What Is a Constitution?

US Constitution
US Constitution

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Constitution Definition

The word “constitution” comes from the Latin word constitutio. It is a collection of foundational principles or precedents that make up (or constitute) the legal basis of an organization or government by determining how that entity will be governed.

Constitution Meaning

Similar terms for a constitution include a charter, body of law, system of laws, and fundamental principles. It is a composition of something.

Hammer and gavel
A constitution is a foundational document.

As a legal document, it is a collection of laws and regulations that create a ruling document for a government. The most common usage of the word constitution is to refer to the ruling charter of a government.

The United States Constitution has three distinct characteristics:

  1. The constitution serves as the supreme law of the land.
  2. It provides a framework for a government.
  3. The constitution acts as a legitimate way to grant and limit government officials’ powers.

How Does a Constitution Work?

A constitution is a set of rules that define and guide how a political organization functions.

We the People
A constitution determines how a government will function.

As the word implies, a constitution is a collection, so this grouping of laws creates a set of expectations for how a government will function.

The political representatives are expected to follow the rules and laws set down in the constitution to run the government.

How Does the Constitution Establish the Government?

Typically, a constitution will establish the various branches of the government. It itemizes and defines how these branches will function. 

The White House
The United States government consist of three branches.

The constitution will also describe what powers the branches of the government have.

Additionally, the constitution will explain and define how the branches of the government will function within their stated powers.

Constitutional Rights and Freedoms

A constitution will also establish and state the citizens’ rights, privileges, and duties. 

With the rights of the citizenry spelled out in the constitution, citizens can expect to have these rights guaranteed and not be denied without legal due process.

What Is the Purpose of a Constitution?

A constitution functions on several important principles. A country’s constitution defines the type of government a country has and forms the basis for that nation’s sovereignty. 

United States Supreme Court
In the United States there is a separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

It does this by creating the branches of government and a separation of the powers of those branches.

It also defines how each branch is independent of one another and how they are dependent on each other. 

In so doing, a constitution lays out the procedures the branches of the government will follow while carrying out their constitutional tasks and responsibilities.

An essential function of a constitution is to direct the state and federal governments in making legislation. 

Congress building
The United States Congress is responsible for proposing and passing legislation.

It does this by laying out procedures for the roles of legislation, administration, and the execution of the mechanics of the government.

A constitution provides for a judicial review system to ensure legislation’s constitutionality.

Checks and Balances of a Constitution

Finally, a constitution acts as a check against the misuse of power by providing for accountability of the government and the representatives working therein to the country’s citizens.

Importance of a Constitution

Arguably, the most important function of a constitution is to provide for a set of fundamental rights to the country’s citizens. 

Lady Justice statue
Lady Justice.

These fundamental rights are safeguarded by listing those rights, the checks and balances of the governmental structure, and the separation of powers that protect those rights.

Why Do We Need a Constitution?

Why does a country need a constitution?

What purpose does it serve?

Here are some reasons why a constitution is needed:

  • A constitution provides for the rule of a nation.
  • A constitution provides for a separation of governing powers.
  • A constitution divides power throughout the country between the states and the federal government.
  • A constitution forms the relationship between a nation’s people and government.
  • A constitution sets the standards, principles, and procedures for the peaceful rule of law.
  • A constitution provides for the rights of the citizens living within the country.
  • A constitution allows for diverse groups of people to live peacefully together.

What Alternatives Are There to a Constitution?

There are types of national governments that are not based on a constitution. Any country that allows unlimited power to the national rulers or little control over those in authority would be a non-constitutional government.

Buckingham Palace
Great Britain is governed by a constitutional monarchy.

A Non-Constitutional Government

Generally, a nation ruled by hereditary monarchs or dictators is considered a non-constitutional country. In this situation, the person in power is the basis for the law of the land. 

A non-constitutional government is not formed through voter consent and cannot be removed through legal means.

The Constitution of the United States

The United States Constitution is the basis for creating the United States of America. It is at the same time the basis for the government that rules and runs the United States. 

The constitution provides certain rights for citizens of the United States by defining those rights and the law based on those rights.

The United States Constitution provides for a separation of powers with a set of checks and balances within the three branches of the federal government.

The constitution does this with the establishment of the three branches of government.

  • The Legislative Branch
  • The Executive Branch
  • The Judicial Branch

The constitution specifies that the Legislative Branch makes the laws to run the country, the Executive Branch has the authority to execute the laws, and the Judicial Branch interprets the laws to make sure they conform to the dictates of the Constitution.

First Written Constitution

The United States was the first nation in the world to create a constitution. The United States Constitution was formed in 1788 by the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, whose delegates developed the constitutional concept.

It was a unique and innovative idea devised by Founding Fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, as they sought independence from Great Britain.

A constitutional government was a revolutionary innovation that was in stark contrast to the existing governments of the day.

Since then, the concept of constitutionalism has been adopted by many other countries seeking to create a new form of government for themselves.

What Is a Constitution? Quiz

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One Response

  1. I believe that a subset to this quality subject would be “The Implications of an Oath/Pledge to the US Constitution “

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