Constitutional Government Overview & Types | What is a Constitutional Government?

Ron Petrarca, Christine Serva
  • Author
    Ron Petrarca

    I received my bachelor's degree in history from George Washington University and later earned a master's degree in the same subject from Uppsala University in Sweden. I have been a writer and editor for more than two decades.

  • Instructor
    Christine Serva

    Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

Learn about constitutional governments. Understand what a constitutional government is, learn the constitutional government definition, and see the types of constitutional governments. Updated: 12/14/2021

What is a Constitutional Government?

A constitutional government is a government that is structured according to a written document called a constitution. In a constitutional government, the constitution is the supreme law of the land. Nothing can contradict it. Most constitutions not only specify how the government is to be structured but also guarantee citizens a number of rights and liberties. The vast majority of countries in the world have a constitutional government. This is because people have found that these sorts of governments bring about order by specifically stating how government power should be used.

The United States is one of the oldest constitutional governments in the world. Its constitution was created in 1788 by the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A Transition in Government

Imagine that a country is undergoing a transition in their style of government. Higgins is a citizen of this fictional country and is acting as a representative at a national forum to discuss these changes. He's trying to speak up for the interests of the area where he lives. Others have different ideas about what should happen next, and the conversations are getting heated.

This lesson looks at types of constitutional governments and the way power is distributed in each type. You'll learn about unitary and federal styles and how decisions are made through each system.

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  • 0:01 A Transition in Government
  • 0:42 Constitutional Governments
  • 1:48 Unitary Style
  • 3:15 Federal Style
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The German Bundestag

Budestag, Federalism

Types of Constitutional Governments

There are two main types of constitutional government in the world: unitary and federal. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. Most constitutional governments are democracies. Both usually allow for the existence of local governments, but the degree to which they cede power to cities and towns varies.

Unitary Government

A unitary constitutional government is one in which there is a strong central government and no real regional or state governments. France is an example of a country that has this sort of government.

One of the benefits of a unitary style of government is that it provides for national cohesion. There is uniformity throughout the country with regard to laws, economic policy, etc. Unitary governments are often less bureaucratic due to the fact that there are no regional or state government agencies that need to interact and coordinate with the federal government.

One of the major downsides to unitary government is that it concentrates a great deal of power in one place. This can lead to animosity among people in certain regions.

Besides France, other countries with unitary styles of government include:

  • Italy
  • Sweden
  • The Netherlands
  • Poland
  • New Zealand
  • Japan

Federal Government

In contrast to unitary governments, federal governments cede a great deal of power to their regions, provinces, cantons, or states. Supreme authority in federal systems rests in the federal government, but regional governments are allowed, to varying degrees, to make their own laws and pursue their own government policies.

The degree of autonomy found in regions, provinces, cantons, or states varies from one country to another. Switzerland, for example, grants its cantons enormous independence to set their own laws. One reason for this is that different cantons use different official languages.

One of the main disadvantages to a federal government is that it increases bureaucracy. This is because there are different levels of government, each having its own laws, institutions, policies, officials, and employees. Another disadvantage of a federal government structure is that it may contribute to national disunity. One disastrous example of this was the American Civil War (1861-1865).

However, federal governments also have certain advantages. They allow people to enjoy more local autonomy. This gives regular citizens a greater say in their own affairs. Local participation may be especially important in a country with a very larger population, such as India or Brazil. Federalism may even be necessary in order to keep various parts of the country from seceding from the central government.

The US Federal Government

The United States federal government is divided into three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial.

The executive branch is headed by the president of the United States. The president is elected to four-year terms in regular elections. Beneath the president is the vice president and various cabinet officials. Among other roles, the executive branch is responsible for the nation's defense (the president as commander-in-chief is the head of the military.) The executive branch is centered in the White House in Washington, DC. This has been the official residence of the president since John Adams, America's second president.

Despite the fact that the national government of the United States is located in Washington, there are many local branches located throughout the country that deal with federal matters. A good example of this is a regional branch of the Internal Revenue Service, the division of the federal government that is responsible for the collection of income taxes.

Constitutional Governments

Just about everyone in the country agrees on one thing: they need to determine the limits to the legal power of the government and document this. Abuses by past government leaders have made this a priority. Higgins has witnessed first-hand how leaders with too much power concentrated in their hands made choices not in the interest of the people, such as when their previous leader controlled what the news media was allowed to say about government policies.

Governments that establish documented rules or principles about the legal limits of the government are known as constitutional governments. These norms help determine how power will be distributed in the nation and who gets to make what decisions. You can remember this term by thinking of how a constitution typically serves as a guiding document for nations with this form of government.

Higgins and the others at the national forum all agree on this form of government. What they need to determine next is whether the government will be more unitary or more federal.

Unitary Style

One style of constitutional government that the nation will consider is a unitary approach. This type of government concentrates more power at a national level. For instance, governments that are unitary systems will generally determine most laws and policies so that they apply to all regions of the nation, rather than having each region set their own laws. Local governments typically carry out the decisions made at the national level.

Higgins argues for moving away from a unitary style of government. He has a strong desire to see individual regions govern themselves to a larger degree. For instance, Higgins wants to make sure that a problem of pollution in his region is addressed. Some regions don't have this problem, so he's concerned this issue will see little progress at a national level using a unitary approach.

Others disagree with Higgins and want a unitary style of government. They work to convince him that a more unitary style will have benefits, such as making it clear what is expected of individual regions and ensuring a level of uniformity across the country. They say that this uniformity will help improve pollution everywhere, including his region, and this will help the government run more efficiently. Countries with a unitary style include France and Norway, for instance.

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Video Transcript

A Transition in Government

Imagine that a country is undergoing a transition in their style of government. Higgins is a citizen of this fictional country and is acting as a representative at a national forum to discuss these changes. He's trying to speak up for the interests of the area where he lives. Others have different ideas about what should happen next, and the conversations are getting heated.

This lesson looks at types of constitutional governments and the way power is distributed in each type. You'll learn about unitary and federal styles and how decisions are made through each system.

Constitutional Governments

Just about everyone in the country agrees on one thing: they need to determine the limits to the legal power of the government and document this. Abuses by past government leaders have made this a priority. Higgins has witnessed first-hand how leaders with too much power concentrated in their hands made choices not in the interest of the people, such as when their previous leader controlled what the news media was allowed to say about government policies.

Governments that establish documented rules or principles about the legal limits of the government are known as constitutional governments. These norms help determine how power will be distributed in the nation and who gets to make what decisions. You can remember this term by thinking of how a constitution typically serves as a guiding document for nations with this form of government.

Higgins and the others at the national forum all agree on this form of government. What they need to determine next is whether the government will be more unitary or more federal.

Unitary Style

One style of constitutional government that the nation will consider is a unitary approach. This type of government concentrates more power at a national level. For instance, governments that are unitary systems will generally determine most laws and policies so that they apply to all regions of the nation, rather than having each region set their own laws. Local governments typically carry out the decisions made at the national level.

Higgins argues for moving away from a unitary style of government. He has a strong desire to see individual regions govern themselves to a larger degree. For instance, Higgins wants to make sure that a problem of pollution in his region is addressed. Some regions don't have this problem, so he's concerned this issue will see little progress at a national level using a unitary approach.

Others disagree with Higgins and want a unitary style of government. They work to convince him that a more unitary style will have benefits, such as making it clear what is expected of individual regions and ensuring a level of uniformity across the country. They say that this uniformity will help improve pollution everywhere, including his region, and this will help the government run more efficiently. Countries with a unitary style include France and Norway, for instance.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a constitutional government?

The United States is a country that has a constitutional form of government. The United States Constitution was created by the Founding Fathers after the Revolutionary War.

What government is constitutional government?

Any government that has and uses a constitution is a constitutional government. Most of the governments of the world have constitutions.

What does the constitutional government include?

A constitutional government contains a constitution. This is a document that specifies how the government is to be structured. It also usually spells out certain rights held by citizens.

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