As you've probably found out, the United States Constitution is a long document. Some parts of it are especially important to American government, and are worth a special look. Here we go...
Sections eight and nine of Article I states the powers Congress has and the ones is denied; basically, it says what Congress can and cannot do. Section 10 defines what the State governments cannot do. So what clause says what the states CAN do? Give up? Actually, there is no part of the Constitution that lays down what power the states have. Though it isn't written down anywhere, the states possess whatever powers are not granted to the federal government nor denied to the states.
One clause in Section 8 is extra special. Clause 18 gives Congress the power "To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers." In other words, Congress can enact laws to help them carry out their other duties as outlined in Section 8. Congress has used this power to justify many of its more controversial actions.
Article I has a rather lengthy list of power denied and granted to Congress, as well as those denied to the States. However, there's nothing in Article II that does the same for the Executive branch. Why the big difference? At the time of the writing of the Constitution, the creators (known as framers) weren't quite sure what power to give to the Executive branch. Therefore, they defined very little of its powers; this made it flexible to adapt to the situation at hand. Over the years, Presidents have used this flexibility to assert more powers than those stated in Article II.
Though it may seem rather unimportant, this section played a very important role in the history of federal government. It states that the Constitution, laws, and treaties made by the federal government are the supreme law of the land, and any other laws or mandates are inferior to them. Most notably, this was employed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison to justify the power of Judicial Review.
This amendment is tremendously important, because it guarantees some of the most significant freedoms that Americans hold. Congress is forbidden to make any laws restricting religious practice or involving any religious establishment. It also cannot limit the freedom of speech or press, nor can it prevent the people from assembling peaceably and submitting complaints to the government. These important rights have allowed the American people to express freely, and has made the United States a world leader in scientific and philosophical thought.
Only the first section of this amendment is really important; the rest are fairly minor. Section 1 of the Fourteenth, among other things, formed the basis for what is known as Incorporation. Initially, the Bill of Rights only pertained to the Federal government; the State governments did not have to follow it. The Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment changed all that; it states that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Supreme Court has interpreted this to mean that the states must also adhere to the Bill of Rights. However, this did not happen instantaneously; each part of each amendment had to be `incorporated' by a separate Supreme Court case. The process began in 1925 with Gitlow v. New York and has taken several decades.
© Copyright 1997 Jonathan Chin & Alan Stern