Lesson 1 - The U.S. Constitution
Before the U.S. Constitution was written, America was simply a federation of self-governing states operating under a framework that was known as the "Articles of Confederation." This was the first initial government adopted after the states declared their independence from Great Britain. The 13 states that made up the "United States" did not want a strong central government. Because of this, the Articles of Confederation set up a Federal government with very limited powers and let each state retain its own sovereignty, freedom, and independence.
This structure had many weaknesses. The limited power of the Federal government made it too weak to be able to govern effectively. The Federal government could not regulate trade. States engaged in tariff wars, nearly crippling trade between the states. The Federal government could not levy taxes, which meant it had to ask the states for the money that it needed to operate. Many times, the states refused to fund the Federal government, leaving it unable to pay off its debts and its soldiers. At this time, the Federal government only consisted of a Congress. The Congress could not pass legislation on any major issue without the agreement of 9 of the 13 states and it could not amend the Articles of Confederation unless all 13 states agreed. The Federal government could not function properly because of all these problems. Finally, the Congress called for a Constitutional Convention to revise the Articles and give more power to the Federal government.
Between May and September of 1787, the Constitutional Convention met and wrote the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution of the United States set up a Federal Republic system of government. A Federal system divides the power to govern between the national government and the state government.
The U.S. Constitution gave states the power to set up their own governments and write their own constitutions. This arrangement let the national government exercise power over some issues and let the state government exercise power over other issues. This dividing of power is one of the basic characteristics of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution also called for a separation of powers. A separation of powers is the idea that government powers are divided among different branches. Each branch has its own separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility. The U.S. Constitution created three separate branches of government -- the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. Each of the three branches have "checks and balances" on the powers of the other two branches. This prevents any one branch from becoming too powerful and achieving absolute rule over the government.