Certain aspects of the United States government are unique, none more so that the law of the land, the United States Constitution. Drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789, it is the oldest such written document in continual use, and one that has influenced legal thinking and other constitutions around the globe.
The Constitution’s preamble, or introduction, begins with the words “We the People,” indicating that although the document was written to establish a national government, the government itself was set up to serve the people, and derives its power from them.
The body of the Document sets out the balance and separation of power among the three branches of the Government: the Legislative, or law-making branch that is the U.S. Congress, the Executive branch which is headed by the President, and the Judiciary, which interprets the law at every level and settles legal disputes regarding the meaning and the application of the law. The idea was that no one branch of the government would be able to gain a disproportionate amount of power.
Having just won a war to rid themselves of an authoritarian government, the Framers of the Constitution were above all careful to create a national government that would not, could not wield absolute power, but at the same time, could not be superseded by individual states.
So, the Constitution defines the states’ relationship to the federal government, as well as the rights and responsibilities of state governments. And to ensure the document is flexible enough to stand the test of time, the framers made provisions that allowed for it to be changed, or amended, to reflect changes within society itself.
Ironically, this helped the Constitution to overcome its first major hurdle—ratification by the thirteen states that made up the United States of the time.
That’s because the populace, which had just freed itself from shackles imposed on it by one government, was loath to agree to empowering another such body. Many saw a strong central government as a threat to individual rights. So, to obtain ratification in several vacillating states, ten Amendments, collectively named the Bill of Rights, were added.
In the words of James Madison, who is considered to be the Father of the Constitution, “The people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived.”