AskDefine | Define constitution

Dictionary Definition



1 law determining the fundamental political principles of a government [syn: fundamental law, organic law]
2 the act of forming something; "the constitution of a PTA group last year"; "it was the establishment of his reputation"; "he still remembers the organization of the club" [syn: establishment, formation, organization, organisation]
3 the way in which someone or something is composed [syn: composition, makeup]
4 United States 44-gun frigate that was one of the first three naval ships built by the United States; it won brilliant victories over British frigates during the War of 1812 and is without doubt the most famous ship in the history of the United States Navy; it has been rebuilt and is anchored in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston [syn: Old Ironsides]

User Contributed Dictionary


see Constitution



  1. The act, or process of setting something up, or establishing something; the composition or structure of such a thing; its makeup.
  2. The formal or informal system of primary principles and laws that regulates a government or other institutions.
  3. A legal document describing such a formal system.
  4. The general health of a person.
  5. A person's physique or temperament

Derived terms


act or process of setting something up, or establishing something; composition, structure, makeup
  • Finnish: kokoaminen, perustaminen, perustus; koostumus, rakenne
  • German: Verfassen; Verfassung
  • Hebrew: הרכב (composition)
  • Hungarian: alkotmány
  • Ido: konstituco
  • Japanese: 編成, 構成
  • Portuguese: constituição
formal or informal system of primary principles and laws regulating a government or other institutions
legal document describing such a formal system
general health of a person

Extensive Definition

A constitution is a system for governance, often codified as a written document, that establishes the rules and principles of an autonomous political entity. In the case of countries, this term refers specifically to a national constitution defining the fundamental political principles, and establishing the structure, procedures, powers and duties, of a government. Most national constitutions also guarantee certain rights to the people. Historically, before the evolution of modern-style, codified national constitutions, the term constitution could be applied to any important law that governed the functioning of a government.
Constitutions concern different kinds of political organizations. They are found extensively in regional government, at supranational (e.g. European Union), Federal (e.g. United States Constitution), state or provincial (e.g. Constitution of Maryland), and sub-national levels. They are also found in many political groups, such as political parties, pressure groups, and trade unions.
Non-political entities, whether incorporated or not, also have constitutions. These include corporations and voluntary associations.


The term constitution comes from Latin, referring to issuing any important law, usually by the Roman emperor. Later, the term was widely used in canon law to indicate certain relevant decisions, mainly from the Pope.

General features

Generally, all constitutions confer specific powers to an organization on the condition that it abides by this constitution or charter limitation.
The Latin term ultra vires describes activities of officials within an organization or polity that fall outside the constitutional or statutory authority of those officials. 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 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 nation-states would be a provincial government in a federal state trying to legislate in an area exclusively enumerated to the federal government in the constitution, such as ratifying a treaty. Ultra vires gives a legal justification for the forced cessation of such action, which might be enforced by the people with the support of a decision of the judiciary, in a case of judicial review. A violation of rights by an official would be ultra vires because a (constitutional) right is a restriction on the powers of government, and therefore that official would be exercising powers he doesn't have.
When an official act is unconstitutional, i.e. it is not a power granted to the government by the Constitution, that act is null and void, and the nullification is ab initio, that is, from inception, not from the date of the finding. It was never "law", even though, if it had been a statute or statutory provision, it might have been adopted according to the procedures for adopting legislation. Sometimes the problem is not that a statute is unconstitutional, but the application of it is, on a particular occasion, and a court may decide that while there are ways it could be applied that are constitutional, that instance was not allowed or legitimate. In such a case, only the application may be ruled unconstitutional. Historically, the remedy for such violations have been petitions for common law writs, such as quo warranto.

History and development

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 ca 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 (ca 2050 BC). Some of the better-known ancient law codes include the code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin, the code of Hammurabi of Babylonia, the Hittite code, the Assyrian code, Mosaic law, and the Cyrus cylinder by Cyrus the Great of Persia.
In 621 BC, a scribe named Draco wrote the laws of the city-state of Athens; and being quite cruel, this code prescribed the death penalty for any offence. In 594 BC, Solon, the ruler of Athens, created the new Solonian Constitution. It eased the burden of the workers, however it made the ruling class to be determined by wealth, rather than by birth. Cleisthenes again reformed the Athenian constitution and set it on a democratic footing in 508 BC.
Aristotle (ca 350 BC) was one of the first in recorded history 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 Athens, Politics, 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 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 exclusive opportunity to participate in the state, and non-citizens and slaves who did not.
The Romans first codified their constitution in 449 BC as the Twelve Tables. They operated under a series of laws that were added from time to time, but Roman law was never reorganised into a single code until the Codex Theodosianus (AD 438); later, in the Eastern Empire the Codex repetitæ prælectionis (A.D. 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 that 3rd century BCE Maurya king's rule in Ancient India.
Many of the Germanic peoples that filled the power vacuum left by the Western Roman Empire in the Early Middle Ages codified their laws. One of the first of these Germanic law codes to be written was the Visigothic Code of Euric (471). This was followed by the Lex Burgundionum, applying separate codes for Germans and for Romans; the Pactus Alamannorum; and the Salic Law of the Franks, all written soon after 500. In 506, the Breviarum or "Lex Romana" of Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, adopted and consolidated the Codex Theodosianus together with assorted earlier Roman laws. Systems that appeared somewhat later include the Edictum Rothari of the Lombards (643), the Lex Visigothorum (654), the Lex Alamannorum (730) and the Lex Frisionum (ca 785).
Japan's Seventeen-article constitution written in 604, reportedly by Prince Shōtoku, is an early example of a constitution in Asian political history. Influenced by Buddhist teachings, the document focuses more on social morality than institutions of government per se and remains a notable early attempt at a government constitution. Another is the Constitution of Medina, drafted by the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, in 622. It is said to be one of the earliest constitutions which guarantees basic rights to religions and adherents as well as reinforcing a judiciary process regarding the rules of warfare, tax and civil disputes.
The Gayanashagowa, or 'oral' constitution of the Iroquois nation, has been estimated to date from between 1090 and 1150, and is also thought by some to have provided a partial inspiration for the US Constitution.
In England, Henry I's proclamation of the Charter of Liberties in 1100 bound the king for the first time in his treatment of the clergy and the nobility. This idea was extended and refined by the English barony when they forced King John to sign Magna Carta in 1215. The most important single article of the Magna Carta, related to "habeas corpus", provided that the king was not permitted to imprison, outlaw, exile or kill anyone at a whim — there must be due process of law first. This article, Article 39, of the Magna Carta read:
No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.
Uncodified constitutions are the product of an "evolution" of laws and conventions over centuries. By contrast to codified constitutions, in the Westminster tradition that originated in England, uncodified constitutions include written sources: e.g. constitutional statutes enacted by the Parliament (House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, Northern Ireland Act 1998, Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 1998, European Communities Act 1972 and Human Rights Act 1998); and also unwritten sources: constitutional conventions, observation of precedents, royal prerogatives, custom and tradition, such as always holding the General Election on Thursdays; together these constitute the British constitutional law. In the days of the British Empire, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council acted as the constitutional court for many of the British colonies such as Canada and Australia which had federal constitutions.
In states using uncodified constitutions, the difference between constitutional law and statutory law (i.e. law applying to any area of governance) in legal terms is nil. Both can be altered or repealed by a simple majority in Parliament. In practice, democratic governments do not use this opportunity to abolish all civil rights, which in theory they could do, but the distinction between regular and constitutional law is still somewhat arbitrary, usually depending on the traditional devotion of popular opinion to historical principles embodied in important past legislation. For example, several Acts of Parliament such as the Bill of Rights, Human Rights Act and, prior to the creation of Parliament, Magna Carta are regarded as granting fundamental rights and principles which are treated as almost constitutional.
Written versus codified
The term written constitution is used to describe a constitution that is entirely written, which by definition includes every codified constitution. However, some constitutions are entirely written but, strictly speaking, not entirely codified. For example, in the Constitution of Australia, most of its fundamental political principles and regulations concerning the relationship between branches of government, and concerning the government and the individual are codified in a single document, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. However, the presence of statutes with constitutional significance, namely the Statute of Westminster, as adopted by the Commonwealth in the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942, and the Australia Act 1986 means that Australia's constitution is not contained in a single constitutional document. The Constitution of Canada, which evolved from the British North America Acts until severed from nominal British control by the Canada Act 1982 (analogous to the Australia Act 1986), is a similar example.
The term written constitution is often used interchangeably with codified constitution, and similarly unwritten constitution is used interchangeably with uncodified constitution. As shown above, this usage with respect to written and codified constitutions can be inaccurate. Strictly speaking, unwritten constitution is never an accurate synonym for uncodified constitution, because all modern democratic constitutions consist of some written sources, even if they have no different technical status than ordinary statutes. Another term used is formal (written) constitution, for example in the following context: "The United Kingdom has no formal constitution." This usage is correct, but it should be construed to mean that the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, not that the UK has no constitution of any kind, which would not be correct.
A constitution can be written but not codified. Codified would suggest written in one document. This means that a constitution that has a number of written sources is still written, but not codified.


The presence or lack of entrenchment is a fundamental feature of constitutions. Entrenchment refers to whether the constitution is legally protected from modification without a procedure of constitutional amendment. Entrenchment is an inherent feature in most written constitutions. The US constitution is an example of an entrenched constitution, and the UK constitution is an example of a constitution that is not entrenched.
The procedure for modifying a constitution is often called amending. Amending an entrenched constitution requires more than the approval of the national legislature, it requires wider acceptance. Sometimes, the reason for this is that the constitution is considered supreme law, such as according to the supremacy clause in the US constitution. Regardless of whether a constitution has this technical status, all states with an entrenched constitution recognise the difference between constitutional law and ordinary statutory law . Procedures for ratification of constitutional amendments vary between states. In a federal system of government, the approval of a majority of state/provincial legislatures may be required. Alternatively, a national referendum may be required in some states, such as in Australia.
In constitutions that are not entrenched, no special procedure is required for modification. In the small number of countries with un-entrenched constitutions, the lack of entrenchment is because the constitution is not recognised with any higher legal status than ordinary statutes. In the UK, for example, passing laws which modify sources of the constitution, whether they are written or unwritten, are passed on a simple majority in Parliament. The concept of "amendment" does not apply, as the constitution can be altered as easily in terms of procedure as any national law.

Distribution of sovereignty

Constitutions also establish where sovereignty is located in the state. There are three basic types of distribution of sovereignty: federal, unitary and confederal. A federal system of government will inevitably have a constitution that recognizes the division of sovereignty between the centre and peripheral/provincial regions of the state. The Canadian Constitution is an example of this, dividing power between the federal government and the provinces. A unitary constitution recognises that sovereignty resides only in the centre of the state. In the UK, the constitutional doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty dictates than sovereignty is ultimately contained at the centre. Confederal constitutions are rare, and there is often dispute to whether so-called "confederal" states are actually federal. In a confederacy, sovereignty is located in peripheral regions/provinces and only limited power is granted to the centre. A historical example of a confederal constitution is the Swiss Federal Constitution.

Separation of powers

Constitutions usually explicitly divide power between various branches of government. The standard model, described by Baron de Montesquieu, involves three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. Some constitutions include additional branches, such as an auditory branch. Constitutions vary extensively as to the degree of separation of powers between these branches.

Lines of accountability

In presidential and semi-presidential systems of government, department secretaries/ministers are accountable to the president, who has patronage powers to appoint and dismiss ministers. The president is accountable to the people in an election.
In parliamentary systems, ministers are accountable to Parliament, but it is the prime minister who appoints and dismisses them. In Westminster systems, this power derives from the monarch (or head of state in Westminster-style republics, such as India and the Republic of Ireland), a component of Parliament. There is the concept of a vote of no confidence in many countries with parliamentary systems, which means that if a majority of the legislature vote for a no confidence motion, then the government must resign, and a new one will be formed, or parliament will be dissolved and a general election called.

Façade constitutions

Italian political theorist Giovanni Sartori noted the existence of national constitutions which are a façade for authoritarian sources of power. While such documents may express respect for human rights or establish an independent judiciary, they may be ignored when the government feels threatened or entirely dishonoured in practice. An extreme example was the Constitution of the Soviet Union that on paper supported freedom of assembly or freedom of speech; however, citizens who acted accordingly were summarily imprisoned. The example demonstrates that the protections and benefits of a constitution are provided less through its written terms than through deference by government and society to its principles.

Constitutional courts

The constitution is often protected by a certain legal body in each country with various names, such as supreme, constitutional or high court. This court judges the compatibility of legislation with the provisions and principles of the constitution, which is termed "constitutionality." Especially important is the court's responsibility to protect constitutionally established rights and freedoms. In constitutions without the concept of supreme law, such as the United Kingdom constitution, the concept of "constitutionality" has little meaning, and constitutional courts do not exist. A "constitutional violation" is an action or legislative act that is judged by a constitutional court to be contrary to the constitution, that is, "unconstitutional." An example of constitutional violation by the executive could be a politician who abuses the powers of his constitutionally-established office. An example of constitutional violation by the legislature is an attempt to pass a law that would contradict the constitution, without first going through the proper constitutional amendment process.
A constitutional court is normally the court of last resort, the highest judicial body in the government. The process of judicial review is then integrated into the system of courts of appeal. This is the case, for example, with the Supreme Court of the United States or Supreme Court of India. Cases must normally be heard in lower courts before being brought before the Supreme Court, except cases for which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction. Some other countries dedicate a special court solely to the protection of the constitution, as with the German Constitutional Court. Most constitutional courts are powerful instruments of judicial review, with the power to declare laws "unconstitutional," that is, incompatible with the constitution. The effect of this ruling varies between governments, but it is common for the courts' action to rule a law unenforceable, as is the case in the United States. However, many courts have the problem of relying on the legislative and executive branches' co-operation to properly enforce their decisions. For example, in the United States, the Supreme Court's ruling overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine in the 1950s depended on individual states co-operation to enforce. Some failed to do so, prompting the federal government to intervene. Other countries, such as France, have a Constitutional Council which may only judge the constitutionality of laws before the ratification process.
Some countries, mainly those with uncodified constitutions, have no such courts at all – for example, as the United Kingdom traditionally functions under the principle of parliamentary sovereignty: the legislature has the power to enact any law it wishes. However, through its membership in the European Union, the UK is now subject to the jurisdiction of European Union law and the European Court of Justice; similarly, by acceding to the Council of Europe's European Convention on Human Rights, it is subject to the European Court of Human Rights. In effect, these bodies are constitutional courts that can invalidate or interpret UK legislation for compliance with international treaty obligations, first established as a principle by the Factortame case.
Judicial philosophies of constitutional interpretation (note: generally specific to United States constitutional law)


External links

constitution in Tosk Albanian: Verfassung
constitution in Arabic: دستور
constitution in Asturian: Constitución
constitution in Azerbaijani: Konstitusiya
constitution in Bengali: সংবিধান
constitution in Min Nan: Hiàn-hoat
constitution in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Канстытуцыя
constitution in Bosnian: Ustav
constitution in Breton: Bonreizh
constitution in Bulgarian: Конституция
constitution in Catalan: Constitució
constitution in Czech: Ústava
constitution in Danish: Forfatning
constitution in German: Verfassung
constitution in Estonian: Põhiseadus
constitution in Modern Greek (1453-): Σύνταγμα
constitution in Spanish: Constitución
constitution in Esperanto: Konstitucio
constitution in Basque: Konstituzio
constitution in Persian: قانون اساسی
constitution in French: Constitution
constitution in Galician: Constitución
constitution in Korean: 헌법
constitution in Croatian: Ustav
constitution in Ido: Konstituco
constitution in Indonesian: Konstitusi
constitution in Icelandic: Stjórnarskrá
constitution in Italian: Costituzione
constitution in Hebrew: חוקה
constitution in Javanese: Konstitusi
constitution in Kannada: ಸಂವಿಧಾನ
constitution in Georgian: კონსტიტუცია
constitution in Swahili (macrolanguage): Katiba
constitution in Haitian: Konstitisyon
constitution in Latvian: Konstitūcija
constitution in Lithuanian: Konstitucija
constitution in Limburgan: Grondwet
constitution in Hungarian: Alkotmány
constitution in Macedonian: Устав
constitution in Malay (macrolanguage): Perlembagaan
constitution in Dutch: Grondwet
constitution in Dutch Low Saxon: Groendwet
constitution in Japanese: 憲法
constitution in Norwegian: Konstitusjon
constitution in Norwegian Nynorsk: Grunnlov
constitution in Narom: Constitution
constitution in Occitan (post 1500): Constitucion
constitution in Pushto: اساسي قانون
constitution in Low German: Verfaten
constitution in Polish: Konstytucja
constitution in Portuguese: Constituição
constitution in Romanian: Constituţie
constitution in Quechua: Hatun kamachi
constitution in Russian: Конституция
constitution in Sicilian: Custituzzioni
constitution in Simple English: Constitution
constitution in Slovak: Ústava
constitution in Slovenian: Ustava
constitution in Serbian: Устав
constitution in Serbo-Croatian: Ustav
constitution in Finnish: Perustuslaki
constitution in Swedish: Grundlag
constitution in Tagalog: Saligang batas
constitution in Thai: รัฐธรรมนูญ
constitution in Vietnamese: Hiến pháp
constitution in Tajik: Сарқонун
constitution in Turkish: Anayasa
constitution in Ukrainian: Конституція
constitution in Venetian: Costituzsion
constitution in Walloon: Mwaisse lwè
constitution in Yiddish: קאנסטיטוציע
constitution in Chinese: 宪法

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Bill of Rights, act, allocation, allotment, anatomy, animus, apportionment, aptitude, architectonics, architecture, arrangement, array, arraying, assemblage, assembly, bent, bias, body-build, brand, build, building, buildup, cast, character, characteristic, characteristics, collation, collocation, combination, complexion, composition, compound, concurrent resolution, conformation, constituents, constitutional amendment, constitutional guarantees, construction, crasis, creation, deployment, design, dharma, diathesis, disposal, disposition, distribution, eccentricity, effectuation, embodiment, enaction, enactment, establishment, ethos, fabric, fabrication, fashion, fashioning, fiber, forging, form, format, formation, formulation, foundation, frame, genius, getup, grain, habit, hue, humor, humors, idiosyncrasy, ilk, inauguration, inception, inclination, incorporation, individualism, installation, institution, joint resolution, junction, kidney, kind, lawmaking, leaning, legislation, legislature, make, makeup, making, manufacture, marshaling, materialization, mental set, mettle, mind, mind-set, mixture, mold, molding, nature, order, ordering, organic structure, organism, organization, passage, passing, pattern, patterning, physique, piecing together, placement, plan, predilection, predisposition, preference, proclivity, production, propensity, property, putting together, quality, realization, regimentation, resolution, set, setting-up, setup, shape, shaping, slant, somatotype, sort, spirit, stamp, strain, streak, stripe, structure, structuring, suchness, syneresis, syntax, synthesis, system, tectonics, temper, temperament, tendency, tenor, texture, tissue, tone, turn, turn of mind, twist, type, unwritten constitution, vein, warp, warp and woof, way, weave, web, written constitution
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