In operation since 1789, the U.S. Constitution is the longest surviving written charter of government in the world today. The Constitution gave Congress the special position of “first branch” of the United States federal government, with the power to organize the judicial and executive branches. The Constitution is divided into three sections: the preamble, the articles and the Bill of Rights.

Ratification of the Constitution

The U.S. Constitution was actually written in 1787, but the document could only become law once nine of the 13 state ratified it. The original supporters of ratification made up the political faction called the “Federalists”; those who opposed ratification became known as “Anti-Federalists.” James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers between October 1787 and August 1788 to drum up support for the Constitution. Delaware became the first state to ratify on Dec. 7, 1787, and New Hampshire became the pivotal ninth state to do so on June 22, 1788.

Preamble

The first part of the U.S. Constitution is the preamble, which was written to explain the purpose of the document. It included such responsibilities as establishing justice, promoting “domestic tranquility” and providing for a national defense. According to the U.S. Senate website, the preamble defined the powers the federal government as “originating from the people of the United States.”

Seven Articles

The main section of the Constitution is its articles. Each of the seven articles is divided into sections for easy reference. Article I establishes the organizational structure of the government and its powers. It divides the government into three branches in Section 1 and calls for the election of two senators from each state, regardless of population, in Section 3. Some of the articles have been altered by later amendments to the Constitution. For example, Article II, Section 1 says that the office of the presidency shall last for a term of four years -- without mentioning term limits. The 22nd Amendment, however, limited presidents to two terms.

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights include the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists were critical of the Constitution because it lacked a strong defense of basic civil rights. James Madison introduced 12 amendments to the document in 1789, 10 of which were passed into law and became known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments spelled out certain basic rights such as the right to free speech, the right to bear arms and freedom from excessive fines or cruel punishments.