Key Concepts in the Constitution

The Constitution, which was approved by the delegates to the Convention on September 17, 1787, established a republican form of government, explained the organization of that government, and outlined the federal system.

Republican form of government

The Constitution established the United States as a republic in which power ultimately is in the hands of the people and is exercised by their elected representatives. The Republic was not a democracy in the modern sense, however. The framers of the Constitution, many reluctantly, accepted slavery. There were property qualifications for voting, and some states denied the right to vote to religious minorities. Women did not get to vote in the national elections until 1920 (Nineteenth Amendment). The original draft of the Constitution did not include protection of basic civil liberties.

The organization of government

The government's functions are divided among three branches: the legislative branch that makes the laws (Congress), the executive branch that carries out the laws (president), and the judicial branch that interprets the laws (courts). This division is known as the separation of powers. In addition, under the system of checks and balances, the powers of one branch of government are limited by the powers given to another branch. Congress makes laws, but the president can veto legislation. Congress can override a president's veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses (a check on a check). While the president appoints judges to the Supreme Court, the Senate can reject an appointee through its power to give "advice and consent."

The federal system

Federalism means the division of power between the national government and the states. The Constitution does not clearly define, however, the areas in which these powers are exercised. Keeping in mind that the framers were determined to strengthen the national government, it is not surprising that the powers belonging to the states were left vague.