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Government information resources from the United States government and the State of California

About the Constitution of the United States

Image of the first page of the U.S. ConstitutionThe Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land in the United States of America and is the world's longest surviving charter of government. It replaced the Articles of Confederation which served as the United States' first constitution. The Articles of Confederation gave the Confederation Congress the power to make rules and request funds from the states, but it had no enforcement powers and could not regulate commerce or print money.  The states’ also had disputes over territory, taxation, and trade which the Confederation Congress was unable to control. Finally, in 1787, Daniel Shays led four thousand rebels in an unsuccessful attempt to seize weaponry at the Springfield Armory and overthrow the government. The weak federal government found itself unable to finance troops to put down the rebellion which was eventually put down by the Massachusetts State militia and a privately funded local militia. Shay's Rebellion demonstrated the weakness of the federal government and the problems with the Articles of Confederation. This led Congress to organize a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. The Constitutional Convention, therefore, was originally intended to revise the Articles of Confederation, but from the beginning individuals such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wanted to create a new system of government. The Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787. The Constitutional Convention resulted in the creation of a new frame of government, The Constitution of the United States. 

On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates signed the Constitution with George Reed signing for John Dickinson of Delaware, who was absent. The Constitution is composed of seven articles which establish the powers of the branches of the federal government and the rights and responsibilities of the state governments. The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788 and went into effect on March 4, 1789. 

As stated previously, the Constitution is composed of seven articles. The first three articles of the Constitution establish the separation of powers doctrine and divides the federal government into three separate branches: the executive, the judicial, and the legislative. Article I establishes the legislative branch of the federal government with a bicameral Congress. Article II establishes the executive branch and the powers of the president. Article III establishes the judicial branch and the Supreme Court of the United States. Article IV establishes the relationship between states and the relationship between the state governments and the federal government.  Article V describes the process for amending the Constitution. Article VI establishes the supremacy clause of the Constitution which articulates that when state law is in conflict with federal law the federal law preempts state law. Article VII establishes the ratification process of the Constitution. Twenty-seven amendments have also been made to the Constitution. The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights outlines personal freedoms and rights and limitations on the government's power in judicial proceedings. The Tenth Amendment also establishes that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people. 

Check out the rest of our guide to the Constitution of the United States for fun facts, resources, and information. We also have an interactive timeline of the Constitution which provides information about specific moments in United States history and information about some of the most important amendments to the Constitution. The interactive timeline also links to resources available in the CSU Stanislaus University Library. 

United States Constitution Resources