A Kid's Guide to the U.S. Constitution

When the United States of America began to chart its course as a new nation, the Continental Congress formed by the 13 colonies was the most important national institution. The Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation and, beginning in 1781, these Articles became the country's first constitution.

With the close of the Revolutionary War in 1783, many Americans thought the powers given to the Continental Congress by the Articles of Confederation were much too weak for the Congress to effectively govern the country. As a result, a Constitutional Convention was called in May 1787 to revise and strengthen the Articles and provide a stronger, more solid foundation for the new nation. After much controversy and negotiation, the new U.S. Constitution was written and signed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The U.S. Constitution was finally ratified by the required nine states in 1790.

Fast Facts

Constitutional Convention

The meeting to create a constitution for the United States took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the original Declaration of Independence was signed. Although the Constitutional Convention was set for May 14, 1787, the minimum number of delegates needed to conduct the business of the convention, called a quorum, was not present until May 25.

Signing of the Constitution

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was signed by 39 delegates, with three declining to sign, and 14 having already left for home. The three delegates who did not sign were Gerry of Massachusetts and Randolph and Mason of Virginia. Their objections seem to have centered on the issue of strong personal rights as opposed to a central government. The signature of John Dickinson of Delaware was by proxy. He was absent, but asked George Read, a fellow delegate from Delaware, to sign for him.

  • Signing the Constitution: The painting by Howard Chandler Christy, hangs in the House Wing of the Capitol, east stairway.

  • Signers of the Constitution: About those who signed the constitution and the historical buildings related to them and to the constitution from the National Park Service.

Ratification of the Constitution

According to Article VII of the Constitution, nine states were required to sign in order to ratify the Constitution. In the end, all 13 states signed. Here is the order in which the states signed: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York. It was not until after George Washington's inauguration that the last two of the nine states, North Carolina in November of 1789 and Rhode Island in May of 1790, voted to ratify.

Bill of Rights

In order to assure the individual rights of the citizens of the United States, amendments were added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791,. Since these amendments guarantee certain rights and freedoms, they were collectively called the Bill of Rights. Ten individual amendments were added, but the First Amendment contains five fundamental rights--freedom of speech, religion, the press, expression and assembly.

Where to see the Original Constitution

The original copy of the Constitution can be viewed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. All of the most important documents created by the government of the United States are archived or stored here. Today, images of that original Constitution can be viewed online.

Terms to Know: Basic Governing Principles

The Framers of the Constitution wanted to assure that the new government would be guided by certain basic rules that would enable it to function smoothly, while protecting the rights of its individual states and citizens. A few terms have come to symbolize these important governing principles are below.

Federalism. A union of states in which power is divided between a central authority, in this case, the U.S. Government. and member states.

Popular Sovereignty. The idea that government is created by the people and subject to their will through their votes.

Separation of Powers. Three branches of government, executive, legislative and judicial, each with its own responsibilities, operating individually, but also working together for the good of the people.

System of Checks and Balances. A way of keeping any branch of government from gaining too much power over the other branches. This maintains a balance between the three branches of government, with each branch having the authority to check the powers of the other two.

Judicial Review. The power of a court has to decide or judge whether laws or actions by a government official are constitutional.

Individual Rights. Rights of individuals as opposed to group rights, stems from the rights outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of rights.

  • Government Organization: About the three branches of government and the separation of powers.

  • The Executive Branch: Explanation of the Executive Branch of government from the White House.

  • The Senate & the Constitution: What the U.S. Constitution says about the Senate.

  • House of Representatives: Historical highlights related to the Constitution from the Office of the Clerk of the House.

  • How Laws are Made: What the Constitution has to say about the making of laws and the Congress.

  • Supreme Court: About the Supreme Court of the United States. The brief overview document includes information about the constitutional origins of the Court.

Constitutional History Links for Kids

The Internet offers access to a lot of information about the Constitution and the beginnings of the government of the United States. In addition to the resources in the links above above, these web sites are tailored especially for kids:

Ben's Guide to U.S. Government: From the Government Printing Office, this site is divided into age -specific portals that link to information relating to how the government functions, as well as to explanations about the documents that created it.

LawDocs for Kids: Site has the full texts of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, with short summaries of each section to make it more easily understandable. The Federalist Papers are also available, along with explanations of these essays.

Congress for Kids: All about the Constitution, who worked on it, how they reached a consensus, who signed it, how it was ratified and much more about how the U.S. government works.

Interactive Constitution: An interactive guide to the Constitution of the United States.

America's Story: About the new nation and the Bill of Rights.

Charters of Freedom The National Archives has devoted a section of its website to the Charters of Freedom, the documents that form the foundation of the government of the United States. Along with images of the original documents, are explanations about the importance of the records and how they came to be created.