By Greg Russell
“Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it.”
— John Locke
Second Treatise, Ch. 4
Constitutionalism or rule of law means that the power of leaders and government bodies is limited, and that these limits can be enforced through established procedures. As a body of political or legal doctrine, it refers to government that is, in the first instance, devoted both to the good of the entire community and to the preservation of the rights of individual persons.
Constitutional government, rooted in liberal political ideas, originated in Western Europe and the United States as a defense of the individual’s right to life and property, and to freedom of religion and speech. In order to secure these rights, constitutional architects emphasized checks on the power of each branch of government, equality under the law, impartial courts, and separation of church and state. The exemplary representatives of this tradition include the poet John Milton, jurists Edward Coke and William Blackstone, statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Baron de Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, and Isaiah Berlin.
Problems of constitutional governance in the 21st century will likely be problems within governments recognized as democratic. The modern-day phenomenon of “illiberal democracies” gains legitimacy, and thus strength, from the fact that these regimes seem reasonably democratic. Illiberal democracy — that is, nominally democratic government shorn of constitutional liberalism — is not simply inadequate but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war. The spread of democracy around the world has not always been accompanied by a corresponding spread of constitutional liberty. A number of democratically elected leaders have used their authority to justify restricting freedoms. A living tradition of political liberty contributes something even more than free and fair elections, or additional opportunities for political expression. Liberal democracy also provides a legal foundation for the separation of governmental powers so as to uphold basic freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and property.
Constitutionalism: historical foundations
Modern liberal political theories found practical expression in the struggle for constitutional government. The earliest, and perhaps greatest, victory for liberalism was achieved in England. The rising commercial class that had supported the Tudor monarchy in the 16th century led the revolutionary battle in the 17th, and succeeded in establishing the supremacy of Parliament and, eventually, of the House of Commons. What emerged as the distinctive feature of modern constitutionalism was not the insistence on the idea that the king is subject to law (although this concept is an essential attribute of all constitutionalism). This notion was already well established in the Middle Ages. What was distinctive was the establishment of effective means of political control whereby the rule of law might be enforced. Modern constitutionalism was born with the political requirement that representative government depended upon the consent of citizen subjects.
Moreover, modern constitutional government was intimately linked to economics and the power of the purse, the idea that those whose taxes fund the government must be represented in that government. The principle that economic supply and redress of grievances go hand-in-hand is the key to modern constitutional government. The decline of the king’s feudal revenues, the growth of representative institutions, and a feeling of national solidarity, as opposed to symbolic allegiance to king and court, tended to make real and effective the limited character of kingship.
However, as can be seen through provisions in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the English Revolution was fought not just to protect the rights of property (in the narrow sense) but to establish those liberties which liberals believed essential to human dignity and moral worth. The “rights of man” enumerated in the English Bill of Rights gradually were proclaimed beyond the boundaries of England, notably in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. The 18th century witnessed the emergence of constitutional government in the United States and in France, and the 19th century saw its extension with varying degrees of success to Germany, Italy, and other nations of the Western world.
Constitutionalism and the legacy of the American Founders
The constitutional order of American society is built on the foundation of the consent of free and reasonable men and women, as expressed in the symbol of the “social contract” as a trust established for limited purposes. “Social contract” theories had their greatest currency in 17th- and 18th- century Europe, and are associated with English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These thinkers justified the political obligation of individuals to a community on the grounds of self-interest and reason, and were well aware of the advantages of a civil society where individuals have both rights and obligations, compared to the disadvantages of a “state of nature,” a hypothetical condition characterized by a complete absence of governmental authority. This idea of a “social contract” reflects an underlying awareness that a viable community — not just a government — must be established if free government is to exist and if human beings are to be secured against the onslaught of the passions whose rule is the very definition of disorder, tyranny, and rebellion against the rational order of being. John Jay noted, in Federalist No. 2, that the individual relinquishes certain natural rights to society if government is to have requisite power to act in order to secure the common good. As a result, participation as a citizen in a constitutional democracy carries with it the responsibility of abiding by the laws and decisions of the community in its public transactions, even when the individual sharply disagrees. Both the “beast-man” — the nihilistic criminal or anarchist — and the “god-man” — the potential dictator — who take law into their own hands must be subdued or banished from society, so thought Aristotle and Spinoza. Hobbes, Locke, and the American Founding Fathers all agreed. This is the essential condition of civil society, without which it cannot exist. The laws and policies of constitutional government not only are limited in scope and grounded in consent. They are also bound to serve the well-being of the people of the society in general and of every single individual in it.
American statesmen — revolutionaries and constitution-makers alike — laid claim to this heritage as American history unfolded from the Declaration of Independence (1776), to the Articles of Confederation (1781), the conclusion of the Revolutionary War (1783), the framing of the Constitution (1787), and the ratification of the Bill of Rights (1791). A number of common themes typified this American struggle for liberty and constitutionalism.
“We the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution.” These words are contained in the Constitution’s Preamble and give expression to the doctrine of popular sovereignty, or rule by the people. The Constitution’s framers crafted a governing document, which they submitted for popular ratification, based on the conception that ultimate political authority resides not in the government or in any single government official, but rather, in the people. “We the People” own our government, but under our representative democracy, we delegate the day-to-day governing powers to a body of elected representatives. However, this delegation of powers in no way impairs or diminishes the people’s rights and responsibilities as the supreme sovereign. The government’s legitimacy remains dependent on the governed, who retain the inalienable right peacefully to alter their govern-ment or amend their Constitution.
The rule of law
Under constitutional theory, however, government must be just and reasonable, not only from the viewpoint of majority sentiment but also in conformity with higher law, what the Declaration of Independence refers to as “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” The Declaratory Act of 1766, by which the British Parliament laid claim over the American colonies “to bind (them) in all matters whatsoever,” dramatized the contrast between rule of law and rule by law. Rule of law suggests an appeal to a higher standard of law and justice — transcendent and universally understood — than the merely mortal or the enacted law of contemporary politicians. The Founders believed that the rule of law was the lifeblood of the American social order and basic civil liberties. The rule of law suggests that if our relationships with each other (and with the state) are governed by a set of relatively impartial rules — rather than by a group of individuals — then we are less likely to become the victims of arbitrary or authoritarian rule. Note here that the political obligation implied by the rule of law applies not only to the rights and liberties of subject and citizen but also with equal claim to rulers and governors. By precluding both the individual and the state from transcending the supreme law of the land, the framers constructed a protective layer over individual rights and liberties.
Separation of powers and a system of checks and balances
The Founders had to answer the question of how to implement a government of laws and not of men, when there were only men available to rule. After all, these leaders were political realists who attempted to connect the spirit of constitutionalism to unique features of their time and place. Perhaps the best statement on this philosophical and practical dilemma comes from James Madison in Federalist No. 51. Ambition, Madison declared, had to counteract ambition. The interests of men had to be indissolubly wed to the constitutional rights of the place. Just a little knowledge of human nature would suggest to us that “such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.” If men and women were angels, then neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. But Madison was a realist. Constitutionalism, again to use the words of Madison, entails a policy of “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.” A constitutional framework, built on a prudent regard for human beings, must enable the government to control the governed. No less important, however, is the auxiliary precaution of checking and balancing within government itself.
By dividing the business of government among three independent branches, the Constitutional framers ensured that the principle powers of government — legislative, executive, and judicial — were not monopolized by any single branch. Allocating government authority among three separate branches also prevented the formation of too strong a national government capable of overpowering individual state governments. Governmental powers and responsibilities intentionally overlap. One example is how congressional authority to make laws can be checked by a presidential veto. This veto, in turn, can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. The president serves as commander-in-chief, but only Congress has the authority to raise and support an army, and formally to declare war. The president has the power to appoint all federal judges, ambassadors, and other high government officials, but all appointments must have the advice and consent of the Senate. No law can go into effect unless it is passed by both houses of Congress.
The Supreme Court has the final authority to strike down both legislative and executive acts as unconstitutional. Herein lies the root of judicial review and the empowerment of the federal judiciary in the United States after Marbury v. Madison (1803). The power of judicial review derives not from the written U.S. Constitution, which contains no explicit reference to this authority, but from a series of court cases dating back to the late 1700s. What is common to these cases, at least as a philosophical or ethical justification of court authority, is the link between judicial review and higher law. Americans of the time would have embraced the ancient teaching that, if positive or human law departs from the law of nature, it is no longer law but a perversion of the law. The general idea is captured in James Otis’ Rights of British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764), wherein he stipulates:
The law of nature was not of man’s making, nor is it in his power to mend or alter its course. He can only perform and keep or disobey and break it. The last is never done with impunity, even in this life, if it is any punishment for a man to feel himself depraved, to find himself degraded by his own folly and wickedness from the rank of a virtuous and good man to that of a brute, or to be transformed from the friend, perhaps father, of his country to a devouring lion or tiger.
The Founders also determined that power must be divided among the different levels of government: national and state. The failure of the Articles of Confederation (1781-87) to create a viable government for the American colonies led delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to establish more power at the center of government.
The Articles served as a bridge between the initial government by the Continental Congress of the Revolutionary period and the federal government created by the U.S. Constitution of 1787. Because the experience of overbearing British central authority was vivid in colonial minds, the drafters of the Articles deliberately established a “confederation” of sovereign states. However, the Articles gave Congress no power to enforce its requests to the states for money or troops, and by the end of 1786, governmental effectiveness had broken down.
Under the U.S. Constitution, confederation was to give way to federation — a system in which power would be shared between one national and several state governments. The national government was to be supreme in certain areas, but the states were not to become mere administrative units of the central government. States’ rights were protected in a number of ways. First, the 10th Amendment to the Constitution made clear that a number of spheres of activity were to be reserved for the states. State governments, for instance, are largely responsible for managing their own budgets and making and enforcing laws in many areas that impact residents of the state. Second, states were also protected by their representation inside the U.S. Senate: two senators to a state, irrespective of the size of the state. Third, the Electoral College, the body that formally elects the U.S. president, was to be an aggregation of electors selected by the states, with each state awarded a minimum of three delegates. Fourth, the amending procedure of the Constitution itself also reflected state interests, for any amendment to the Constitution requires approval by three-fourths of all state legislatures as well as two-thirds of the members of both houses of Congress. These protections were built into the Constitution as well, to prevent the smaller states from being dominated by the power of the larger states. The sharing of power between states and the national government is one more structural check in an elaborate scheme of checks and balances.
The struggle for individual rights
The Preamble to the Constitution looked to a new American political order based on the following principles: to form a more perfect union, to provide for the common defense, to establish justice, and secure the blessings of liberty for present and future generations. Even earlier, the Declaration of Independence had spoken of “inalienable rights” that were inherent in all people by virtue of their being human and that no government could take away. Just how best to secure justice and the blessings of liberty (then as well as now) inspired fierce partisan differences. When first drafted and submitted to the states for ratification, the Constitution did not include any reference to individual rights. One explanation for this anomaly is that the framers assumed that the powers of the newly created national government were so carefully limited that individual rights really required no additional protections. In addition, other Federalists made the case that enumerating additional rights carried an additional liability — that is, those rights deemed essential yet left unspecified would become vulnerable to government encroachment.
Although the Antifederalists were defeated in the battle over drafting the 1787 Constitution, they were able to force concessions from their opponents. Fearful of the power of the new national government, they demanded that a series of specific protections of individual rights be written into the Constitution. They also obtained promises from Federalist leaders in some state conventions to support the passage of appropriate amendments to the Constitution. Unless assured that a bill of rights would be passed, a number of states threatened to withhold ratification of the Constitution. The Federalists kept their promises. In 1789, the first Congress of the United States adopted the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. By 1791, the Bill of Rights, constituting these first 10 amendments, had been ratified by the required number of states. Moreover, the Ninth Amendment — expressly protecting fundamental rights not specifically described in the Constitution — laid to rest Federalist fears that singling out any right for protection would jeopardize the protection of all other rights not similarly identified.
The Bill of Rights limits the ability of government to trespass upon certain individual liberties, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. It also prohibits Congress from passing laws respecting the “establishment” of any official religion, that is, favoring one religion over another. Nearly two-thirds of the Bill of Rights is geared to safeguarding the rights of persons suspected or accused of crime. These rights encompass due process of law, fair trials, freedom from self-incrimination and from cruel and unusual punishment, and being held twice in jeopardy for the same crime. When first adopted, the Bill of Rights applied only to the actions of the national government.
Restraining state infringements upon civil liberties was the subject of the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) amendments, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments passed after the Civil War and intended to dismantle the institution of slavery. Over the past 100 years, many of the liberties provided for in the first 10 amendments have been incorporated in the 14th amendment’s guarantee that no state shall deprive its citizens of either due process or equal protection of the law. Especially after the 1920s, the Constitution’s first 10 amendments played an increasingly active and significant role in resolving difficult questions of public policy — from the constitutionality of school prayer and mandatory drug testing laws to birth control and capital punishment. And basic founding principles such as “justice” or “liberty,” as well as constitutional precepts such as “due process” and “equal protection under the law,” have been given new meaning by succeeding generations. These developments, often accompanied by protest movements and civil disobedience, reflect changes in human sensibilities and social mores over the past 200 years.
The philosophical justification for the Bill of Rights is that it places certain liberties beyond the reach of majorities on the premise that depriving citizens of fundamental rights would diminish their civil standing and, in fact, their very humanity. The vast array of rights secured by the Bill of Rights and Constitution compose the texture of a free government. Civil rights may arise directly from natural rights or indirectly through political arrangements in a society built upon the consent of the people given in constitutions, common law precedent, and statutes. The success story of Madison and his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention, and at the first Congress, reflects the way they set about creating a self-adjusting set of processes and structures that could legally enforce rights and supply standards for their realization in the United States.
Constitutionalism, freedom, and the new world order
The end of the Cold War, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist client states throughout Eastern Europe, ushered in a sense of triumphalism and optimism about the promise of liberal-democratic ideas and constitutional government. In December, 2000, Freedom House, a not-for-profit organization that promotes democracy worldwide, released a major study detailing the state of political rights and civil liberties in today’s world of 191 countries. The study, Freedom in the World 2000-2001, finds that a decade-long trend of positive, incremental gains for freedom continued in the year 2000. According to the organization’s annual survey, 86 countries representing 2.5 billion [thousand million] people (or 40.7 percent of the world’s population, the highest proportion in the survey’s history) are rated “free.” Their inhabitants enjoy a broad range of rights. Fifty-nine countries, representing 1.4 billion people (23.8 percent), are considered “partly free.” Political rights and civil liberties are more limited in these countries, which are often characterized by corruption, dominant ruling parties, and, in some cases, ethnic or religious strife. The survey finds that 47 countries, representing 2.2 billion people (35.5 percent), fall into the “not free” category. Inhabitants of these countries are denied basic political rights and civil liberties.
The Freedom House survey reinforces the widespread conviction that there are no longer respectable alternatives to democracy; it has become an established bulwark of modernity. Another part of this post-Cold War legacy, however, is proving much more challenging and problematic for policy-makers and political thinkers alike. Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. In many regions of the world, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life — illiberal democracy.
At the heart of the matter is the difference between democracy and constitutional government. The problem has been difficult to recognize since, for at least a century in the West, democracy has coincided with liberal democracy. The mix of freedoms associated with constitutional liberalism is theoretically distinct from democracy. From the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy has meant rule by the people. This view of democracy, as a process of selecting governments, has been articulated by scholars ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Joseph Schumpeter and Robert Dahl. Political Scientist Samuel Huntington has explained why this is the case: Elections — open, free, and fair — are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. Yet governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. While these qualities make such governments undesirable, they do not make them undemocratic. Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one, and the relation of democracy to other public virtues and vices can only be understood if democracy is clearly distinguished from the other characteristics of political systems. But elections and mass mobilization do not always vouchsafe liberal constitutional government. There is a growing unease at the rapid spread of multiparty elections across south-central Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, perhaps because of what happens after the elections. Some elected popular leaders have bypassed their parliaments and ruled by presidential decree, eroding basic constitutional practices.
Naturally there is a spectrum of illiberal democracy, ranging from modest offenders to near-tyrannies. In Latin America, many democracies have now survived for over a decade through harsh economic conditions, with no explicit challenges from the military or anti-system parties. Yet most of these regimes have yet to be consolidated. Certain countries have persisted in the face of weak institutionalization of formal democratic structures. Yet democratic consolidation is incomplete without the support of constitutional liberalism. In addition to agreement on rules for the competition of power, there must be fundamental and self-enforcing restraints on the exercise of power. One effect of overemphasizing pure democracy as the ultimate test for freedom is that little effort is given to creating imaginative constitutions for transitional countries. This is done not simply by scheduling frequent elections or writing up a list of rights, but by constructing a system which will not violate those rights. Constitutional government looks beyond the procedures for selecting a government to the kind of deliberative arrangements, insulated from public passions, that defend individual liberty and the rule of law. This requires a mutual commitment among elites — through the coordinating mechanism of a constitution, related political institutions, and often through an elite pact or settlement as well, where governments maintain order by building coalitions among leading political parties and interest groups. The goal is to enforce limits on state authority, no matter which party or faction may control the state at any given time. At the beginning of the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world safe for democracy. The challenge for the next century may be to make democracy safe for the world.
For Additional Reading
Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1983)
Edward D. Corwin, The “Higher Law” Background of American Constitutional Law (Cornell University Press, 1990)
Larry Diamond, Developing Democracy, Toward Consolidation (Johns Hopkins Press, 1999)
Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization In The Late Twentieth Century (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993)
Harbison Belz Kelly, et al., eds., The American Constitution: Its Origins and Developments (7th ed., W. W. Norton, 1997)
Theodore Lowi and Benjamin Ginsberg, American Government (6th ed., W. W. Norton, 2000)
Charles H. McIlwain, The Growth of Political Thought in the West (Macmillan, 1932)
Ellis Sandoz, A Government Of Laws: Political Theory, Religion, and the American Founding (Louisiana State University Press, 1990)
About the Author:
Series Editor Melvin I. Urofsky, professor of history and public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author or editor of more than 40 books. His most recent works are The Warren Court (2001), and with Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States (2nd ed., 2001).