Matt Kennedy is the Senior In House Subject Matter Expert in World History at Cengage
The U.S. Constitution is one of the most influential founding documents of modern history. It’s partly due to the care with the constitution’s creators. It’s also due to the fact that the American constitution is a product of world historical events. This is something that will be of interest to your students.
Students are often surprised to discover that our constitution is not the first. Students may not be aware that “constitutions”, exist outside of the context of U.S. History. It might be useful to point out that people have been organizing government for millennia. That’s what a “constitution” is all about. It’s a description of how political institutions and leaders in a country are supposed use their powers and an account of where they came from.
Are Constitutions Required to be Written Down?
Students can be asked to consider whether constitutions should be written documents to illustrate the long and varied history of constitutions. Constitutions are very old. Some were never written down. One was reverently spoken of by the Ancient Romans. Its principles were respected by Roman politicians, judges, and scholars for almost 500 years, even though they did not put it into writing. Its unwritten constitution was referred to as one of the most intelligent since 1600s in early modern England and later Great Britain. It is still not written today. North America’s Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the Haudenosaunee), established a complex system of government through an oral constitution. Scholars date back to the 1400s.
Some countries only began to write constitutions in the 1600s and 1800s. This is a great chance to ask students “Why then?” Written constitutions were often favored and endorsed by new types of governments known as republics. The republics believed that the power of government came from the people, not the monarchies. The most important power in the Mediterranean was the republic of Venice, which was the dominant power in the late medieval period. Even though they didn’t have a single written constitution from the 1200s onwards, Venetians developed a series laws that detailed how their various courts and political offices should function and what powers each had. This was much like a written constitution today.
Written constitutions were more popular in the 1600s. In this century, San Marino, Sweden and the colony in Connecticut all adopted one. You can do this activity with your students by having them compare each of these documents. You can also find translations online. These examples are not democratic, however. Each believed that sovereigns (either monarchs or God) were the source all political power. They wanted to create a government that could give people rights and protect them from the whims or the monarch. These constitutions are sometimes called “enlightened constitutions” by historians. This term is open to discussion and groupwork.
Enlightened constitutions sought a step further in governance by establishing a government that was accountable to the people. Because the people are the source of political power, it was even more important to establish a system for checks and balances as there was no sovereign who could enforce them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a social theorist of the Enlightenment, and John Locke were both inspired to create the Constitution in the 1700s. They believed that legitimate government was dependent on the consent of the governed. They also looked to Baron de Montesquieu who stressed the importance of balancing governmental powers so that neither the legislative nor executive branches should be too strong. These writings were the inspiration for the creation of the first democratic constitution in 1763 by the new republic in Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean.
What Influenced the U.S. Constitution
Students might wonder how each of these sources of constitutional thought influenced the U.S. constitution. Ask students to assess the importance of precedent worldwide for America’s constitution. It was a good thing that the U.S. Constitution wasn’t the first constitution or the first written constitution. Many of the American constitution writers believed so. Many had carefully analyzed the constitutions of history, both written and unwritten, democratic and despotic, enlightened or unenlightened. These framers were grateful for the guidance of the past. They also valued the contributions of theorists such as Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu. But there were real examples.