constitution is the aggregate of fundamental principles or established precedents that constitute the legal basis of a polityorganization, or another type of entity and commonly determine how that entity is to be governed.

When these principles are written down into a single document or set of legal documents, those documents may be said to embody a written constitution; if they are encompassed in a single comprehensive document, it is said to embody a codified constitutionThe Constitution of the United Kingdom is a notable example of an uncodified constitution; it is instead written in numerous fundamental Acts of a legislature, court cases or treat


Constitutions concern different levels of organizations, from sovereign countries to companies and unincorporated associations. A treaty which establishes an international organization is also its constitution, in that it would define how that organization is constituted. Within states, a constitution defines the principles upon which the state is based, the procedure in which laws are made and by whom. Some constitutions, especially codified constitutions, also act as limiters of state power, by establishing lines which a state’s rulers cannot cross, such as fundamental right

General Features

Generally, every modern written constitution confers specific powers on an organization or institutional entity, established upon the primary condition that it abides by the constitution’s limitations. According to Scott Gordon, a political organization is constitutional to the extent that it “contain[s] institutionalized mechanisms of power control for the protection of the interests and liberties of the citizenry, including those that may be in the minority“.[10]

Activities of officials within an organization or polity that fall within the constitutional or statutory authority of those officials are termed “within power” (or, in Latin, intra vires); if they do not, they are termed “beyond power” (or, in Latin, ultra vires). For example, a students’ union may be prohibited as an organization from engaging in activities not concerning students; if the union becomes involved in non-student activities, these activities are considered to be ultra vires of the union’s charter, and nobody would be compelled by the charter to follow them. An example from the constitutional law of sovereign states would be a provincial parliament in a federal state trying to legislate in an area that the constitution allocates exclusively to the federal parliament, such as ratifying a treaty. Action that appears to be beyond power may be judicially reviewed and, if found to be beyond power, must cease. Legislation that is found to be beyond power will be “invalid” and of no force; this applies to primary legislation, requiring constitutional authorization, and secondary legislation, ordinarily requiring statutory authorization. In this context, “within power”, intra vires, “authorized” and “valid” have the same meaning; as do “beyond power”, ultra vires, “not authorized” and “invalid”.

History and development

Since 1789, along with the Constitution of the United States of America (U.S. Constitution), which is the oldest and shortest written constitution still in force,[12] close to 800 constitutions have been adopted and subsequently amended around the world by independent states.[13]

In the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson predicted that a period of 20 years would be the optimal time for any constitution to be still in force, since “the earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead.”[14] Indeed, according to recent studies, the average life of any new written constitution is around 19 years. However, a great number of constitutions do not last more than 10 years, and around 10% do not last more than one year, as was the case of the French Constitution of 1791.By contrast, some constitutions, notably that of the United States, have remained in force for several centuries, often without major revision for long periods of time.

Pre-modern constitutions


Detail from Hammurabi‘s stele shows him receiving the laws of Babylon from the seated sun deity.

Excavations in modern-day Iraq by Ernest de Sarzec in 1877 found evidence of the earliest known code of justice, issued by the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagash c. 2300 BC. Perhaps the earliest prototype for a law of government, this document itself has not yet been discovered; however it is known that it allowed some rights to his citizens. For example, it is known that it relieved tax for widows and orphans, and protected the poor from the usury of the rich.

After that, many governments ruled by special codes of written laws. The oldest such document still known to exist seems to be the Code of Ur-Nammu of Ur (c. 2050 BC). Some of the better-known ancient law codes are the code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, the code of Hammurabi of Babylonia, the Hittite code, the Assyrian code, and Mosaic law.

In 621 BC, a scribe named Draco codified the oral laws of the city-state of Athens; this code prescribed the death penalty for many offenses (thus creating the modern term “draconian” for very strict rules). In 594 BC, Solon, the ruler of Athens, created the new Solonian Constitution. It eased the burden of the workers, and determined that membership of the ruling class was to be based on wealth (plutocracy), rather than on birth (aristocracy). Cleisthenes again reformed the Athenian constitution and set it on a democratic footing in 508 BC.

Diagram illustrating the classification of constitutions by Aristotle.

Aristotle (c. 350 BC) was the first to make a formal distinction between ordinary law and constitutional law, establishing ideas of constitution and constitutionalism, and attempting to classify different forms of constitutional government. The most basic definition he used to describe a constitution in general terms was “the arrangement of the offices in a state”. In his works Constitution of AthensPolitics, and Nicomachean Ethics, he explores different constitutions of his day, including those of Athens, Sparta, and Carthage. He classified both what he regarded as good and what he regarded as bad constitutions, and came to the conclusion that the best constitution was a mixed system including monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. He also distinguished between citizens, who had the right to participate in the state, and non-citizens and slaves, who did not.

The Romans initially codified their constitution in 450 BC as the Twelve Tables. They operated under a series of laws that were added from time to time, but Roman law was not reorganised into a single code until the Codex Theodosianus (438 AD); later, in the Eastern Empire, the Codex repetitæ prælectionis (534) was highly influential throughout Europe. This was followed in the east by the Ecloga of Leo III the Isaurian (740) and the Basilica of Basil I (878).

The Edicts of Ashoka established constitutional principles for the 3rd century BC Maurya king’s rule in India. For constitutional principles almost lost to antiquity, see the code of Manu.

Principles of constitutional design

After tribal people first began to live in cities and establish nations, many of these functioned according to unwritten customs, while some developed autocratic, even tyrannical monarchs, who ruled by decree, or mere personal whim. Such rule led some thinkers to take the position that what mattered was not the design of governmental institutions and operations, as much as the character of the rulers. This view can be seen in Plato, who called for rule by “philosopher-kings.”[55] Later writers, such as AristotleCicero and Plutarch, would examine designs for government from a legal and historical standpoint.

The Renaissance brought a series of political philosophers who wrote implied criticisms of the practices of monarchs and sought to identify principles of constitutional design that would be likely to yield more effective and just governance from their viewpoints. This began with revival of the Roman law of nations concept[56] and its application to the relations among nations, and they sought to establish customary “laws of war and peace”[57] to ameliorate wars and make them less likely. This led to considerations of what authority monarchs or other officials have and don’t have, from where that authority derives, and the remedies for the abuse of such authority.[58]

A seminal juncture in this line of discourse arose in England from the Civil War, the Cromwellian Protectorate, the writings of Thomas HobbesSamuel Rutherford, the LevellersJohn Milton, and James Harrington, leading to the debate between Robert Filmer, arguing for the divine right of monarchs, on the one side, and on the other, Henry NevilleJames TyrrellAlgernon Sidney, and John Locke. What arose from the latter was a concept of government being erected on the foundations of first, a state of nature governed by natural laws, then a state of society, established by a social contract or compact, which bring underlying natural or social laws, before governments are formally established on them as foundations.

Along the way several writers examined how the design of government was important, even if the government were headed by a monarch. They also classified various historical examples of governmental designs, typically into democracies, aristocracies, or monarchies, and considered how just and effective each tended to be and why, and how the advantages of each might be obtained by combining elements of each into a more complex design that balanced competing tendencies. Some, such as Montesquieu, also examined how the functions of government, such as legislative, executive, and judicial, might appropriately be separated into branches. The prevailing theme among these writers was that the design of constitutions is not completely arbitrary or a matter of taste. They generally held that there are underlying principles of design that constrain all constitutions for every polity or organization. Each built on the ideas of those before concerning what those principles might be.

The later writings of Orestes Brownson[59] would try to explain what constitutional designers were trying to do. According to Brownson there are, in a sense, three “constitutions” involved: The first the constitution of nature that includes all of what was called “natural law.” The second is the constitution of society, an unwritten and commonly understood set of rules for the society formed by a social contract before it establishes a government, by which it establishes the third, a constitution of government. The second would include such elements as the making of decisions by public conventions called by public notice and conducted by established rules of procedure. Each constitution must be consistent with, and derive its authority from, the ones before it, as well as from a historical act of society formation or constitutional ratification. Brownson argued that a state is a society with effective dominion over a well-defined territory, that consent to a well-designed constitution of government arises from presence on that territory, and that it is possible for provisions of a written constitution of government to be “unconstitutional” if they are inconsistent with the constitutions of nature or society. Brownson argued that it is not ratification alone that makes a written constitution of government legitimate, but that it must also be competently designed and applied.

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