A constitution is the basic law and general plan of government for a people within a country. The purposes, powers, and limitations of government are prescribed in the constitution. It thus sets forth the way a people is governed or ruled.
A constitution is the supreme law of a country. Laws later enacted by the government must conform to the provisions of the constitution. All institutions, groups, and individuals within the community are expected to obey the supreme law of the constitution.
A constitution is a framework for organizing and conducting the government of a country, but it is not a blueprint for the day-to-day operations of the government. The Constitution of the United States of America, for example, is less than 7,500 words long. It does not specify the details of how to run the government. The officials who carry out the business of the constitutional government supply the details, but these specifics must fit the general framework set forth in the U.S. Constitution.
A defining attribute of a democratic constitution is its granting and limiting of powers to the government in order to guarantee national safety and unity as well as individuals’ right to liberty. It sets forth generally what the constitutional government is and is not permitted to do. There cannot be an authentic democracy unless the powers of government are limited constitutionally to protect the people against tyranny of any kind.
Constitutions vary in length, design, and complexity, but all of them have at least seven common attributes:
- a statement of the purposes of government, usually in a preamble
- specification of the structure of government
- enumeration, distribution, and limitation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government
- provisions about citizenship
- guarantees of human rights
- means of electing and appointing government officials
- procedures for amendment
Most countries of the world today have a constitution that is written in a single document. Very few countries, such as Israel, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have “unwritten” constitutions. These so-called unwritten constitutions are composed of various fundamental legislative acts, court decisions, and customs, which have never been collected or summarized in a single document. However, as long as an unwritten constitution really limits and guides the actions of the government to provide the rule of law, then the conditions of constitutional government are fulfilled.
The Constitution of the United States, written in 1787 and ratified by the required nine states in 1788, is the oldest written constitution in use among the countries of the world today. However, the constitution of the State of Massachusetts was written and ratified in 1780 and, although extensively amended, is still operational, which makes it the world’s oldest written constitution in use today. Most of the world’s working constitutions have existed only since 1960, and many of the world’s democracies have adopted their constitutions since 1990.
John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide