What is Constitution?

Definition of Constitution

The definition of constitution is quite complex and has significantly evolved during the last two centuries. According to the Western conception, constitution is the document that contains the basic and fundamental law of the nation, setting out the organization of the government and the principles of the society. Yet, although many countries have a written constitution, we continue to see the phenomenon of “living constitution” in many parts of the world. As society change, so do laws and regulations. Furthermore, in some cases there is no single document that defines all aspects of the state, but rather several different documents and agreements that define the power of the government and provide a comprehensive – although not unitary – legal framework. Constitution has also been defined as:

  • Basic norm (or law) of the state;
  • System of integration and organization of norms and laws; and
  • Organization of the government


A constitution is an aggregate of fundamental principles or established precedents that constitute the legal basis of a polity, organisation or other type of entity, and commonly determine how that entity is to be governed. Constitution is an organic law that evolves over time. The constitution provides the foundation of the government, structuring the political organization and guaranteeing individual and collective rights and freedoms.

The idea of constitutionalism (and of constitution) is strictly linked with the progress and spread of democracies. In monarchic, totalitarian and dictatorial systems there is generally no constitution or, if it exists it is not respected. Individual and collective rights are often disregarded in dictatorial regimes, and the government cannot be held accountable as there is no legal document that defines its limits. The concept of constitutionalism has evolved during the last few centuries thanks to political changes and progress of democratic ideals.


Constitutionalism is a system of governance in which the power of the government is limited by laws, checks and balances, in order to reconcile authority with individual and collective freedoms. The principle of constitutionalism must be understood in opposition to non-constitutionalism – a system in which the government uses its powers in an arbitrary fashion, without respecting the citizens’ rights. The idea of constitutionalism is to create a limited government.

Difference between Constitution and Constitutionalism

The main difference between constitution and constitutionalism lies in the fact that the constitution is generally a written document, created by the government (often with the participation of the civil society), while constitutionalism is a principle and a system of governance that respects the rule of law and limits the power of the government. Most modern constitutions were written years ago, but laws and norms had already been evolving and mutating for centuries, and continue to do so. The constitution (and laws in general) is a living entity that should adapt to the changing features of the modern world and of modern societies.

Constitutionalism is based on the principles outlined in the constitution – or in other core legal documents – but it is also a principle of its own. The idea of constitutionalism is opposed to the concept of authoritarian and despotic rule and is based on the belief that the power of the government should be limited in order to prevent abuses and excesses;

The constitution is often a written document, while the principles of constitutionalism are generally unwritten. Both constitution and constitutionalism evolve with the promulgation of democratic ideals – although they do not always proceed at the same speed. There can be a constitutional form of governance – that respects the rights of the citizens and promotes democratic values – even though the national constitution is outdated. At the same time, an inefficient democratic government may not be able to rule in a constitutional way, despite the existence of a constitution.