November 01, 2014 06:07 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

  • FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, walks past Chinese President Xi Jinping as they arrive to the Monument to the People's Heroes during a ceremony marking Martyr’s Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Sept. 30, 2014.

    Audio China’s Constitution Receives New Attention

    The constitution took effect in the early 1980s, when the Communist Party was opening up the country economically. Now China is at a new crossroads. Observers say it is reaching for a new economic growth model. Chinese officials will promise to defend its rules when they take office. | In The News More

  • Video More US Hispanic Women Convert to Islam

    Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. The Pew Research Center says about six percent of American Muslims are Latino. And women make up a little more than half of the new converts -- the people who have changed their religion to Islam. More

  • This image released by USCIS shows a sample of the front of the redesigned green card carried by foreign-born residents living permanently in the U.S. The Homeland Security Department is issuing the redesigned "green card" that is stacked with safety feat

    Audio US 'Green Card Lottery' Ending November 3

    State Department’s Diversity Visa program closes November 3rd. Millions of people have entered the program, hoping to win a visa. But only 50,000 are chosen. 5,000 more are available under the Nicaraguan and Central America Relief Act. The green card lottery closes on Monday. | As It Is More

  • A convoy of peshmerga vehicles is escorted by Turkish Kurds on their way to the Turkish-Syrian border, in Kiziltepe near the southeastern city of Mardin October 29, 2014

    Audio Iraqi Kurdish Fighters Enter Kobani

    Also in the news, Burkina Faso ends efforts to extend its presidential term limit after protests in the capital. Ukraine says the EU will be guarantor in any gas deal with Russia. Myanmar holds a major meeting Friday. And claims of cheating delay SAT results for South Korean and Chinese students. More

  • Video Singapore Film Ban Raises Free Speech Issue

    The documentary film, “To Singapore, with Love” tells about political dissidents from Singapore. The film has been shown at public events in Britain, India and Malaysia, among other countries. But one place the movie cannot be seen is Singapore. That is because the government there has banned it. More

Featured Stories

  • Obama Halloween

    Audio Halloween Is Big with Kids and Business

    The National Retail Federation says sales of Halloween goods will total about $7.4 billion this year. It says the average American will spend about $77. The group expects 162 million people to celebrate. The NRF predicts 54 million of them will hold Halloween parties. | American Mosaic More

  • A print shows the Second Battle of Bull Run, also called Second Manassas.

    Audio South Defeats North Again at Manassas

    Lincoln named George Pope to lead the Army of Virginia. He wanted to join Pope’s forces with the Army of the Potomac and break through Confederate defenses around Richmond. But General Robert E. Lee decided to hit Pope first. More

  • Star House

    Video Home of Last Comanche Chief Close to Ruins

    One of the most interesting people in U.S. history is Quanah Parker, the last chief of the country’s Comanche Indian tribe. Quanah Parker was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Quanah Parker was a fierce fighter. More

  • FILE - A veterinarian at the nonprofit Bali Animal Welfare Association gives a rabies shot to a puppy in Kebon Kaja village, Bangli Regency in Bali, Indonesia.

    Audio Mass Vaccination of Dogs Can Eliminate Rabies

    About 70,000 people worldwide die every year of rabies. Rabies is a viral infection that people get mainly through dog bites. Scientists say vaccinating dogs can effectively get rid of rabies outbreaks in dog populations. And this will have a domino effect, fewer humans with rabies. More

  • Methane oxidizing

    Photogallery Small Organisms in Deep Sea Rocks Eat Methane

    The gas methane has been linked to rising temperatures on Earth. But methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as another “greenhouse gas” -- carbon dioxide. Scientists say both gases trap heat from the sun. They prevent heat from escaping into outer space. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs