U.S. Constitution For Dummies®

Table of Contents


About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not To Read

How This Book is Organized

Part I: Exploring Constitutional Basics

Part II: We the People: How the United States Is Governed

Part III: Balancing the Branches of Government: The President, Congress, and the Judiciary

Part IV: The Bill of Rights: Specifying Rights through Amendments

Part V: Addressing Liberties and Modifying the Government: More Amendments

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Icons Used in This Book

Where To Go from Here

Part I: Exploring Constitutional Basics

Chapter 1: Constitutional Law: The Framework for Governance

Defining “Constitution”

Knowing When and Why the Constitution Was Created

ummarizing the Main Principles of the Constitution

dentifying Some Areas of Controversy

Chapter 2: Framing the U.S. Constitution: Big Thinkers, Big Thoughts

Building on Magna Carta

Respecting the Rule of Law (Or the Rule of Lawyers?)

Analyzing the Concepts Underlying the Declaration of Independence

Invoking the law of nature

Securing “unalienable Rights”

“Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”

Establishing a Republic

Getting rid of the king

Crafting the Articles of Confederation

Leaving democracy out of the U.S. Constitution

Chapter 3: Debating the Constitution

Listing Some Sources of Confusion

Discarding Out-Of-Date Ideas?

Untangling Ambiguities

Giving Some Important Principles the Silent Treatment

Interpreting the Constitution

Comparing interpretations of “cruel and unusual punishments”

Comparing interpretations of partial-birth abortion

Identifying methods of interpretation

Chapter 4: Introducing . . . the Constitution! The Preamble and the Seven Articles

Presenting the Preamble: “We the People . . .”

Article I: Setting up the Congress

Magnifying the commerce power

(Mis)interpreting the “necessary and proper” clause

Article II: Hailing the Chief

Listing presidential powers and duties

Identifying the real issues

A drafting boo-boo

Succeeding to the presidency

Article III: Understating Judicial Power

Article IV: Getting Along with the Neighbors — and Uncle Sam

Article V: Changing versus Amending the Constitution

Article VI: Fudging Federalism

Article VII: Ratifying the Constitution

Chapter 5: Amending versus Interpreting the Constitution: Taking Time for Change

Noting the Four Paths to an Amendment

Explaining What Happens in Practice

Listing the Amendments

Rating the Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment

Reviving a Forgotten Amendment

Calling Time on an ERA

Reviewing Other Unratified Proposed Amendments

Debating the Need for Judge-Made Law

Reading a Right to Privacy into the Constitution

Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: Griswold v. Connecticut

Disliking a law versus declaring it unconstitutional

Embarking on the road to Roe v. Wade

Part II: We the People: How the United States Is Governed

Chapter 6: Scrutinizing Sovereignty: Who Rules America?

Introducing “We the People”

Ordaining and establishing a Constitution

esolving to preserve democracy

Defining democracy

Testing for democracy today

Hailing the Chief

Congress: Flexing Its Lawmaking Muscle

The High Court: Saying What the Law Is

Giving the States Their Due

Uncovering Conspiracies

Chapter 7: Federalism: Forming One out of Many

Tracing the Origins of U.S. Federalism

Analyzing the founding documents

Forming “a more perfect Union”

Banking on McCulloch v. Maryland

Testing the limits of federal power

Realizing the repercussions

Navigating the Commerce Clause with John Marshall

Riding the Federalism Rollercoaster

Ignoring the Elephant in the Room: The Question of State Sovereignty

Defining sovereignty

Testing state sovereignty: Chisholm v. Georgia

Can a state secede from the union?

Dredging up the Articles of Confederation

Chapter 8: Separation of Powers: To Each His Own

No Moonlighting for the President

Keeping the Branches Apart



hecking and Balancing

Keeping each branch in line

Considering the judiciary’s special position

Chapter 9: Doing Business: The Commerce Clause

How the Commerce Clause Was Born

Interpreting the Commerce Clause

Hunting Down the Dormant Commerce Clause

Assuming Congress has exclusive power

Giving concurrent powers to the states

Poking holes in the Dormant Commerce Clause

Tracing the Changing Meaning of the Commerce Clause

Protecting freedom of contract

Introducing the Four Horsemen and the Three Musketeers

Signaling the feds’ control of the economy

Controlling the production of wheat that never left its home farm

Using the Commerce Clause to advance civil rights

Turning back the federal tide?

“Appropriating state police powers under the guise of regulating commerce”

Taking a step backward

Part III: Balancing the Branches of Government: The President, Congress, and the Judiciary

Chapter 10: Looking at the Role of Commander in Chief

Being “Eligible to the Office of President”

Picking a President

Paying the price for passing over political parties

Rescuing the situation with the Twelfth Amendment

Examining the modern electoral system

Exploding some myths about the Electoral College

Canning the President

Signing, Vetoing, and Pocketing Legislation

Appointing Key Positions

Hailing the Chief: The President’s Administration

ncovering the secrets of Cabinet secretaries

Unmasking the imperial presidency

Unlocking the Executive Office of the President

Selling the President’s legislative program

Battling Executive Privilege

Claiming executive privilege in the early days

Achieving a total blowout against President Nixon

Balancing recent claims of justice against executive privilege

Making War versus Declaring War

Controlling the President through the War Powers Act of 1973

Preventing presidential precedents?

Chapter 11: Giving Everyone a Voice: The House of Representatives and Senate

Making the Laws That Govern the Land

One function, two houses

Keeping the President in the loop

Visiting the People’s House

Representing the U.S. population

Respecting the power of the Speaker

Controlling the nation’s purse strings

Deciding disputed presidential elections

Impeaching the President and other civil officers

Declaring war

Getting to Know the Senate

Electing a senator

Presiding over the Senate

Advising and consenting

Passing Legislation

Tracking a bill’s progress

Examining congressional committees

Chapter 12: “During Good Behaviour”: The Judicial System

Examining the Courts’ Function

Defining jurisdiction

Applying the law

Appointments and Elections: Becoming a Judge

Judging the election process

Considering whether elections taint the judiciary

Understanding Judicial Independence without Accountability

Bypassing term limits and salary concerns

Grappling with issues the Constitution doesn’t address

Examining the abortion litmus test

Making the Judiciary Paramount: Judicial Review

Understanding the nature of judicial review

Tracing the origins of judicial review

Noting Jefferson’s response to Marbury v. Madison

Considering alternatives for solving Constitutional conflicts

Watching the Supreme Court’s power seep into politics

Casting the Swing Vote

Recalling “the switch in time that saved nine”

Wielding the swing vote under Rehnquist and Roberts

Labeling Supreme Court Justices


Strict constructionism/living Constitution

Stare decisis/free exercise of power

Judicial activism/judicial restraint

Chapter 13: You’re Fired! Investigating the Impeachment Process

There’s Nothing Peachy about Impeachment

“High Crimes and Misdemeanors”: What Impeachment Is and Isn’t

Defining impeachment

Can you be impeached for something that isn’t a crime at all?

Tracking the Impeachment Process

Playing grand jury and prosecutor: The role of the House

Trying the articles of impeachment: The role of the Senate

Understanding the Implications of Impeachment

Impeaching isn’t the same as convicting

Keeping Congress out of the fray

Impeaching for poor private conduct

Pardoning is not an option

Impeachment in Action: Johnson, the Judges, and Clinton

Andrew Johnson: “Let them impeach and be damned”

Judging the judges

Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations . . .”

Removing State Officials from Office

Impeaching governors

Total recall, or terminating a governor

Part IV: The Bill of Rights: Specifying Rights through Amendments

Chapter 14: The First Amendment: Freedom of Religion, Speech, and Assembly

Considering the Amendment’s Wording

Prohibiting Congress from taking away rights

Applying the amendment to the states

Separating Church and State

Guaranteeing the Free Exercise of Religion

Adopting a strict scrutiny test

Witnessing judicial gyrations: Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Supreme Court

Guaranteeing Freedom of Expression

Denying protection to speech creating a “clear and present danger”

Allowing obscenity to be seen?

Using and abusing the right to freedom of the press

Protecting the Right to Assemble and Petition

Chapter 15: The Second Amendment: Bearing Arms

Debating Interpretation: Individual versus State Rights

Breaking Down the Amendment’s Clauses

Understanding the states’ rights interpretation

Interpreting “the right of the people”

Upholding Individual Rights: D.C. v. Heller

Considering an earlier Supreme Court decision

Taking two sides on what Miller meant

Considering the Future of the Debate

Chapter 16: The Third and Fourth Amendments: Protecting Citizens from Government Forces

Keeping the Feds Out of Your House

Keeping the Government Off Your Back

Prohibiting “unreasonable searches and seizures”

Excluding evidence

Avoiding making “a crazy quilt of the Fourth Amendment”

Rewriting the Fourth Amendment

Defining “probable cause”

Prohibiting police fishing expeditions

Searching without a warrant?

Protecting America without a warrant?

Chapter 17: Taking the Fifth — and a Bit of the Fourteenth

Invoking the “Great Right” Against Self-Incrimination

Peeking Behind the Closed Doors of the Grand Jury

Deciding whether to indict

Victimizing suspects or protecting victims?

Avoiding Double Jeopardy

Applying the principle

Allowing for an end to litigation

Jeopardizing “life or limb”

Agonizing over Due Process

Trying to define the term

Triggering due process

Wrestling with substantive due process

Opening Up the Incorporation Debate

Does the Bill of Rights apply to the states?

Watching selective incorporation in action

Taking Private Property

Recognizing eminent domain

Losing protection

Chapter 18: Dealing with Justice and Individual Rights: The Sixth through Eighth Amendments

Outlining Defendants’ Rights in Criminal Prosecutions: The Sixth Amendment

Having the same rights in a state and federal trial

How speedy is a speedy trial?

Appreciating the need for a public trial

Guaranteeing trial by jury

Being “informed of the nature and cause of the accusation”

Confronting adverse witnesses

Compelling witnesses to attend

Demanding the right to counsel

Guaranteeing Jury Trials in Civil Suits: The Seventh Amendment

Prohibiting “Cruel and Unusual Punishments”: The Eighth Amendment

Banning excessive bail

Removing excessive fines

Barring “cruel and unusual punishments”

Debating the death penalty

Chapter 19: The Ninth and Tenth Amendments: Leaving Things Up to the People and States

Reading the Constitution: The Ninth Amendment

Considering the Tenth Amendment

Analyzing the wording

Balancing power between federal and state governments

Determining the limits of federal power

Puzzling over “prohibited” powers

Disentangling states’ rights from individual rights

Giving the Tenth Amendment its due

Part V: Addressing Liberties and Modifying the Government: More Amendments

Chapter 20: States’ Rights, Elections, and Slavery: The Eleventh through Thirteenth Amendments

The Eleventh Amendment: Asserting State Sovereign Immunity?

Overruling the Supreme Court

Interpreting the Eleventh Amendment

Cleaning Up the Framers’ Political Mess: The Twelfth Amendment

Electing the President: The original rules

Understanding politics 1796 style

Tying and vying with your running mate: The 1800 election

Preventing future chaos

Removing the Blot of Slavery: The Thirteenth Amendment

Tracking the debate on slavery

Sliding into secession

Considering the Corwin amendment

Graduating from emancipation to abolition

Introducing an entirely different thirteenth amendment

Chapter 21: The Fourteenth Amendment: Ensuring Equal Protection

Defining Citizenship

Understanding States’ Obligations

Disentangling state citizenship

Analyzing “privileges or immunities”

Achieving “Equal Justice Under Law” — Or Not

Age discrimination

Capital punishment

Racial segregation

School busing

Affirmative action


Apportioning Representatives

Recognizing proportionality 80 years too late?

Denying or abridging the right to vote

Disqualifying Confederates from Office

Repudiating Confederate Debts

Empowering Congress

Chapter 22: Starts, Stops, and Clarifications: Amendments since 1870

Removing Race Qualifications for Voting: The Fifteenth Amendment

Letting Uncle Sam Raid Your Piggy Bank: The Sixteenth Amendment

Electing the Senate: The Seventeenth Amendment

Outlawing Liquor: The Eighteenth Amendment

Giving Women the Vote: The Nineteenth Amendment

Moving Out of the Horse and Buggy Age: The Twentieth Amendment

Repealing Prohibition: The Twenty-First Amendment

Taking George Washington’s Lead: The Twenty-Second Amendment

Enfranchising the Nation’s Capital: The Twenty-Third Amendment

Banning Tax Barriers to Voting: The Twenty-Fourth Amendment

Succeeding to the Presidency: The Twenty-Fifth Amendment

Succeeding as President or Acting President?

Replacing the Veep

Acting as President

Lowering the Voting Age: The Twenty-Sixth Amendment

Limiting Congressional Pay Raises: The Twenty-Seventh Amendment

Part VI: The Part of Tens

Chapter 23: Ten Landmark Constitutional Cases

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (2007)

West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937)

United States v. Lopez (1995)

Kelo v. City of New London (2005)

United States v. Nixon (1974)

Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982)

Clinton v. Jones (1997)

Boumediene v. Bush (2008)

Chapter 24: Ten Influential Supreme Court Justices

John Marshall

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Louis Brandeis

Felix Frankfurter

Earl Warren

Thurgood Marshall

William Rehnquist

Sandra Day O’Connor

Antonin Scalia

John Roberts

Chapter 25: Two Sides of Five Constitutional Conundrums

Is the Constitution Outdated?

Should the Electoral College Be Abolished?

Does the U.S. Supreme Court Have Too Much Power?

Why Is There No Agreed-Upon Interpretation of the Constitution?

Does the President Have Too Much Power?

Appendix: Constitution of the United States of America



































U.S. Constitution For Dummies®

by Dr. Michael Arnheim

Barrister at Law

Sometime Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge

Foreword by Ted Cruz

Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Former Solicitor General of Texas


About the Author

Dr. Michael Arnheim is an English Barrister who also sits periodically as a court-appointed mediator. In addition, he is a member of the Irish Bar and is of counsel to Brown & Welsh P.C. of Meriden, Connecticut.

Michael Arnheim’s active interest in the U.S. Constitution started with a comparative paper he wrote at the age of 17, for which he was awarded a special prize in the Royal Commonwealth Society Essay competition. As a junior barrister he wrote a fortnightly column in the Solicitors Journal, in which he dealt with U.S. constitutional issues among others. He has also written on U.S. constitutional themes for publications such as the New Law Journal and Counsel magazine. In 1994, he was invited to edit the comparative Common Law volume in the prestigious International Library of Essays in Law and Legal Theory, published by Ashgate Dartmouth. He has also been consulted on matters involving immigration, healthcare, protectionism, states’ rights, and same-sex marriage.

Dr. Arnheim is the author of numerous articles and 15 books to date, including the following titles: Drafting Settlements of Disputes (Tolley, 1994), Civil Courts Practice & Procedure Handbook (Butterworths, 1999), A Handbook of Human Rights Law (Kogan Page, 2004), and Principles of the Common Law (Duckworth, 2004).

Dr. Arnheim has been interviewed on television on a number of occasions, particularly in South Africa and Sweden. In 1985 he spent several enjoyable hours on David Brudnoy’s radio talk show on WRKO in Boston, fielding calls from listeners on topical legal and political issues.

Michael Arnheim started life as a member of the “Quiz Kids” team on South African national radio. He went to university at 16, took his first degree when he was 19, received a First Class Honours degree at 20, and was awarded a master’s degree (with distinction) at age 21. He then won a national scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he took his PhD and was elected a Fellow of the College.

After spending several years researching and teaching Classics and Ancient History as a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, at the age of 31 he was appointed a full Professor and Head of the Department of Classics at his original university in South Africa. Returning to Britain, he was called to the English Bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1988.

When he is not trying cases or advising clients, Michael Arnheim spends his time teaching, writing, and (less often than he should) swimming.

For updates on the U.S. Constitution, comments, and reviews on the subject, go to


To the memory of my beloved parents.

To my students over the years, who kept me on my toes.

And to the spirit of American liberty, in the light of Abraham Lincoln’s challenge:

Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?

Author’s Acknowledgments

My classical and historical training has stood me in good stead in my practice of law, and, not least, in my study of the U.S. Constitution. Professor Theo Haarhoff taught me how difficult it sometimes is to differentiate between objective views and subjective views that mimic objectivity. Professor Hugo Jones and Professor John Crook of Cambridge University were two of the most tolerant minds that I have ever come across, but they never made the mistake of equating toleration with acceptance of all views as equally valid.

Special thanks to my editors at Wiley: Kathy Cox, Diane Steele, and Joan Friedman. My thanks also to Susan Ellis Wild for her review of the manuscript. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Kathy Nebenhaus, Vice President and Executive Publisher at Wiley, who, beyond the call of duty, took this book under her wing and saw it through to completion.

As I don’t have a cat, I can’t blame it for clambering over the keyboard. The sole responsibility for any mistakes rests on me. The law as stated in the book is correct as of Washington’s Birthday (Presidents’ Day), February 16, 2009. For updates, go to

Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our online registration form located at For other comments, please contact our Customer Care Department within the U.S. at 877-762-2974, outside the U.S. at 317-572-3993, or fax 317-572-4002.

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Diane Graves Steele, Vice President and Publisher, Consumer Dummies

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“We the people” are the opening words of the U.S. Constitution, and it is fitting that this book is written for “We the people.” Both the Constitution itself, and this book explaining it, were meant for everybody, for all of the American people.

This book can be read on several different levels. If you just want to understand the basics of the Constitution, this book offers you an easy, enjoyable, and at times humorous way to do so. But the book also offers a much deeper insight into the Constitution and all the controversies surrounding it.

Michael Arnheim does not pull his punches. He makes no secret of his own views on the Constitution. However, the book always presents both sides of every argument fairly, so that you, the reader, can decide what take to adopt on any issue.

The U.S. Constitution is the world’s oldest written constitution, and it was a revolutionary document. Written by men who just a few years earlier had won American independence from Britain, it changed the relationship altogether between people and government.

Indeed, that was the genius of the Constitution — limiting government to protect the liberty of the people. Because the Framers recognized that unchecked government can strip the people of their freedoms, they designed a constitution to prevent that from happening.

James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, explained as follows:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Because men are not angels, the Constitution was designed to create an effective national government and, at the same time, prevent the government from overreaching.

At the time of this writing, our Nation is facing some of the greatest challenges in its history. One possible solution to these problems is to allow the government ever-expanding power. But it remains to be seen whether that would really be the best choice either in practical terms or in terms of the Constitution.

For good or for ill, the meaning of the Constitution has often been very much in the hands of the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. This book goes in depth into the different approaches adopted by different justices over the years. Dr. Arnheim explains his own interpretations in simple, direct language, and he also explains why he favors the approach that he adopts — while at the same time setting out the opposing views.

For example, Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall both believed that the death penalty always constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” Dr. Arnheim explains why he believes they were wrong — based on the text of the Constitution itself. But Dr. Arnheim goes further, arguing that Justices Brennan and Marshall were really confusing what the Constitution actually says with what they as judges thought it ought to have said. There are serious policy arguments both for and against capital punishment — but given that the constitutional text twice explicitly authorizes capital punishment, the only proper way to change that would be a constitutional amendment as laid down in Article V of the Constitution. And an amendment is unlikely to be passed, because large majorities of the American people have consistently supported capital punishment for the very worst criminals. Accordingly, a judge imposing his or her views on the issue is not only unconstitutional, it is also undemocratic.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, for whom I had the honor of clerking, was an original dissenter from the Court’s opinion striking down the death penalty. And, over his three decades on the Court, he helped overturn that decision and return the Court to a more limited view of judicial authority. Indeed, the very last opinion he ever wrote was a case I was privileged to litigate for the State of Texas, Van Orden v. Perry, which upheld the Texas Ten Commandments monument and repudiated many years of judicial hostility to expressions of religious faith (discussed in Chapter 14).

Likewise, in 2008, the Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller, holding for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms (discussed in depth in Chapter 15). Texas led 31 states in defense of the Second Amendment in that case, and our arguments for giving force to the plain text of the Constitution and the original understanding of the Framers prevailed by a vote of 5 to 4.

The Constitution is designed to limit government and to protect all the freedoms that you and I cherish as Americans. And this book is a clear, straightforward roadmap to understanding how it works — and a lot more.

Ted Cruz

Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Former Solicitor General of Texas


Okay, so you bought this book (or you got it as a present, or you borrowed it, or you’re browsing through it in a bookstore). Obviously, you have some interest in the U.S. Constitution, but maybe you’re afraid the Constitution isn’t really that interesting.

Well, you’re in luck. Even if you don’t find the Constitution itself to be the most riveting read, it’s a never-ending source of debates and arguments. And we all know how interesting debates and arguments can be!

About This Book

This book explains the Constitution simply and thoroughly, including all the juicy controversy it evokes. Whether you’re a student, a lawyer, or just a concerned citizen, I hope you find it to be both a good read and a great resource.

You don’t have to read this book from cover to cover, and you don’t have to read the chapters in order. I’ve written each chapter so it can be understood on its own; if it refers to topics that aren’t covered in that chapter, I tell you where to find information about that topic elsewhere in the book. Using the Table of Contents or the Index, feel free to identify topics of the greatest interest to you, and dive in wherever you want. Even if you dive into the middle or end first, I promise I won’t let you get lost.

I cover the entire Constitution in this book, but I don’t give each article or amendment equal attention. That’s because some parts are more important, more difficult to understand, more controversial, or more relevant to modern society than others. If I believe a particular part of the Constitution requires or deserves more explanation than another, I give it lots of real estate in the pages that follow. Parts that are easier to understand or less important to your 21st-century life get less space in the book.

Throughout the book, I offer not just facts but also a variety of opinions about constitutional issues that have created debate for more than 200 years. In some cases, the opinions belong to Supreme Court justices, advocates for or against specific rights, or any number of other sources. In other cases, the opinions are my own — and I alert you to that fact. I may sometimes try to persuade you of the rightness or wrongness of a certain opinion, but you’re welcome to disagree — that’s the fun and the privilege of becoming a more informed citizen!

Conventions Used in This Book

Whenever I quote or refer to a specific part of the Constitution, I tell you the name of that part. You’ll often see this reference in the form of an article, a section, and maybe a clause — for example, Article I, Section 8, Clause 3. If you turn to the Appendix at the back of the book, where the text of the Constitution is provided, you can see that it’s broken into seven articles, some of which are divided into sections. If a section contains more than one paragraph, I refer to each paragraph as a clause. So if you’re looking for Clause 3 within Section 8 of Article I, just find the third paragraph in that section.

The amendments to the Constitution appear in the Appendix after the main body of the document (and after the list of people who signed it). It’s pretty easy to locate an amendment, as long as you aren’t too rusty on Roman numerals.

When you see the term the Constitution, it always refers to the U.S. Constitution. Each of the 50 states also has its own constitution, but if I’m referring to one of those, I include the state name (such as the Virginia Constitution). Similarly, when I refer to the Supreme Court, the high court, or just the Court, that means the U.S. Supreme Court. If I refer to a state supreme court, I always give the name of the state concerned (such as the Texas Supreme Court).

You can’t learn about the Constitution without being introduced to some legal, political, and other jargon, but I do my best in this book to ease you into the constitutional vocabulary. If I use a term that I suspect may not be familiar to you, I put that term in italic and provide a definition or explanation nearby.

What You’re Not To Read

This may seem like a strange topic to discuss — after all, I’d love for you to read every word that I’ve written! But the beauty of the For Dummies series is that I won’t demand such commitment. If you’re not interested in knowing every nitty-gritty detail about a certain subject, there are two types of text you can skim or skip altogether:

Paragraphs that have a Technical Stuff icon next to them: In just a minute, I explain what the various icons in this book mean. This one means that the information in a given paragraph goes into detail that may be interesting to some readers but isn’t essential to your understanding of the subject at hand.

Sidebars: The text tucked into gray boxes is also optional. Sidebars contain in-depth historical information, somewhat technical explanations of legal or political situations, or just interesting stories that happen to be tangential to the topic at hand. Take them or leave them — it’s your call.

How This Book is Organized

I’ve divided the book into six parts, each of which contains a series of related chapters. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of the way the book is arranged.

Part I: Exploring Constitutional Basics

This part of the book explains the basic concepts underlying the Constitution and the motivating forces behind its creation. I present the basic concepts of the Constitution and where they came from. You may find a few surprises here. For example, the Constitution didn’t originally establish a democracy — the word democracy doesn’t appear even once in the entire document.

I also explain the different approaches to interpreting the Constitution and how those approaches can conflict. And I then show you how the Constitution has changed in the past 200-plus years in both formal ways (through relatively few amendments) and informal ways (as a result of the way the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted and reinterpreted the Constitution).

Part II: We the People: How the United States Is Governed

In this part, I first study who wields power in the United States, considering how that power is shared among “We the People,” the President, Congress, the Supreme Court, and possibly other entities.

The Framers of the Constitution (the men who wrote and ratified it) were anxious to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of one person or one government institution, so they designed an elaborate structure to make sure that power was shared. They did so first by creating a federal government: one in which power is shared between the national and state governments. In Chapter 7, I explore how that power-sharing arrangement works.

In Chapter 8, I discuss another way in which power is shared: among the three branches of the federal government — the Executive (the President and his Cabinet), the Legislature (Congress), and the Judiciary (the Supreme Court and other federal courts).

Perhaps the biggest tug-of-war between the federal government and the states has centered on the power given to Congress in the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In Chapter 9, I explain why this power is so important, how judicial interpretation has broadened it (and has recently reined it in slightly), and why the whole issue matters so much.

Part III: Balancing the Branches of Government: The President, Congress, and the Judiciary

This part tackles the three main parts of the U.S. government — the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches — as well as how members of those branches can be fired or removed.

I open this part by focusing on the President, covering such topics as how the President is elected, what it means to be commander in chief, how a president makes appointments, and whether (and when) a president is immune from lawsuits. I then turn my attention to Congress, explaining the membership and the important functions of the House of Representatives and Senate. Chapter 12, on the judiciary, explains how the justices of the Supreme Court and other federal judges are appointed, the powers of the Supreme Court, and how the Court operates.

I finish this part with a discussion of impeachment, explaining why it’s possible to be impeached but not convicted (and therefore not removed from office), what the impeachment process is, and who has been impeached since the Constitution was ratified.

Part IV: The Bill of Rights: Specifying Rights through Amendments

Here I discuss the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which were all ratified together in 1791 (only three years after the main body of the Constitution). These amendments are commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights because they confer or guarantee fundamental civil rights, including the right to freedom of speech and assembly; the separation of church and state; the right to bear arms; the guarantee of a fair trial; the protection of private property rights; and the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Part V: Addressing Liberties and Modifying the Government: More Amendments

In this part, I discuss the ragbag of amendments that have been ratified since 1791, including amendments that have reformed presidential elections, abolished slavery, ensured equal protection, prohibited alcohol and then made it legal again, given voting rights to women, and limited presidents to two elected terms.

Part VI: The Part of Tens

This part contains three short chapters: one that outlines ten landmark Supreme Court cases that have tackled constitutional issues; one that discusses the influence of ten Supreme Court Justices who have served at various times in the country’s history; and one that presents two sides of five sticky constitutional issues that are bound to be debated for years to come.

Icons Used in This Book

Throughout this book, you find small pictures in the margins. These icons highlight paragraphs that contain certain types of information. Here’s what each icon means:

Remember.eps The Remember icon sits beside paragraphs that contain information that’s worth committing to memory. Even if you’re not studying for an exam on the Constitution, you may want to read these paragraphs twice.

TechnicalStuff.eps This icon denotes material that may fall into the “too much information” category for some readers. If you like to know lots of details about a topic, the information in these paragraphs may thrill you. If details aren’t your thing, feel free to skip these paragraphs altogether.

controversy(constitution).eps The Constitution is nothing if not controversial, and this icon highlights paragraphs that explain what all the debate is about. If you want to know why people can’t seem to figure out what this document means even after 200-plus years, head toward these icons.

inmyopinion(constitution).eps Where there’s debate, there are opinions, and I won’t pretend not to have some of my own. Where you see this icon, you’ll know that I’m offering my perspective on the subject at hand, and I don’t necessarily expect you to agree!

Where To Go from Here

That depends on why you’re reading this book. If you’re a student who needs help understanding how and why the Constitution was created, what it says, and why it’s still so important, I’d suggest that you start at the beginning.

If you picked up this book because you want to understand the debate about a certain issue (such as gun rights), check the Table of Contents or Index and flip to the chapter where that debate is explored. (In the case of gun rights, that’d be Chapter 15.)

If you’re planning to start a campaign to impeach a government official who rubs you entirely the wrong way, perhaps Chapter 13 will be your cup of tea.

If you want to very quickly get a sense of why constitutional issues can cause tempers to flare, flip to Chapter 25 and read about just five of the many debates that keep people talking.

Part I

Exploring Constitutional Basics


In this part . . .

These chapters give you a bird’s-eye view of constitutional thought as a whole, starting with the ideas on which the Constitution was based and ending with a very brief summary of the Constitution as originally ratified in 1788 and of some of its amendments. Chapter 5 also explains how the Constitution has undergone some fundamental changes without formal amendment.