A constitution is a set of standards or principles by which an organization, such as a government, is to be governed. Such a collection of principles is established in a written document, which may apply to any organization from a corporation or non-profit organization, to a government. A governmental constitution is a social code, which declares the character of the government, and defines the philosophies and values to which society must conform. To explore this concept, consider the following constitution definition.
Definition of Constitution
- A document that conveys the system of fundamental principles by which a corporation, state, or nation is governed.
1350-1400 Middle English
The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law by which the United States is governed. A formal declaration of the beliefs of the people, which are based in a desire for personal freedom, the Constitution of the United States specifically describes the powers held by the federal government, reserves powers to the individual states, and sets forth personal, individual rights held by each citizen.
When the people of the Americas banded together to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the British government, a written document, known as the Articles of Confederation, was developed as a show of unity and strength of the people. The people had drawn together into 13 separate colonies, which had a desire to cooperate on a number of issues, overseen by a centralized government. The people were concerned, however, that a central government might become too powerful, effectively crushing the sovereignty of the individual colonies, leaving them in the same repressive state they had fled.
Because of this fear, the central government was given authority over the common defense of the colonies as a whole, the security of personal liberties, and the general wellbeing of the people. The document, however, did not grant the government the powers necessary to accomplish those goals.
For instance, the central government had no authority to tax the people, which means it did not have the funds necessary to operate the government itself. It also had no authority to enforce any acts passed by the government, and there was no national court system. These are just a few deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation that eventually crippled it, ensuring the need for a more comprehensive plan and document.
Once the colonies had freed themselves from British rule, principles by which the people would be governed were reconsidered, and enumerated and detailed in a new document, the U.S. Constitution. Originally comprised of seven articles, the U.S. Constitution made clear the separate powers of the state and federal governments, and divided the federal government into three branches, each holding certain checks and balances over the others. Since its ratification and implementation in 1789, the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times.
Amendments to the Constitution
Once the Constitution was ratified by all of the states, no changes were to be made to the original text. The states, however, did find there were certain things that needed to be clarified regarding personal rights of the people. To that end, Congress immediately undertook addressing those issues, creating amendments to the Constitution. Congressional representatives introduced 19 proposed amendments, of which 12 were approved and sent to the states for ratification. The first 10 of these amendments, which guarantee certain personal freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to bear arms, among others, are known collectively as the Bill of Rights.
The passing of the Bill of Rights is an example of Constitution cooperation. Since its implementation on December 10, 1791, there have been thousands of constitutional amendments proposed by representatives of the states, only 17 of which have been ratified. This is largely because the process of amending the Constitution is not a simple matter. In order to maintain the integrity of the Constitution, which declares the values and principles held dear by the American people, the very Constitution itself specifies that, once an amendment has been approved by Congress, it must be ratified by a minimum of three-fourths of the states. Today, that requires 38 of the 50 states.
The most recently adopted amendment to the Constitution, Amendment XXVII, prevents Congress from granting its members a pay raise during the current congressional session. Rather, any pay raise voted in cannot take effect until the following session begins. While this amendment was proposed originally in 1789, there was not enough interest or support in the states to ratify it until the American people became angered as members of Congress frequently and freely granted themselves raises. The Twenty-Seventh Amendment was ratified on May 7, 1992, more than 200 years after it was first proposed.
Preamble to the Constitution
The Preamble to the Constitution is an introduction to the document that clearly states the purposes the framers of the Constitution had in its creation. Once the content of the Constitution was finalized, the work was handed over to Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris I to be handwritten. A member of the Constitutional Convention’s Committee on Style and Arrangement, Morris was given broad discretion in the actual punctuation of many clauses. In addition, Morris penned the preamble, which reads:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Who Wrote the Constitution
The answer to the question who wrote the Constitution is not as straightforward as one might think. This comprehensive document pulls together principles from prior documents, including the Articles of Confederation, and the Declaration of Independence, and it includes additional provisions deemed necessary by the individuals involved in crafting the new government. The titles “Founding Fathers,” and “framers of the Constitution,” are given to these individuals, and many people mistakenly assume they mean the same thing. There is a definite difference.
The difference between the “founders” and the “framers” has a lot to do with when, in the process of organizing a new nation, the individuals became involved. The individuals credited with taking the initial actions toward freeing the colonists from British rule are considered to be the Founding Fathers. These men met together secretly before taking bold action in stating that the colonies had the right to be independent states free from oppression, and released from all allegiance to the British Crown. In fact, these brave men committed treason in their endeavors to gain their people’s freedom.
These meetings lead to the creation of a declaration of intent to break free from British rule, with the determination to send the declaration out to the colonies for their individual approval. Virginian activist Richard Henry Lee introduced such a resolution stating the colonies’ intent to claim independence to the Second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776. Congress adopted this decree, now referred to as the “Lee Resolution,” on July 2, 1776. The following day, John Adams wrote a letter to his Wife Abigail, which can only be described as an example of constitution euphoria, as he said:
“But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. – I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with4 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” (Quoted from Adams’ letter by way of the National Archives)
Founding Fathers are those people who also made significant intellectual contributions to the Constitution, and while most of them attended the Constitutional Convention, others were away taking care of important matters elsewhere.
Framers of the Constitution
The framers of the Constitution are those men who attended the Continental Convention, providing input, expressing the desires of the people, and discussing each and every provision before coming up with a final draft. Many of these men were also Founding Fathers, having put their necks on the line taking actions considered to be illegal, and even treasonous, to bring the people to the point of readiness to design a constitution.
Although 55 delegates attended the Constitutional Convention, only 39 of them signed the document upon its completion. The primary men credited with the communal authorship of the Constitution include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Paine. George Washington was responsible for organizing and overseeing the convention, which took place between May 5, 1787, and September 17, 1787.
Constitution Example in Corporations
A corporate constitution is a formal, written document, prepared by officers of the company, or its board of directors. While corporations are not required to have a constitution, many choose to do so as a way to declare the company’s goals, and the standards to which it will hold itself in the pursuit of those goals. Once a corporate constitution is enacted, amendments to the constitution can only be made by authorization of the board of directors.
Example constitutions are available for companies of various sizes, each taking into account the company’s structure. When creating a company constitution, the company has full discretion in what it contains. Recommended provisions include:
- General Terms and Definitions
- General Meetings
- Votes and Proxies
- Directors and Officers
- Director Meetings
- Dissolution of Corporation
- Indemnity of Officers
- Shares and Share Capital
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
- Colony – A group of people who leave their native country to settle a new land that is subject to the parent nation.
- Ratification – The official method to confirm something, usually by vote, especially the validation of a proposed law.
- Sovereignty – The authority of a state or nation to govern itself.
- Treason – The crime of betraying one’s country.