"Our Constitution" - reading notes

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Danald A. Ritchie & Justice Learning. org, "Our Constitution"




Chapter 1: Why Was the Constitution Necessary?

Chapter 2: What Kind of Government Did the Constitution Create?

Chapter 3: What Rights Does the Constitution Protect?

Chapter 4: How Has the Constitution Expanded over Time?

Chapter 5: How Is the Constitution Interpreted?



Appendix 1: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention
Appendix 2: Supreme Court Decisions that Shaped the Constitution



- The Constitution’s most damaging compromise was its tolerance of slavery, an issue that eventually led to a constitutional breakdown and terrible Civil War.

- Most state constitutions are hefty documents, and the proposed constitution of the European Union runs to 60,000 words. The original text of the U.S. Constitution, by comparison, came to only 4,200 words, and all its amendments, made over the course of two hundred years, added just another 3,000 words. Despite its brevity, the Constitution has continued to satisfy the needs of a nation that has grown enormously in territory and population, and has seen a vast expansion in both its international and domestic responsibilities.

- Congress proposed the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, almost as soon as the new government began.

- The Confederation Congress had also met there until 1783, when American soldiers marched on Philadelphia to demand their unpaid salaries. Unable to raise sufficient funds either to provide for the military, or to protect itself, Congress hastily departed. The Confederation Congress met in several locations before it settled in New York City.

- The delegates did not intend to produce the type of “pure democracy” that existed in the ancient Greek city states, where citizens voted on everything.
Instead, during their debates several of the delegates warned against the “excesses of democracy,” with its “turbulence and follies,” and “dangerous leveling
spirit.” They were more impressed with the ancient Roman republic, where representatives of both the aristocracy and the people had a say in passing laws.

- These philosophers had defined ideal governments as ones in which power was separated between executive, legislative, and judicial branches that could check and balance each other.

- Often called the Father of the Constitution, James Madison was born in 1751 and raised on a plantation in Orange County, Virginia. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) during the American Revolution.

- The Virginia Plan envisioned a republic based on popular consent. Elected officials would represent the people, although the people could vote directly only for members of the House of Representatives. State legislatures would elect senators. Members of an Electoral College, chosen by the people, would elect
the President.

- Assuming
that human nature would always be the same, and that powerful leaders would inevitably try to amass greater power, the Constitution divided power among the branches of government and created a system of checks and balances. Madison reasoned that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

- During the ratification of the Constitution, the most inflammatory issue was not its toleration of slavery but its lack of a bill of rights.

- On December 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution, and other states quickly followed.

- The Supreme Court became the final arbiter of whether acts of Congress or Presidential actions were constitutional. Beginning with the case of Marbury v. Madison (1804), the Supreme Court asserted its right to declare laws unconstitutional—a power that is implied but not specified in the Constitution.

- Growing from thirteen to fifty states, the United States spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, with a larger population, a more complex economy,
and a mightier military than the authors of the Constitution could possibly have imagined. Yet the Constitution remains essentially the same document they
drafted during the summer of 1787. The Constitution’s succinctness helped it to survive largely intact, forcing Presidents, Congress, and the courts to find
new applications periodically to meet changing circumstances and cope with new problems.

- After 1933, when the Twentieth Amendment set different dates for the end of Presidential and congressional terms, Presidents rarely used the President’s Room. Instead, the President works across town, in the West Wing of the White House.

- Locke argued that all people were born with certain “natural rights” to life, liberty, and property, which governments existed to protect. Locke believed that a government should be seen as the agent of the people, not their ruler, and therefore should operate under some restraints.