The US Constitution is a World Constitution – The Cengage Blog

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Matt Kennedy is the Senior Internal World History Expert at Cengage

The United States Constitution may be one of the most influential founding documents in modern history. To some extent, this is due to the care with which the framers of the constitution drafted its provisions. But it is also because the American constitution was, in fact, a product of world the story. And this is something that will interest your students.

For example, students are often surprised to learn that our constitution was not the first constitution. Indeed, students may not realize that “constitutions” exist outside the context of United States history. It may be worth pointing out that people have been organizing governments for millennia, after all. And that’s all a “constitution” really is – an understanding of how the political institutions and rulers of a certain country are supposed to use the powers they have and an account of where they came from. of these powers.

Should Constitutions be written?

To help illustrate the long global history of the constitution, invite students to consider whether constitutions must be written documents to be effective. The constitutions are actually very old. Some have never been written. The ancient Romans had one that they spoke of with respect. Although they never wrote it down, Roman politicians, judges and scholars all honored its principles for nearly 500 years. Early modern England, and later Britain, referred to its unwritten constitution as one of the most enlightened since the 1600s. It remains unwritten today. In North America, the Iroquois Confederacy (called the Haudenosaunee) ordered its complex system of government through an oral constitution that some scholars date to the 1400s.

It wasn’t until the 1600s and 1700s that some countries began to write constitutions. This is a great opportunity to ask students “why then? Written constitutions were often favored by new types of governments called republics. Unlike monarchies of the time, republics believed that the power to govern came from the people at large, not from hereditary or divine right. The Republic of Venice, the predominant power in the Mediterranean at the end of the Middle Ages, was perhaps the most important. Although they did not have a single written constitution, from the 1200s the Venetians created a series of laws that set out in detail the operation of their various courts, political offices and assemblies, and the powers of each, a much like a written constitution. would do it today.

Written constitutions became increasingly popular throughout the 1600s. San Marino, Sweden, and the Colony of Connecticut each adopted one during this century. Consider an activity with your students that compares each of these documents, which you can find translated on the Internet. However, you can hardly consider these examples as democratic. Each maintained that the sovereigns, either the monarchs or God himself, were the source of all political power. However, they aimed to create a government with branches that could protect people from the whims of the monarch by giving them rights. Historians sometimes call these types of constitutions “enlightened constitutions” – a term that is ripe for exploration in discussion or in group work.

Enlightened Constitutions

Enlightened constitutions sought to take governance one step further by organizing a government whose powers emanated from the people. Claiming the people as the source of political power, it was even more important to create a system of checks and balances because there was no all-powerful ruler to enforce them. The framers of the 1700s Constitution drew on the writings of Enlightenment social theorists Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, both of whom argued that legitimate government depended on the consent of the governed. But they also looked to Baron de Montesquieu, who emphasized the balance of governmental powers so that none of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches became too strong. Such writings inspired the new republic of Corsica – an island in the Mediterranean – to create the first democratic constitution in 1763.

What influenced the US Constitution?

Students may wonder how each of these sources of constitutional thought influenced the American constitution. Consider asking students to rate the importance of global precedent to America’s own constitution. In some ways, it was good that the American Constitution was not the first constitution or the first written constitution. Many of the framers of the US constitution thought so too. Many had carefully studied the constitutions of history, written and unwritten, despotic and democratic, enlightened and unenlightened. These framers were grateful for advice from the past. Theorists like Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu were also important to them. But real examples that had stood the test of time were just as crucial.

Here, historical examples related to key personalities can be instructive. John Adams wrote that the Venetian constitution provided him with the best examples of effective checks and balances between the courts. Others, like James Madison, have praised the wisdom of the English constitution’s bill of rights. Still others, including George Washington, borrowed principles from Greek and Roman constitutional thought. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (an admirer of the Corsican constitution) both credited the Haudenosaunee constitution with influencing the system of political representation established in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the bundle of arrows held by the eagle in the official seal of the United States also refers to this influence.

Some Final Thoughts on Teaching the American Constitution

Choosing what powers American institutions should have, how they should use them, and to what ends was a monumental task. Guided by the political history of the world, the framers had abundant material on which to work. While the America of today is a far cry from the America of 1789, many of the key principles enshrined in our constitution have, thankfully, proven resilient time and time again. The American constitution was a world constitution. Ask your students if they think this helped the first republic become the state it is today.

Questions to consider when teaching the constitution to your history students:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a written constitution? And why did written constitutions become popular at this time?
  • Why did American framers look to both political theorists and other constitutions around the world when writing the US Constitution? Would the constitution have been as successful if the drafters had used only one source or the other?

Check out our recent Author Panel, where expert authors in political science and US history from Cengage reflect on the big questions facing the country through a lens of hope and optimism.

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