set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed
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A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is. When these principles are written down into a single collection or set of legal documents, those documents may be said to comprise a written constitution.
- The problem in any constitutional change is the great care put to solve the problems of the past instead of grasping those of the future.
- (fr) Le défaut inhérent à tout changement constitutionnel tient au grand soin mis à régler les problèmes du passé au lieu de saisir ceux de l’avenir.
- Olivier Duhamel, Droit constitutionnel 2: Les Démocraties (3rd ed.). Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2000, p. 105
- A constitution, as Solon said, is good for a certain people and for a certain time. It shouldn’t be mummified.
- (fr) Une constitution, comme disait Solon, est bonne pour un peuple et pour un temps. Il ne faut pas la momifier.
- Charles de Gaulle, quoted in Alain Peyrefitte: C’était De Gaulle. Paris: Gallimard, 2002, p. 250
- A constitution is made of a spirit, institutions, and a practice.
- (fr) Une constitution, c’est un esprit, des institutions, une pratique.
- Charles de Gaulle, Press Conference on 31 January 1964, Élysée Palace, Paris
- The principles of a free constitution are irrecoverably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive.
- Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1838), chapter 3, third paragraph, p. 33.
- If a written constitution is not in close accord with the way the society itself is constituted, it will be irrelevant to the everyday life of the people. A constitution will be a failure if it is no more than a beautiful portrait of an ugly society. But it must be more than an accurate depiction of how the society is constituted. A good constitution provides guidance and structure for the improvement of the society. A good constitution is designed to make the political society better than it is and the citizens better persons. It must be enough like the institutions and the people to be relevant to the working of the society, but it should also have what might be called formative features, a capacity to make us better if we live according to its provisions and adhere to its institutional arrangements.
- Robert Goldwin, Why Blacks, Women, and Jews Are Not Mentioned in the Constitution, and Other Unorthodox Views (January 1990), AEI Press
- Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things.
- Alexander Hamilton, Speech in the United States Senate (June 28, 1788), reported in Henry Cabot Lodge, ed., The works of Alexander Hamilton: Volume 2 (1904), p. 80.
- Constitutions are intended to preserve practical and substantial rights, not to maintain theories.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Davis v. Mills, 194 U.S. 451, 457 (1904).
- Now and then, an extraordinary case may turn up, but constitutional law, like other mortal contrivances, has to take some chances, and in the great majority of instances, no doubt, justice will be done.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Blinn v. Nelson, 222 U.S. 1, 7 (1911).
- By reducing too the faculty of borrowing within it's natural limits, it would bridle the spirit of war, to which too free a course has been procured by the inattention of money -lenders to this law of nature, that succeeding generations are not responsible for the preceding. On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual Constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years.
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison (September 6, 1789); reported in Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Memoirs, Correspondence and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1829), volume 3, p. 31.
- Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves were they to rise from the dead.
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval) (12 July 1816).
- I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval) (12 July 1816).
- I was always for the liberties of the people for putting water to quench fire, or for putting banks to prevent inundation.
- John Lambert on the Instrument of Government (1653), England’s first constitution, in Diary of Thomas Burton, 4: Member in the Parliaments of Oliver and Richard Cromwell from 1656 to 1659, Volume 3, p. 63. Henry Colburn, 1828
- Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them? Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy—packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it.
- Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018) How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
- A constitution that is made for all nations is made for none; it is a pure abstraction, an academic exercise made according to some hypothetical ideal, which should be addressed to man in his imaginary dwelling place.
- What is a constitution? Is it not merely the solution of the following problem? Given the population, the mores, the religion, the geographic situation, the political circumstances, the wealth, the good and the bad qualities of a particular nation, to find the laws that suit it.
- Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France (1796), ch. VI
- A constitution should be short and obscure.
- Attributed to Napoleon; reported in John Holland Rose, The Life of Napoleon I (1901), "Œuvres," volume iii, p. 428.
- The Weimar Constitution is not a socialist constitution. But we stand by the principles enshrined in it—the principles of a state based on the rule of law, of equal rights, of social justice. In this historic hour, we German Social Democrats solemnly pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No Enabling Act gives you the power to destroy ideas that are eternal and indestructible.
- Otto Wels, Speech Against the Passage of the Enabling Act, 1933