The United States Constitution is one of the most important documents in the history of the United States, yet there are many myths and misconceptions persist among the American public concerning its functions, purposes and goals. The following five myths are some of the most common and most important to understand.
- Misconception No. 1: The U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation and the Declaration of Independence are all the same document and serve the same purpose.
The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation are three separate documents written at different times for different purposes. The was signed on August 2 of 1776 (although it was ratified by the Continental Congress on July 4th). Its purpose was list grievances against Britain’s King George III and assert the right of the not-yet-formed United States to challenge Great Britain and form their own country.
During the Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1783, members of the Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified in 1781. The Articles of Confederation set forth ideas about how the newly formed country was to be governed. It put a great deal of emphasis on state rights rather than creating a strong central government. The Articles of Confederation governed the United States of America until March of 1789 when they were replaced by the much stronger Constitution.
The was drafted at the 2nd Continental Congress and included the Bill of Rights. Today the United States in governed by the US Constitution which gives the federal government far more power than it was allocated under the Articles of Confederation.
- Misconception No. 2: The U.S. Constitution made the United States a Democracy.
The United States is actually a Republic. While there are many democratic aspects to the U.S. government and the Constitution, a true and pure democracy would be the type of government in which all matters would be decided upon via a vote of the people where majority rules. As most people are aware, the American populace does not vote directly on all matters, but instead votes to elect people to decide those matters as representatives in Congress. When writing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers sought to form a government that utilized the idea of the democratic process but didn’t put every single decision in the hands of the people.
No one knows exactly who first stated that Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on whats for dinner,” although it is commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin. While he did not actually say it, he often shared these sentiments about the downsides of pure democracy; his views are clearly reflected in the Constitution.
- Misconception No. 3: The only way the U.S. can become involved in war or armed conflict is through Congressional approval.
According the Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11, also known as the “War Powers Clause,” of the US Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war. However, the president is commander and chief of the armed forces. This means that while Congress is the only entity in the U.S. government that can declare war, the president has the means to. Congress has not officially declared war since WWII although there have been multiple armed conflicts and even wars – all largely initiated and spearheaded by sitting presidents. Many people believe (and some people wish) that only Congress has the power to enter the United States in armed conflicts; in reality, that is not the case.
- Misconception No.4 – The United States Constitution explicitly states that there must be a separation of Church and State.
Should you ever take the time to peruse the entire , you may notice that the phrase separation of church and state is found nowhere within its pages. Article VI of the Constitution does guarantee, however, that no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States and the First Amendment to the Constitution (Bill of Rights) states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. These two statements and several Supreme Court rulings have effectively mandated that there be separation of church and state, however it is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution.
- Misconception No. 5: The US Constitution guarantees everyone the right to vote.
Since the right to vote seems like a cornerstone of the American political experience, this misconception may seem the most shocking of all. However, the right to vote is never explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Instead there is a list of reasons why you cant be denied the ability to vote for things like race or gender (as ratified in Constitutional Amendments during Reconstruction and the Progressive Era). It also mandates that people over 18 must be allowed to vote, an amendment that came into effect after protest to the Vietnam War. Despite all this, individual states have a great deal of leeway in establishing other criteria about voting. In several states, for example, people in jail are not able to vote. Had the Constitution guaranteed everyone the right to vote, these states may not have been able to do this.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the American Revolution
- Read the full text of and