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Constitution of the United States of America, 1787 and the Bill of Rights, 1789

United States Constitutional Convention
National Archives

United States Constitutional Convention, “The Constitution of the United States of America,” Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: September 17, 1787; Congress of the United States, “The U.S. Bill of Rights,” New York, New York, March 4, 1789, both retrieved from “The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription.” America’s Founding Documents at the National Archive.

After the Articles of Confederation proved to be too weak to support a national government, leaders called a Constitutional Convention in 1787. They drafted a new Constitution to create a long-lasting, strong government that was built on the vision of the founding fathers and their goals for a representative democracy. Many state representatives were concerned that the constitution did not sufficiently protect the rights of the states and the people. They insisted that the new Congress add the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, to prevent misconstruction or abuse of power. To what Enlightenment ideas do the provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights relate? How do these provisions help put into action the ideas of the Declaration? What does this source reveal about the writers’ deeply held assumptions?

This source contains a section from the US Constitution on separation of powers and a section from the Bill of Rights. Both are Enlightenment ideas. The excerpt from the Constitution establishes separation of powers between the three branches of government and outlines some of the checks and balances of that system. The French philosopher Montesquieu originated the concept of separation of the powers of government into three different individuals or bodies. The Bill of Rights contains the legal and political protections of individual rights that reflect the Enlightenment rhetoric of freedom. Possession of these rights would prevent the new government from becoming a “tyranny” and abusing the population. These provisions particularly activate the right of the people to choose and abolish their government. The writers’ assumptions include a bias toward educated white men and the belief that economic and social changes that gave power to other groups would undermine the new state. This source shows the determination of the US founders to confine change to politics, even as they recognized the need to outline individual rights. These ideas became the basis of political liberalism in the nineteenth century.

Constitution of the United States of America, 1787
Article 1. Section 7
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it...
Section 8
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States;
Article 2, Section 2
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, …
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States…
Section 3
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish…
Bill of Rights Amendments to the Constitution, 1789
Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, …
Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.