Definitions

Constitution

Constitution

[kon-sti-too-shuhn, -tyoo-]
Constitution, U.S. 44-gun frigate, nicknamed Old Ironsides. It is perhaps the most famous vessel in the history of the U.S. navy. Authorized by Congress in 1794, the ship was launched in 1797 and was commissioned and put to sea in 1798 in the undeclared naval war with the French. It participated in the Tripolitan War. In the War of 1812, serving as flagship for Isaac Hull, The Constitution won a battle with the British vessel Guerrière on Aug. 19, 1812, and under the command of William Bainbridge it defeated the Java on Dec. 29, 1812. Charles Stewart was commanding the Constitution when on Feb. 20, 1815, it overcame the Cyane and the Levant (though the Levant was later recaptured by the British). The Constitution was condemned (1830) as unseaworthy, but public sentiment, aroused by Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "Old Ironsides," saved the ship from dismantling, and it was rebuilt in 1833. The ship was laid up at the Portsmouth navy yard in 1855 and was there used as a training ship. In 1877 it was rebuilt again, and the next year it crossed the Atlantic. In 1897 it was stored at the Boston navy yard, and in 1927-30, under authorization of Congress, it was restored by public subscription (1925-27). Another restoration was begun in 1992 and was completed in 1997. The Constitution is now maintained at the Boston navy yard.

See J. Barnes, Naval Actions of the War of 1812 (1896); I. N. Hollis, The Frigate "Constitution" (1901); E. Snow, On the Deck of "Old Ironsides" (1932); T. P. Horgan, Old Ironsides (1963); J. E. Jennings, Tattered Ensign (1966); T. G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship (1997).

constitution, fundamental principles of government in a nation, either implied in its laws, institutions, and customs, or embodied in one fundamental document or in several. In the first category—customary and unwritten constitutions—is the British constitution, which is contained implicitly in the whole body of common and statutory law of the realm, and in the practices and traditions of the government. Because it can be modified by an ordinary act of Parliament, the British constitution is often termed flexible. This enables Britain to react quickly to any constitutional emergency, but it affords no fundamental protections of civil or personal liberty, or any areas in which parliamentary legislation is expressly forbidden. The theory of the social contract, developed in the 17th cent. by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, was fundamental to the development of the modern constitution. The Constitution of the United States, written in 1787 and ratified in 1789, was the first important written constitution, and a model for a vast number of subsequent constitutional documents. Though to a large extent based on the principles and practices of the British constitution, the Constitution of the United States has superior sanction to the ordinary laws of the land, interpreted through a process of judicial review that passes judgment on the constitutionality of subsequent legislation, and that is subject to a specially prescribed process of amendment. The rigidity of its written format has been counterbalanced by growth and usage: in particular, statutory elaboration (see Congress of the United States) and judicial construction (see Supreme Court, United States, and Marshall, John) have kept the written document abreast of the times. But a written constitution, without a commitment to its principles and civil justice, has often proved to be a temporary or rapidly reversed gesture. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th cent., many countries, having made sharp political and economic departures from the past, had little legal custom to rely upon and therefore set forth their organic laws in written constitutions—some of which are judicially enforced. Adolf Hitler never formally abolished the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and the protections of personal liberties contained in the Soviet constitution of 1936 proved to be empty promises. Since the 1960s, many of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa have adopted written constitutions, often on the model of the American, British, or French constitutions.

See E. McWhinney, Constitution-Making (1981); V. Bhagwan and V. Bhushan, World Constitutions (2d ed. 1987); P. Bobbitt, Constitutional Interpretation (1991); J. W. Peltason, Understanding the Constitution (12th ed. 1991).

Set of doctrines and practices that form the fundamental organizing principle of a political state. It may be written (e.g., the Constitution of the United States) or partly written and uncodified (e.g., Britain's constitution). Its provisions usually specify how the government is to be organized, what rights it shall have, and what rights shall be retained by the people. Modern constitutional ideas developed during the Enlightenment, when philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke proposed that constitutional governments should be stable, adaptable, accountable, and open, should represent the governed, and should divide power according to its purpose. The oldest constitution still in force is that of the state of Massachusetts (1780). Seealso social contract.

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Fundamental law of the U.S. federal system of government and a landmark document of the Western world. It is the oldest written national constitution in operation, completed in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention of 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia, ostensibly to amend the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution was ratified in June 1788, but because ratification in many states was contingent on the promised addition of a Bill of Rights, Congress proposed 12 amendments in September 1789; 10 were ratified by the states, and their adoption was certified on Dec. 15, 1791. The framers were especially concerned with limiting the power of the government and securing the liberty of citizens. The Constitution's separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the checks and balances of each branch against the other, and the explicit guarantees of individual liberty were all designed to strike a balance between authority and liberty. Article I vests all legislative powers in the Congress—the House of Representatives and the Senate. Article II vests executive power in the president. Article III places judicial power in the hands of the courts. Article IV deals, in part, with relations among the states and with the privileges of the citizens, Article V with amendment procedure, and Article VI with public debts and the supremacy of the Constitution. Article VII stipulates that the Constitution would become operational after being ratified by nine states. The 10th Amendment limits the national government's powers to those expressly listed in the Constitution; the states, unless otherwise restricted, possess all the remaining (or “residual”) powers of government. Amendments to the Constitution may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress or by a convention called by Congress on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the states. (All subsequent amendments have been initiated by Congress.) Amendments proposed by Congress must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or by conventions in as many states. Twenty-seven amendments have been added to the Constitution since 1789. In addition to the Bill of Rights, these include the 13th (1865), abolishing slavery; the 14th (1868), requiring due process and equal protection under the law; the 15th (1870), guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race; the 17th (1913), providing for the direct election of U.S. senators; the 19th (1920), instituting women's suffrage, and the 22nd (1951), limiting the presidency to two terms. Seealso civil liberty; commerce clause; Equal Rights Amendment; establishment clause; freedom of speech; judiciary; states' rights.

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