Fundamental law of the U.S. federal system of government and a landmark document of the Western world. It is the oldest written national constitution in operation, completed in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention of 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia, ostensibly to amend the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution was ratified in June 1788, but because ratification in many states was contingent on the promised addition of a Bill of Rights, Congress proposed 12 amendments in September 1789; 10 were ratified by the states, and their adoption was certified on Dec. 15, 1791.
The framers were especially concerned with limiting the power of the government and securing the liberty of citizens. The Constitution's separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the checks and balances of each branch against the other, and the explicit guarantees of individual liberty were all designed to strike a balance between authority and liberty.
Article I vests all legislative powers in the Congress-the House of Representatives and the Senate. Article II vests executive power in the president. Article III places judicial power in the hands of the courts. Article IV deals, in part, with relations among the states and with the privileges of the citizens, Article V with amendment procedure, and Article VI with public debts and the supremacy of the Constitution. Article VII stipulates that the Constitution would become operational after being ratified by nine states. The 10th Amendment limits the national government's powers to those expressly listed in the Constitution; the states, unless otherwise restricted, possess all the remaining (or “residual”) powers of government. Amendments to the Constitution may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress or by a convention called by Congress on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states. (All subsequent amendments have been initiated by Congress.)
Amendments proposed by Congress must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or by conventions in as many states. Twenty-seven amendments have been added to the Constitution since 1789. In addition to the Bill of Rights, these include the 13th (1865), abolishing slavery; the 14th (1868), requiring due process and equal protection under the law; the 15th (1870), guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race; the 17th (1913), providing for the direct election of U.S. senators; the 19th (1920), instituting women's suffrage, and the 22nd (1951), limiting the presidency to two terms.