U.S. Constitution Primer

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Balancing the rights of the federal government, the states, and individuals

by Shmuel Ross

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We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

So begins the Constitution of the United States, written in 1787 to replace the nation's first guiding document, the 1777 Articles of Confederation. The Federalists had been clamoring for a stronger central government, and the Constitution was designed to provide this while balancing it with the rights of individual states—both large and small—and individual citizens. To meet all these requirements, it set up a bicameral legislature and independent judicial and executive branches. Much of this had been proposed by James Madison in his Virginia Plan earlier that year.

The Constitution was signed on September 17—now known as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day—and was submitted to the states for ratification. Over the course of the following three years, it was ratified by all thirteen states then existing. The first ten amendments—the Bill of Rights—were added by the first Congress and ratified in 1791, to more explicitly safeguard individual rights.

The Constitution of the United States of America

Writing and Ratification of the Constitution

Precursors to the Constitution

Celebrating the Constitution

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Ratification by the States

The draft (originally a preamble and seven Articles) was submitted to all thirteen states and was to become effective when ratified by nine states. It went into effect on the first Wednesday in March 1789, having been ratified by New Hampshire, the ninth state to approve, on June 21, 1788. The states ratified the Constitution in the following order:

1. Delaware December 7, 1787
2. Pennsylvania December 12, 1787
3. New Jersey December 18, 1787
4. Georgia January 2, 1788
5. Connecticut January 9, 1788
6. Massachusetts February 6, 1788
7. Maryland April 28, 1788
8. South Carolina May 23, 1788
9. New Hampshire June 21, 1788
10. Virginia June 25, 1788
11. New York July 26, 1788
12. North Carolina November 21, 1789
13. Rhode Island May 29, 1790

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Signers of the United States Constitution

President and deputy
from Virginia

George Washington

George Read
Gunning Bedford, Jr.
John Dickinson
Richard Bassett
Jacob Broom

James McHenry
Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer
Daniel Carroll

John Blair
James Madison Jr.

North Carolina
William Blount
Richard Dobbs Spaight
Hugh Williamson

South Carolina
John Rutledge
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Pinckney
Pierce Butler

William Few
Abraham Baldwin

New Hampshire
John Langdon
Nicholas Gilman

Nathaniel Gorham
Rufus King

William Samuel Johnson
Roger Sherman

New York
Alexander Hamilton

New Jersey
William Livingston
David Brearley
William Paterson
Jonathan Dayton

Benjamin Franklin
Thomas Mifflin
Robert Morris
George Clymer
Thomas Fitzsimons
Jared Ingersoll
James Wilson
Gouverneur Morris
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