constitution (principles of government)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

constitution (principles of government)

constitution, fundamental principles of government in a nation, either implied in its laws, institutions, and customs, or embodied in one fundamental document or in several. In the first category—customary and unwritten constitutions—is the British constitution, which is contained implicitly in the whole body of common and statutory law of the realm, and in the practices and traditions of the government. Because it can be modified by an ordinary act of Parliament, the British constitution is often termed flexible. This enables Britain to react quickly to any constitutional emergency, but it affords no fundamental protections of civil or personal liberty, or any areas in which parliamentary legislation is expressly forbidden. The theory of the social contract, developed in the 17th cent. by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, was fundamental to the development of the modern constitution. The Constitution of the United States, written in 1787 and ratified in 1789, was the first important written constitution, and a model for a vast number of subsequent constitutional documents. Though to a large extent based on the principles and practices of the British constitution, the Constitution of the United States has superior sanction to the ordinary laws of the land, interpreted through a process of judicial review that passes judgment on the constitutionality of subsequent legislation, and that is subject to a specially prescribed process of amendment. The rigidity of its written format has been counterbalanced by growth and usage: in particular, statutory elaboration (see Congress of the United States) and judicial construction (see Supreme Court, United States, and Marshall, John) have kept the written document abreast of the times. But a written constitution, without a commitment to its principles and civil justice, has often proved to be a temporary or rapidly reversed gesture. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th cent., many countries, having made sharp political and economic departures from the past, had little legal custom to rely upon and therefore set forth their organic laws in written constitutions—some of which are judicially enforced. Adolf Hitler never formally abolished the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and the protections of personal liberties contained in the Soviet constitution of 1936 proved to be empty promises. Since the 1960s, many of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa have adopted written constitutions, often on the model of the American, British, or French constitutions.

See E. McWhinney, Constitution-Making (1981); V. Bhagwan and V. Bhushan, World Constitutions (2d ed. 1987); P. Bobbitt, Constitutional Interpretation (1991); J. W. Peltason, Understanding the Constitution (12th ed. 1991).

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