Political organizations are constitutional to the extent that they "contain institutionalized mechanisms of power control for the protection of the interests and liberties of the citizenry, including those that may be in the minority". As described by political scientist and constitutional scholar David Fellman:
Constitutionalism has prescriptive and descriptive uses. Law professor Gerhard Casper captured this aspect of the term in noting, "Constitutionalism has both descriptive and prescriptive connotations. Used descriptively, it refers chiefly to the historical struggle for constitutional recognition of the people's right to 'consent' and certain other rights, freedoms, and privileges. Used prescriptively, its meaning incorporates those features of government seen as the essential elements of the... Constitution".
One example of constitutionalism's descriptive use is law professor Bernard Schwartz's five volume compilation of sources seeking to trace the origins of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Beginning with English antecedents going back to Magna Carta (1215), Schwartz explores the presence and development of ideas of individual freedoms and privileges through colonial charters and legal understandings. Then in carrying the story forward, he identifies revolutionary declarations and constitutions, documents and judicial decisions of the Confederation period and the formation of the federal Constitution. Finally, he turns to the debates over the federal Constitution's ratification that ultimately provided mounting pressure for a federal bill of rights. While hardly presenting a straight line, the account illustrates the historical struggle to recognize and enshrine constitutional rights and principles in a constitutional order.
In contrast to describing what constitutions are, a prescriptive approach addresses what a constitution should be. As presented by the Canadian philosopher Wil Waluchow, constitutionalism embodies
Whether reflecting a descriptive or prescriptive focus, treatments of the concept of constitutionalism all deal with the legitimacy of government. One recent assessment of American constitutionalism, for example, notes that the idea of constitutionalism serves to define what it is that "grants and guides the legitimate exercise of government authority". Similarly, historian Gordon S. Wood described this American constitutionalism as "advanced thinking" on the nature of constitutions in which the constitution was conceived to be a "sett of fundamental rules by which even the supreme power of the state shall be governed." Ultimately, American constitutionalism came to rest on the collective sovereignty of the people, the source that legitimized American governments.
One of the most salient features of constitutionalism is that it describes and prescribes both the source and the limits of government power. William H. Hamilton has captured this dual aspect by noting that constitutionalism "is the name given to the trust which men repose in the power of words engrossed on parchment to keep a government in order."
Constitutionalism and constitutional questions
The study of constitutions is not necessarily synonymous with the study of constitutionalism. Although frequently conflated, there are crucial differences. A discussion of this difference appears in legal historian Christian G. Fritz's American Sovereigns: The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War, a study of the early history of American constitutionalism. Fritz notes that an analyst could approach the study of historic events focusing on issues that entailed "constitutional questions" and that this differs from a focus that involves "questions of constitutionalism." Constitutional questions involve the analyst in examining how the constitution was interpreted and applied to distribute power and authority as the new nation struggled with problems of war and peace, taxation and representation. However,
A similar distinction was drawn by British constitutional scholar A.V. Dicey in assessing Britain's unwritten constitution. Dicey noted a difference between the "conventions of the constitution" and the "law of the constitution". The "essential distinction" between the two concepts was that the law of the constitution was made up of "rules enforced or recognised by the Courts", making up "a body of 'laws' in the proper sense of that term." In contrast, the conventions of the constitution consisted "of customs, practices, maxims, or precepts which are not enforced or recognised by the Courts" but "make up a body not of laws, but of constitutional or political ethics".
Used descriptively, the concept of constitutionalism can refer chiefly to the historical struggle for constitutional recognition of the people's right to "consent" and certain other rights, freedoms, and privileges.
American constitutionalism has been defined as a complex of ideas, attitudes and patterns elaborating the principle that the authority of government derives from the people, and is limited by a body of fundamental law. These ideas, attitudes and patterns, according to one analyst, derive from "a dynamic political and historical process rather than from a static body of thought laid down in the eighteenth century".
In U.S. history, constitutionalism, in both its descriptive and prescriptive sense, has traditionally focused on the federal constitution. Indeed, a routine assumption of many scholars has been that understanding "American constitutionalism" necessarily entails the thought that went into the drafting of the federal constitution and the American experience with that constitution since its ratification in 1789.
There is a rich tradition of state constitutionalism that offers broader insight into constitutionalism in the United States. While state constitutions and the federal constitution operate differently as a function of federalism from the coexistence and interplay of governments at both a national and state level, they all rest on a shared assumption that their legitimacy comes from the sovereign authority of the people or popular sovereignty. This underlying premise, embraced by the American revolutionaries with the Declaration of Independence unites American constitutional tradition.
Both experience with state constitutions before and after the federal constitution as well as the emergence and operation of the latter reflect an ongoing struggle over the idea that all governments in America rested on the sovereignty of the people for their legitimacy.
The United Kingdom is perhaps the best instance of constitutionalism in a country that has an uncodified constitution. A variety of developments in 17th century England, including "the protracted struggle for power between King and Parliament was accompanied by an efflorescence of political ideas in which the concept of countervailing powers was clearly defined," led to a well-developed polity with multiple governmental and private institutions that counter the power of the state.
The recent move of the Japanese government for revisions of its 1947 constitution under Shinzō Abe's administration is criticized as anticonstitutionalist in the sense that the new constitution would impose obligations on citizens rather than protect their human rights.
From the mid-sixteenth to the late eighteenth century, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth utilized the liberum veto, a form of unanimity voting rule, in its parliamentary deliberations. The "principle of liberum veto played an important role in [the] emergence of the unique Polish form of constitutionalism." This constraint on the powers of the monarch were significant in making the "[r]ule of law, religious tolerance and limited constitutional government... the norm in Poland in times when the rest of Europe was being devastated by religious hatred and despotism."
The prescriptive approach to constitutionalism addresses what a constitution should be. Two observations might be offered about its prescriptive use.
- There is often confusion in equating the presence of a written constitution with the conclusion that a state or polity is one based upon constitutionalism. As noted by David Fellman, constitutionalism "should not be taken to mean that if a state has a constitution, it is necessarily committed to the idea of constitutionalism. In a very real sense... every state may be said to have a constitution, since every state has institutions which are at the very least expected to be permanent, and every state has established ways of doing things". But even with a "formal written document labelled 'constitution' which includes the provisions customarily found in such a document, it does not follow that it is committed to constitutionalism...."
- Often the word "constitutionalism" is used in a rhetorical sense, as a political argument that equates the views of the speaker or writer with a preferred view of the constitution. For instance, University of Maryland Constitutional History Professor Herman Belz's critical assessment of expansive constitutional construction notes that "constitutionalism... ought to be recognized as a distinctive ideology and approach to political life.... Constitutionalism not only establishes the institutional and intellectual framework, but it also supplies much of the rhetorical currency with which political transactions are carried on." Similarly, Georgetown University Law Center Professor Louis Michael Seidman noted as well the confluence of political rhetoric with arguments supposedly rooted in constitutionalism. In assessing the "meaning that critical scholars attributed to constitutional law in the late twentieth century," Professor Seidman notes a "new order... characterized most prominently by extremely aggressive use of legal argument and rhetoric" and as a result "powerful legal actors are willing to advance arguments previously thought out-of-bounds. They have, in short, used legal reasoning to do exactly what crits claim legal reasoning always does—put the lipstick of disinterested constitutionalism on the pig of raw politics."
Starting with the proposition that "'Constitutionalism' refers to the position or practice that government be limited by a constitution, usually written," analysts take a variety of positions on what the constitution means. For instance, they describe the document as a document that may specify its relation to statutes, treaties, executive and judicial actions, and the constitutions or laws of regional jurisdictions. This prescriptive use of Constitutionalism is also concerned with the principles of constitutional design, which includes the principle that the field of public action be partitioned between delegated powers to the government and the rights of individuals, each of which is a restriction of the other, and that no powers be delegated that are beyond the competence of government.
The Constitution of May 3, 1791, which historian Norman Davies calls "the first constitution of its kind in Europe", was in effect for only a year. It was designed to redress longstanding political defects of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its traditional system of "Golden Liberty". The Constitution introduced political equality between townspeople and nobility (szlachta) and placed the peasants under the protection of the government, thus mitigating the worst abuses of serfdom.
Constitutionalist was also a label used by some independent candidates in UK general elections in the early 1920s. Most of the candidates were former Liberal Party members, and many of them joined the Conservative Party soon after being elected. The best known Constitutionalist candidate was Winston Churchill in the 1924 UK general election.
After the democratically elected government of president Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic was deposed, the Constitutionalist movement was born in the country. As opposed to said movement, the Anticonstitutionalist movement was also born. Bosch had to depart to Puerto Rico after he was deposed. His first leader was Colonel Rafael Tomás Fernández Domínguez, and he wanted Bosch to come back to power once again. Colonel Fernández Domínguez was exiled to Puerto Rico where Bosch was. The Constitutionalists had a new leader: Colonel Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó.
Legal scholar Jeremy Waldron contends that constitutionalism is often undemocratic:
Constitutionalism has also been the subject of criticism by Murray Rothbard, who attacked constitutionalism as incapable of restraining governments and does not protect the rights of citizens from their governments:
The scope and limits of constitutionalism in Muslim countries have attracted growing interest in recent years. Authors such as Ann E. Mayer define Islamic constitutionalism as "constitutionalism that is in some form based on Islamic principles, as opposed to constitutionalism that has developed in countries that happen to be Muslim but that has not been informed by distinctively Islamic principles". However, the concrete meaning of the notion remains contested among Muslim as well as Western scholars. Influential thinkers like Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Khaled Abou El Fadl, but also younger ones like Asifa Quraishi and Nadirsyah Hosen combine classic Islamic law with modern constitutionalism. The constitutional changes initiated by the Arab Spring movement have already brought into reality many new hybrid models of Islamic constitutionalism.
- Classical liberalism
- Constitutional liberalism
- Constitution Party (disambiguation)
- Constitutional law
- Constitutionalism in the United States
- Judicial interpretation
- Natural and legal rights
- Philosophy of law
- Rule according to higher law
- Rule of law
- Separation of powers
- Social contract