Matt Kennedy is the Senior In-House Subject Matter Expert in World History at Cengage
The U.S. Constitution may be one of the most influential founding documents in modern history. To some degree, that’s thanks to the care with which the constitution’s framers authored its provisions. But it’s also because the American constitution was, in fact, a product of world history. And that’s something that will interest your students.
For instance, students are often surprised to learn that our constitution wasn’t the first constitution. Indeed, students may not realize that “constitutions” exist outside the context of U.S. history. It may be fruitful to point out that people have been organizing governments for millennia, after all. And that’s all a “constitution” really is—an understanding of the way political institutions and leaders in a certain country are supposed to use the powers they have and an account of where those powers come from in the first place.
Do Constitutions Need to Be Written Down?
To help illustrate the long and global history of constitution, invite students to think about whether constitutions need to be written documents in order to be effective. Constitutions are actually very old. Some were never written down. Ancient Romans had one that they spoke of in reverent tones. Even if they never committed it to writing, Roman politicians, judges and scholars all honored its principles for nearly 500 years. Early modern England, and later Great Britain, referred to its unwritten constitution as one of the most enlightened since the 1600s. It is still unwritten today. In North America, the Iroquois Confederacy (called the Haudenosaunee) ordered their complex system of government through an oral constitution that some scholars date to the 1400s.
Only in the 1600s and 1700s did some countries start to write down constitutions. Here’s a great opportunity to ask students “why then?” Written constitutions were often favored by new kinds of governments called republics. Unlike the monarchies of the time, republics believed that the power to govern came from the people in general, not hereditary or divine right. The republic of Venice, the predominant power in the Mediterranean in the late medieval period, was perhaps the most important. Although they did not have a single written constitution, from the 1200s, Venetians created a series of laws that set out in great detail how their various courts, political offices, and assemblies should function, and what powers each had, much like a written constitution would today.
Written constitutions became more and more popular throughout the 1600s. San Marino, Sweden, and the colony of Connecticut each adopted one in this century. Consider an activity with your students that compares each of these documents, which you can find translated on the Internet. However, you can hardly think of these examples as democratic. Each held that sovereigns, either monarchs or God himself, were the source of all political power. However, they aimed to create a government with branches that could protect people against the whims of the monarch by giving them rights. Historians sometimes term these kinds of constitutions “enlightened constitutions”—a term that is ripe for exploration in discussion or in groupwork.
Enlightened constitutions sought to take governance one step further by organizing a government whose powers came from the people. Claiming the people as the source of political power made it even more important to create a system of checks and balances because there was no all-powerful sovereign to enforce them. Constitution makers of the 1700s were inspired by the writings of enlightenment social theorists Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, who both argued that legitimate government depended on the consent of the governed. But they also looked to the Baron de Montesquieu, who emphasized a balance of governmental powers so that no one of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches should grow too strong. Such writings inspired the new republic of Corsica—an island in the Mediterranean—to create the first democratic constitution in 1763.
What Influenced the U.S. Constitution?
Students may wonder how each of these sources of constitutional thought influenced the U.S. constitution. Consider asking students to evaluate the importance of global precedent for America’s own constitution. In some ways, it was good that the U.S. Constitution was not the first constitution nor the first written constitution. Several of the American constitution writers thought so too. Many had carefully studied the constitutions of history, written and unwritten, despotic and democratic, enlightened and unenlightened. These framers were thankful to have guidance from the past. Theorists like Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu were important to them too. But real examples that had stood the test of time were just as crucial.
Here, historical examples that connect to key personalities may be instructive. John Adams wrote that the Venetian constitution furnished him with the best examples of effective checks and balances between courts. Others, like James Madison, praised the wisdom of the English constitution’s bill of rights. Still others, George Washington among them, borrowed principles from Greek and Roman constitutional thought. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (an admirer of the Corsican constitution) both credited the Haudenosaunee constitution with influencing the system of political representation established in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the bundle of arrows held by the eagle in the U.S. official seal refers also to this influence.
Some Final Thoughts on Teaching the U.S. Constitution
Selecting what powers American institutions should have, how they should use them and for what end was a monumental task. Guided by the political history of the world, the framers had plenty of material to work with. While America today is a far cry from the America of 1789, many of the key principles written into our constitution have, thankfully, proven to be resilient time and time again. America’s constitution was a global constitution. Ask your students whether they think that helped the early republic grow into the state it is today.
Questions for further consideration when teaching the constitution to your History students:
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a written constitution? And why did written constitutions become popular in the period that they did?
- Why did America’s framers look both to political theorists as well as other constitutions across the globe when writing the U.S. Constitution? Would the constitution have been as successful had framers only used one source or the other?
Check out our recent Author Panel, where expert Cengage Political Science and U.S. History authors ponder the big questions facing the country through a lens of hope and optimism.