What is Constitutionalism? - Definition, History & Concept

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  • 1:03 The Origins of…
  • 2:50 American Constitutionalism
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Lesson Transcript
Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

In this lesson we will learn about the concept of constitutionalism. We will define the term, explore the concept, and examine how this view developed throughout history.

Definition of Constitutionalism

As Americans, we hear a lot about the U.S. Constitution. After all, along with the Declaration of Independence, it is a founding document. Maybe some of you have even been to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to see it. We understand that our government is based on the U.S. Constitution, but what exactly is constitutionalism? Maybe you've heard this term; maybe you haven't.

Constitutionalism is a political philosophy based on the idea that government authority is derived from the people and should be limited by a constitution that clearly expresses what the government can and can't do. It's the idea that the state is not free to do anything it wants, but is bound by laws limited its authority. Constitutionalism has a vibrant history among the English people, and that tradition has been passed on to other nations, most notably to us as Americans. Let's dig deeper and learn more about constitutionalism.

The Origins of Constitutionalism

The roots of constitutionalism go way back. It didn't just spring up out of nowhere, but rather evolved into what it is now. Way back in 1215, King John of England was forced by a group of wealthy nobles to sign a document called the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta set certain limits on the king's power. The practical importance of the Magna Carta has been exaggerated over the years, but nevertheless, it did set a precedent for limited government.

Jump ahead to the year 1689. In that year the English Bill of Rights was signed by King William III of England. King William III, who had previously been known as William of Orange, came to power in what is called the Glorious Revolution. Basically, the people of England were tired of King James II's pro-Catholic policies and invited William, who was a Protestant, to come invade their country and become their new king. The English Bill of Rights outlined what rights English citizens possessed, and placed limits on the monarch and Parliament. The English Bill of Rights is a foundational constitutional document that helped inspire the American Bill of Rights.

Political theorist John Locke played a huge role in cementing the philosophy of constitutionalism. Locke was an English intellectual who helped develop the concept of social contract theory. According to this theory, government itself is a sort of contract between the people and the state, and if the state abuses its power or doesn't hold up its end of the bargain, the people have the right to make the contract null and void. Does this concept sound familiar? Yep, America's Founding Fathers were big fans of Locke, and his ideas provided the philosophical justification for American Revolution.

American Constitutionalism

The American Revolution was rooted in constitutionalism. Colonists were angry because from their perspective, Parliament had overstepped its bounds by implementing a policy of 'taxation without representation.' As we all know, the American Revolution led Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. Note the Lockean sentiment in these lines:

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Additional Activities

What is Constitutionalism?

Writing Activity:

Imagine you are an adviser to King William III in 1689. He is being pressured to consent to the English Bill of Rights. He asks you for advice on how to proceed. Write a letter convincing him to either support or condemn the proposed Bill of Rights. Be sure to provide reasoning to justify your stance.

Activity for Constitutionalism:

On your own or in a small group with your classmates, write a constitution for a make-believe society. This society could be a nation, or it could be a private group. If power is derived from the people (or group members), who will be in charge of the society? How will leaders be selected? What rights will other members of the society have? If a dispute arises among members, how will it be resolved? What, if anybody, has the right to interpret the constitution when unforeseen developments arise? What if outsiders want to join the group or society? What is the process of inclusion and exclusion?

Additional Questions to Consider:

  • What was the Glorious Revolution? How is it connected to constitutionalism?
  • What philosophical theory did American revolutionaries use to justify their split with Great Britain?
  • What do you think a "strict interpretation" of the U.S. Constitution means? Do you think such an interpretation is important? Why or why not?

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