December 19, 2014 11:00 UTC

USA

A Body of Laws to Govern a New Nation

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

bill of rights
bill of rights

Multimedia

► Listen to this story in high-quality 192 kbps audio (or right-click/option-click to save)

From VOA Learning English, this is THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
 
The United States became a nation in 1776. Less than a century later, in the 1860s, it was nearly torn apart. A civil war took place, the only one in the nation's history. States from the North and the South fought against each other. The conflict involved the right of the South to leave the Union and deal with issues -- especially the issue of slavery -- its own way.
 
This week in our series, we examine how the Constitution survived this very troubled time in American history.
 
The Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865. Six hundred thousand men were killed or wounded. In the end, the slaves were freed, and the Union was saved.
 
Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War. He said the southern states did not have the right to leave the Union. Lincoln firmly believed that the Union was permanent under the Constitution. In fact, he noted that one of the reasons for establishing the Constitution was to form a more perfect Union. His main goal was to save what the Constitution had created.
 
One cannot truly understand the United States without understanding its Constitution. The document describes America's system of government and guarantees the rights of its citizens. The power of the Constitution is greater than any president, court or legislature.
 
In the coming weeks, we will tell the story of the United States Constitution, including the drama of its birth in Philadelphia in 1787. Before we do, however, we want to look at how the document provides for change without changing the basic system of government.
 
If you ask Americans about their Constitution, probably the first thing they will talk about is the Bill of Rights. These are the first ten changes to the Constitution. These ten amendments have the most direct effect on people's lives.
 
The Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press. In fact, all of those and more, including the right to peaceful assembly, are contained just in the first amendment. The second one states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The fourth amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Other amendments say that people in criminal cases cannot be forced to make statements against themselves, and have a right to a speedy and public trial by a jury.
 
The Bill of Rights also deals with the separation of powers between the federal government and the states. In the words of the tenth amendment: "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." In other words, powers belong to the states unless the Constitution gives them to the federal government or prevents the states from having them.
 
The Bill of Rights was not part of the document signed at the convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The delegates believed that political freedoms were basic human rights. Some of the delegates thought it was unnecessary to express these rights in a Constitution.
 
Most Americans, however, wanted their rights guaranteed in writing. This is why most states approved the new Constitution only on the condition that a Bill of Rights would be added. This was done, and the amendments became law in 1791.
 
One early amendment involved the method of choosing a president and vice president. In America's first presidential elections, whoever received the most votes became president. The candidate who received the second highest number of votes became vice president.
 
The Constitution was changed after separate political parties developed. Then, ballots began to list the names of separate candidates for president and vice president.
 
There were no other amendments for 60 years.
 
The next one was born in the blood of the civil war. During the war, President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. That document freed the slaves in the states that were rebelling against the Union. Later, the thirteenth amendment banned slavery everywhere in the country. But Lincoln never lived to see it; he was shot a week after the South surrendered. 
 
The Fourteenth Amendment, approved in 1868, said no state could limit the rights of any citizen. And the Fifteenth, approved two years later, said a person's right to vote could not be denied because of his race, color, or former condition of slavery.
 
By the 1890s, the federal government needed more money than it was receiving from taxes on imports. It wanted to establish a tax on earnings. It took 20 years to win approval for the Sixteenth Amendment. The amendment permits the government to collect income taxes.
 
Another amendment proposed in the early 1900s was designed to change the method of electing United States Senators. For more than 100 years, senators were elected by the legislatures of their states. The Seventeenth Amendment, approved in 1913, gave the people the right to elect senators directly.
 
In 1919, the states approved an amendment to ban the production, transportation and sale of alcohol. Alcohol was prohibited. It could not be produced or sold legally anywhere in the United States.
 
The amendment, however, did not stop the flow of alcohol. Criminal organizations found many ways to produce and sell it illegally.
 
Finally, after 13 years, Americans decided that Prohibition had failed. It caused more problems than it solved. So, in 1933, the states approved another constitutional amendment to end the ban on alcohol.
 
Other amendments in the twentieth century include one that gives women the right to vote. It became part of the Constitution in 1920.
 
Another amendment limits a president to two four-year terms in office. And the Twenty-Sixth Amendment gives the right to vote to all persons who are at least 18 years old.
 
The Twenty-Seventh Amendment has one of the strangest stories of any amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment establishes a rule for increasing the pay of senators and representatives. It says there must be an election between the time Congress votes to increase its pay and the time the pay raise goes into effect.
 
The amendment was first proposed in 1789. Like all amendments, it needed to be approved by three-fourths of the states. This did not happen until 1992. So, one of the first amendments to be proposed was the last amendment to become law.
 
The twenty-seven amendments added to the Constitution have not changed the basic system of government in the United States. The government still has three separate and equal parts: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The three parts balance each other. No part is greater than another.
 
The first American states had no strong central government when they fought their war of independence from Britain in 1776. They cooperated under an agreement called the Articles of Confederation. The agreement provided for a Congress. But the Congress had few powers.
 
Each state governed itself. When the war ended, the states owed millions of dollars to their soldiers. They also owed money to European nations that had supported the Americans against Britain.
 
The new United States had no national money to pay the debts. There was an American dollar. But not everyone used it. And it did not have the same value everywhere.
 
The situation led to economic ruin for many people. They could not pay the money they owed. They lost their property. They were put in prison. Militant groups took action to help them. They interfered with tax collectors. They terrorized judges and burned court buildings.
 
The situation was especially bad in the northeast part of the country. In Massachusetts, a group led by a former soldier tried to seize guns and ammunition from the state military force.
 
Shays' Rebellion, as it was called, was stopped. But from north to south, Americans were increasingly worried and frightened. Would the violence continue? Would the situation get worse?
 
Many Americans distrusted the idea of a strong central government. After all, they had just fought a war to end British rule. Yet Americans of different ages, education, and social groups felt that something had to be done. If not, the new nation would fail before it had a chance to succeed.
 
These were the opinions and feelings that led, in time, to the writing of the United States Constitution. And that will be our story in the coming weeks of THE MAKING OF A NATION.
 
You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
 
___
 
This was program #15
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Zabl from: Russia
01/10/2013 12:53 PM
I'm sorry but I do not understand the meaning of Amendment 27.


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
12/15/2012 12:03 AM
It is repoted that twenty six schoolchildren and teachers were gunned down yesterday in Connectiicut. This case is said the tenth incident killed mass citizens by shooting since Obama taking office. There would be many reasons guns are not banned from American soociety. But I think now it's time for American lawmakers to approve amendment of the second amendment.


by: Rick from: Italy
12/14/2012 7:32 AM
This article explain very well the way a nation can born strong and free with the "power of money" and not with the "power of austerity" as europe try to do today. In other words, the power of involving all people in work and free economic market, and not impoverish people and separate as slavery did that in the past. Thanks VOA for all.

Learn with The News

  • Mideast Islamic State US

    Audio Top Islamic State Leaders Killed in Airstrikes

    Three top Islamic State leaders were killed in a series of targeted airstrikes in Iraq. U.S. not ruling out White House visit by Cuban President Raul Castro. Suspected Boko Haram gunmen kidnap over 100 women, children. Putin says Russia’s economy will improve in two years. More

  • the interview

    Video Sony Criticized for Cancelling 'The Interview'

    The company acted after a group of computer hackers attacked the company and threatened to attack movie theaters that show the film. Most people have criticized Sony’s decision to cancel the release. The US says North Korea was behind the cyber attack. North Korea denies the accusation. More

  • The MOM Incubator could save more babies in refugee camps who die due to complications of premature birth.

    Audio Low-Cost Incubator May Save More Babies

    Premature birth is the biggest killer of children worldwide. About one million babies around the world die of problems because they are born too early. Many of these babies could have been saved if they had been placed in an incubator. A young British researcher says he has found a solution. More

  • A screenshot from Cuban television shows President Raul Castro addressing the country, in Havana, Dec. 17, 2014.

    Audio US, Cuba Normalize Relations

    After the release of Alan Gross from prison, U.S. and Cuba announce policy changes that end more than 50 years of diplomatic isolation that began in the Cold War. Also in the news, India joins Pakistan in mourning after Tuesday's Taliban attack. And Sony Pictures cancels release of "The Interview." More

  • Audio How Much of You Does Facebook Own?

    If you use Facebook, your friends may have posted an update recently saying Facebook is not permitted to violate their privacy. But how much of your data -- things you post -- does Facebook legally own? Experts say Facebook's terms of service agreement clearly says they own most of what you post. More

Featured Stories

  • Video Music Shows in Private Homes Gain Popularity

    Attending a live musical performance, be it in a huge arena or a small cafe, is an exciting experience. But here in the U.S., a very different kind of performance is gaining popularity: house concerts. “There's just a totally unique experience as opposed to playing like a coffee shop or a bar." More

  • Lee Surrenders to Grant at Appomatox

    Audio Southern General Robert E. Lee Surrenders at Appomattox

    General Robert E. Lee’s military skill and intelligence helped extend the war between the states. But even his skill could not save the South from the industrial power of the North and its mighty armies -- armies that were better-fed and better-equipped. On Sunday, August 9, Lee surrendered. More

  • Uganda Playground for Disabled Children

    Audio Helping Uganda’s Disabled Children Play

    You may think that all children have freedom to play. But for children who look differently from others or have physical disabilities, the idea of play can seem far away. An organization in Uganda is seeking to change that. Read on to learn words needed to talk about this sometimes difficult topic. More

  • A microneedle used to inject glaucoma medications into the eye is shown next to a liquid drop from a conventional eye dropper. (Georgia Tech Photo: Gary Meek

    Audio Tiny Needles Treat Eye Disease

    Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness around the world. In the United States, more than two million people suffer from the disease. Now, researchers are developing very small needles that may offer a more effective and painless treatment for glaucoma and other eye diseases. More

  • The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas

    Audio Mob Museum Tells About the Mafia in America

    The U.S. government has long used public money to fight organized crime. Now, public money is also paying for a museum in Las Vegas to tell about "The Mob,” and not everyone is happy about that. But some say it helps the local economy by bringing people to a part of Las Vegas that few visit. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs