Constitutionalism


     The seventeenth century, which witnessed the development of absolute monarchy,
also saw the appearance of the constitutional state. While France solved the
question of sovereignty with the absolutist state, England evolved toward the
constitutional state. If we could assign a very simple definition of the term of
the term constitutionalism, it would be the limitation of government by law.

Constitutionalism implies a very delicate balance between the authority and
power of government, on the one hand, and the rights and liberties of the
subjects, on the other. In essence, the law is embodied by a set of precepts and
principles – a constitution. A nation’s constitution may be written or
unwritten. It may be embodied in one basic document, occasionally revised by
amendment or judicial decision, like the Constitution of the United States. It
also may be partly written and partly unwritten and include parliamentary
statutes, judicial decisions, and a body of traditional procedures and practices
(like the English constitution). Regardless of whether it is written or
unwritten, a constitution gets its binding force from the government’s
acknowledgment that it must respect that constitution – that is, that the
state must govern according to the laws. Likewise, in this state, the people
look on the laws and the constitution as the protector of their rights, liberty,
and property. Modern constitutional governments may take either a republican or
a monarchical form. In a constitutional republic, the sovereign power resides in
the electorate and is exercised by the electorate’s representatives. In a
constitutional monarchy, a king or queen serves as the head of state and
possesses some residual political authority, but again the ultimate, or
sovereign, power rests in the electorate. The constitutional government at this
time period has sometimes been perceived to be the same as the democratic form.

However, such is definitely not the case. In a complete democracy, all the
people have the right to participate either directly or indirectly (through
their elected representatives) in the government of the state. Democratic
government, therefore, is intimately tied up with the voting populace. When
constitutionalism came into fruition, most men could not vote until around the
late nineteenth century; and women weren’t given the right to vote until the
twentieth century. Consequently, although constitutionalism developed in the
seventeenth century, full democracy was achieved only in very recent times.