Exploring the Constitution of the United States of America

Probably the best place to begin exploring the Constitution is with the text of the Constitution itself.  Studying the constitution can be immensely interesting.  It concerns some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of our government and our society.  The text of the constitution charts the path of our national history.  Baffling in its complexity, the constitution is a reflection of our deepest values, our political conflict, and our nation's moral trajectory.

Studying the constitution, however, is not easy.   Some students become frustrated with its "fuzziness."  Yes, it is fuzzy--and one cannot take a clear picture of a fuzzy object.  There are relatively few clear answers in constitutional law (and those that are clear--e.g., "Can a 27-year-old be elected President?"--tend not to be very significant to lawyers).  The indefiniteness of constitutional law is a function of many things, including: (1) a text that is the product of long gone eras, (2) a text that in many cases (e.g., "due process of law," "equal protection of the laws") was intentionally vague to accommodate the needs of a changing society, and (3)  important (and often emotional) issues that tend to bring the values and politics of judges into play more than in other areas of law, where judges are more likely to think of their judging as an intellectual exercise or puzzle.  The fuzziness of the constitution inevitably leads to questions about the role of the Supreme Court in our society and about how the constitution should be interpreted.

Food for thought

Read the Constitution of the United States.  As you read it, identify those provisions which perform each of the following functions: (1) set up the machinery of the national government; (2) confer power on one of the three branches of the national government; (3) confer power on state governments; (4) limit the power of the national government; (5) limit the power of state governments; (6) limit the power of private individuals.

1. Did you find provisions that fit into each of the six categories listed above?
2.  What seem to be the predominant purposes of the United States Constitution?

Additional Questions

1.  What is a constitution?  How many constitutions are there in the United States?  Does every country have a constitution?  Do cities and counties have constitutions?  Do private organizations sometimes have constitutions?
2.  How is constitutional law different from statutory law, administrative law, and common law?  (Think about differences in how each form of law is made, how it is interpreted, how it might be changed, and what subject matter it is likely to cover.)
3.  What benefits come from a nation having a written constitution?
4.  Are there disadvantages in having a written constitution such as ours?  If so, what might they be?

History of the Constitution

You may want to begin reading about the history of the Constitution.  No person played a greater role in that history than the man pictured above, James Madison.  Madison not only prepared the draft  that set the framework for debate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but also became the principal drafter of the Bill of Rights.  To read about the Constitution's early history, click here.

Supreme Court

It is impossible to study the Constitution of the United States without also studying the United States Supreme Court.  Alexander Bickel noted that what Hamilton called "the least dangerous branch is the most extraordinarily powerful court of law the world has ever known.".  You may want to begin familiarizing yourself with the operation of this remarkable (and sometimes controversial) institution.  To learn more about the Supreme Court and the justices who have sat on it, click here.