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Origins of Our Constitution

Much of the Constitution came from the Five Nations Constitution, a document created by a group of eastern American Indian tribes called the Iroquois. The original five nations included the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Later, when the Tuscaroras Nation joined the Iroquois, they called it the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. The estimated date of the creation of the document is August 31, 1142 and was approved in what is now a football field in Victor, New York.[1] The Senecas, the last of the five nations to ratify the confederacy, called the area Gonandaga.[2] Today this site is called Gonandagan State Historic Site. The Iroquois Nation (or the Haudenosaunee as some call them) was the most instrumental in influencing our Constitution.

Great Seal of the United States of America
The arrows clutched by the bald eagle come from the Iroquois Nation.

Benjamin Franklin admired the confederacy of the Indian tribes and first mentioned them in 1751. The bundle of 13 arrows that are clutched by the Bald Eagle on the Great Seal of the United States of American money is a testament to the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. At one point, Charles Thomas, the designer of the Great Seal of the United States of America, considered reducing the number of arrows to six, representing the Six Nations (The Iroquois and the five easter indian tribes). Congress overruled him and came up with 13 to represent the former colonies.

On June 11, 1776, the Iroquois chiefs were invited to the Continental Congress. They spoke of their confederacy and the hope that the new Americans would "act as one people and have but one heart."[3] (Of course we now know that their speech failed miserably as most of the Indian nations were wiped out in the 1800's.) After their speech, one of the chiefs gave John Hancock the Indian name, Karanduawn, or the Great Tree.

History of the Constitution

42 of 55 delegates held a meeting (convention) on September 17, 1787 to sign the Constitution. Up to that point, they held their meetings almost daily at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. George Washington was the president of the Constitutional Convention. After the signing, they sent copies to all the states for ratification. Nine states approved the Constitution on June 21, 1788. The Constitution is only four pages long and is hand-written.

The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States , painted by Howard Chandler Christy in 1940.

A few facts: Benjamin Franklin was 81 years old at the signing. The youngest was Jonathan Dayton at 26. The Constitution is the world's oldest written constitution (If you don't count the Iroquois document). It took some delegates months to arrive at the convention. There was no public transportation or automobiles then. Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution while Rhode Island was last. North Carolina initially voted against it.

One of the issues to be resolved before the signing was representation from states versus population. We saw this become a controversy with the 2000 elections. Although the popular vote in some cases went to Al Gore, the delegates went to George Bush. Even then, the slave issue was a problem for both the northern and southern states. The compromise was that slave trade could continue until 1808. Slaves could be counted as 3/5ths of a person for representation.

Bill of Rights: The Bill of Rights became law on December 15, 1791, three years after nine states approved the Constitution. The Bill of Rights included 10 amendments and was created because of the high level of interest regarding individual freedoms during the Constitutional Convention. 17 additional amendments have been passed since the original document became law. The most recent amendment was ratified on May 2, 1992.

It is more important than ever for teachers to cover the constitution. At no other time in history have we seen the constitution threatened as it is now. If our students are ignorant about our history, how can we save it?

What's in the Document?

The Constitution includes seven articles and 27 amendments. [Download the entire text of the constitution in PDF form here pdf ] Here is a short summary of each article and amendment:

Article 1: This article established the first of the three branches of the government, the legislature. They called it Congress and divided it into two parts, the House of Representations and Senate. The founders wanted to divide power so that one person or entity would not control government. The article goes on to explain how legislators are elected, how bills are created, the number of senators, veto procedures, and the vice president as leader of the senate.

A very important part of this article says that Congress has, "the power to establish and maintain an army and navy, to establish post offices, to create courts, to regulate commerce between the states, to declare war, and to raise money. It also includes a clause known as the Elastic Clause which allows it to pass any law necessary for the carrying out of the previously listed powers." [4]

Article 2: This article establishes the second of three branches of government, the executive branch. They called the executive branch the president and vice president. Interestingly enough, originally the person with the most votes was president and the person with the second highest votes was vice president. If this was true in 2010, our vice president would have been John McCain.

The article goes on to explain the requirements for the office as well as powers. An important part of the article says the president is "commander-in-chief of the armed forces and of the militia (National Guard) of all the states; he has a Cabinet to aid him, and can pardon criminals. He makes treaties with other nations, and picks many of the judges and other members of the government (all with the approval of the Senate).[5]

Article 3: This article establishes the third of three branches of government, the judiciary. It mentions that the highest court in the country is the supreme court and that supreme court justices may serve as long a they are on "good behavior." It goes on to explain the appeals process as well as the fact everyone is guaranteed a jury trial if they desire.

Article 4: This article states that all states must honor the laws of other states. If a couple is married in Florida, they are also married in all other states. The article states that all citizens must be treated equally and fairly. It deals with fugitives from justice being returned to the state they fled from. This article ensures a republican form of government. An important section of this article states that "the state derives its power from the people, (not from a king or gentry) and guarantees that the federal government will protect the states against invasion and insurrection."

Article VArticle 5: This article explains how to add to or change the constitution.

Article 6: This article states that the constitution is the supreme law of the country. It requires all officers of the government to swear an allegiance to the United States and the constitution.

Article 7: This article explains how the constitution would be ratified. Nine states had to ratify the constitution before it could go into effect.


Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment 3: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment 5: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Amendment 7: In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. This was the last amendment in the Bill of Rights. The following amendments were added later.

Amendment 11: The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

Amendment 12: Discusses how we vote for president and vice president. See here for details.

Amendment 13: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Amendment 14: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. You can find further text of this amendment here.

Amendment 15: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Amendment 16: The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Amendment 17: This amendment explains the composition of senators and term limits. See here for full amendment.

Amendment 18: (Prohibition) After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Amendment 19: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Amendment 20: This amendment explains the presidential and congressional terms. See this link for more information.

Amendment 21: (Prohibition repealed) The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Amendment 22: No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.

Amendment 23: Grants the District of Columbia the right to three electors in Presidential elections. See this link for more.

Amendment 24: The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

Amendment 25: This amendment lists the procedures in the event the president is disabled or dies. See this link for more details.

Amendment 26: The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Amendment 27: No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.