Facts about the Constitution

Background: Ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation served as the governing document for the new nation. There was only one branch of government--the legislative--under the Articles, and all states had to approve any amendments to the Articles. These and other problems led Congress to establish a Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia to improve the Articles of Confederation.

Constitutional Convention: Instead of amending or changing the Articles of Confederation, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention rewrote the Articles and created a new Constitution. Thirty-nine of the delegates signed the new Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Three fourths or nine of the states were required to ratify or approve the Constitution. Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution on December 7, 1787. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution in June 1788.

Bill of Rights: James Madison proposed several amendments or changes to the Constitution. These amendments focused on basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech. Ten of these amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were approved by the states. Today there are 27 amendments to the Constitution. Changing the Constitution through an amendment requires the approval of three fourths of the states. The United States Constitution is the oldest enduring written national Constitution.

Organization: The Constitution includes an introduction, called the Preamble, followed by several divisions known as Articles. The first Article gives the power to make laws to the House of Representatives and the Senate. The second Article gives the President executive power. The third Article gives the courts judicial power and makes the Supreme Court the final court of appeal for federal and state courts. Other Articles focus on the relationships between the states and procedures for changing or amending the Constitution.