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Focus Questions: What are the three branches of the United States government as outlined by the Constitution? What are their functions and relationships? What features of the Constitution were unique at the time (e.g., the presidency and the independent judiciary)?

Many people think that the Constitution was adopted July 4th, 1776. However, that was the date the Declaration of Independence was signed. Before we even had the Constitution, the United States used the Articles of Confederation as the law of the land. When it became clear that the Articles were failing, a convention was called in Philadelphia to design a new system for the United States. The Constitution of the United States was officially adopted and ratified on March 4, 1789. The most important function of the Constitution was to set up how the government would be run. Most importantly this meant developing a system of checks and balances.

Preamble to the Constitution

Multimedia.pngClick here to see SchoolHouse Rock video called Constitution Preamble

The Senate's side of the Capitol Building
The Senate's side of the Capitol Building


The Legislative section of the Constitution is divided into 10 sections.
Section 1:
The legislature is divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The House of Representatives is based on population and the Senate consistently has 2 members from each state. This provision was meant to satisfy both large states and small states. TheHouse benefitted the larger states, allowing them to have more representatives, and the Senate provided equality to all states to have the same number of votes.
Section 2: The House of Representatives
  • Elections are held every 2 years, and you must be at least 25 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least 7 years, and living in the State you wish to represent
  • Every state has one representative for every 30,000 people, and they are guaranteed to at least have 1. A population is based on (adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons)*
        • This was changed by the 14th Amendment. The original meaning was that population was based on the number of white citizens and Indians, but African slaves only counted as 3/5 of a person.
Section 3: Senate
  • There will be 2 senators from each state, elected every 6 years, you must be 30 years old, be a citizen for at least 9 years, and live in the state which you represent.
  • The Vice President of the United States is the President of the Senate, and they do not vote unless there is a tie.
  • The Senate has the sole power to impeach, and in order to do so, they must have at least 2/3 votes.
Section 8: The Powers of Congress

Multimedia.pngSee a 1947 video on the Powers of Congress in which a man falls asleep and awakes to find Congress has been suspended.

Panorama view of the Oval Office of the President of the United States
Panorama view of the Oval Office of the President of the United States


white-house-residence_w725_h420.jpgClick here for an overview of the Presidents of the United States from George Washington to Barack Obama

Article II of the Constitution establishes the executive branch of the US government
- Within article II, it establishes:
- The President and subsequent powers
- The Vice President
- The electoral college to elect the President and VP
- It also outlines requirements for being the President as well as outlining the means for removal of a sitting President and other officials


Supreme Court building, Washington, DC
Supreme Court building, Washington, DC

Article III of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the US government
- Within article III, it establishes:
- one federal court with local courts underneath it

So what's unique?
- Developing from the Articles of Confederation, the US constitution's creation of an independent executive was unique development for the US government
- In addition, the creation of independent judiciary branch was just as unique, as the last judicial system was tied to Congress under the Articles of Confederation
- It is also important to consider how this document was not our modern one:
- The original constitution had the Three-Fifths Compromise
- this compromise effectively counted slaves as three-fifths of a person in determining the number of representatives each state would be alotted in the House of
- The original constitution only contained the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights
- major amendments, such as the 13th, 14th and 15th, were not added until one hundred years later
- This is important as the original form of the Constitution provided freedom for primarily white, rich men
- later it would expand to incorporate:
- All white men in the 1820s
- Black men in the 1865-1880/90 until 1965-present?
- Women in 1920

Checks and Balances

Multimedia.pngClick here to see SchoolHouse Rock video called Three-Ring Government

The reason checks and balances was such an important part of the Constitution was because the American People were afraid that one part of the government would become more powerful than another and a Monarchy would be established.

Click here for a brief overview of checks and balances as well as the branches of the government.

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngLesson plans and other teacher resources about checks and balances