultural Communication ", in a reading instruction from the web culture magazine Perlentaucher , o. Date
  8. James Madison, The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. (No longer available online.) September 17, 1787, archived from the original on August 6, 2007 ; Retrieved June 23, 2007 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.yale.edu
  9. Steve Mount: Ratification Dates and Votes. In: The US Constitution Online. March 15, 2006, accessed June 23, 2007 .
  10. Original spelling , with the capitalization of nouns , which is unusual in the English language today .
  11. Steve Mount: Q144. "When changes are made to the Constitution, is anything added to the original document to show that something has been changed or is now being omitted?" In: The US Constitution Online. April 22, 2007, accessed June 23, 2007 .
  12. Harry Blackmun: GARCIA v. SAN ANTONIO METRO. TRANSIT AUTH., 469 US 528 (1985). February 19, 1985, accessed June 23, 2007 .
  13. ^ Ellis Katz: The American Electoral College. (No longer available online.) Archived from the original on June 18, 2007 ; Retrieved June 23, 2007 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / usinfo.state.gov
  14. Flag-burning amendment fails by a vote. CNN, June 28, 2006, accessed June 23, 2007 .
  15. Steven G. Calabresi, Kevin H. Rhodes: The Structural Constitution: Unitary Executive, Plural Judiciary . In Harvard Law Review . Vol. 105, No. 6, 1992, p. 1165.
  16. ↑ In spite of the extensive headlines, only on constitutional issues, including federalism.
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on June 18, 2007 in this version .