CONSTITUTION, a term often used by persons at the present day without any precise notion of what it means. Such a definition of a Constitution, if it were offered as one, might be defended as equally good with many other definitions or descriptions which are involved in the terms used whenever a constitution is spoken of.
The constitutions which are most fre quently mentioned are the English Con stitution, the constitutions of the several States composing the North Anierican union, the Federal constitution, by which these same States are bound together, and various constitutions of the European con tinent.
The vague notion of a constitution is that of certain fundamental rules or laws by which the general form of adminis tration in a given country is regulated, and in opposition to which no other fun damental rules or laws, or any rules or laws, can or ought to be made.
The exact notion of a constitution can not be obtained without first obtaining a notion of sovereign power. The sovereign power in any state is that power from which all laws properly so called pro ceed; it is that power which commands and can enforce obedience. Such a power, being sovereign or supreme, is subject to no other power, and cannot therefore be bound by any rules laid down, either by those who have at any previous time en joyed the sovereign power in the same community, or by any maxims or rules of conduct practised or recommended by its predecessors in power, whether those rules or maxims be merely a matter of long usage or solemnly recorded in any written instrument. The sovereign power for the time is supreme, and can make what laws it pleases without doing any illegal act, and, strictly speaking, also without doing any unconstitutional act. For this word Constitution, taken in its strongest sense, can never mean more than a law made, or a usage sanctioned by some one or more possessed of sove reign power, which law or usage has for many generations been observed by all those who have successively held the sovereign power in the same country. To modify or destroy such a rule or law might be unwise, as being an act in op position to that which many successive generations had found to be a wise and useful rule ; it might be dangerous as being opposed to that to which the expe rience or prejudices of many generations had given their sanction ; and it might lead to resistance on the part of the go verned, if either their own interest or their passions were strong enough to lead them to risk a contest with the sovereign power. If (as would generally be ad
mitted) the assembled parliament of Great Britain and Ireland possess the sovereign power, there is no act which they could do which would be illegal, as everybody must admit : and further, there is no pos sible act which they could do which would be unconstitutional, for such act would be no more than repealing some law or usage having the force of law which the mass of the nation regarded with more than usual veneration, or enacting something at variance with such law or usage. For example, if the next assembled parlia ment should abolish the trial by jury in all cases, such an act might be called by some persons illegal, unconstitutional, and unwise. But it would not be called illegal by any person who had fully examined into the meaning of the word Law ; it would not be called unconstitutional by any man who, having called it illegal, wished to be consistent with himself: it could only be properly called wise or un wise by those who had reflected suffi ciently on the nature of the institution and its operations to know whether such a modification would do more good or harm.
The words constitution and unconsti tutional appear to be only strictly appli cable to those cases where the sovereign power, whether held by one, or two, or five hundred, or all the males of an inde pendent political community who are above a certain age, or by any other num ber in such a community, lays down cer tain rules to regulate the conduct of those to whom the sovereign power intrusts the legislative functions. Such are the Con stitutions of the several states composing the North American Union, and such is the Constitution of the Federation of these several states. In these several states the people, in the mass, and as a general rule, are the sovereign. The people assembled by their delegates, named for that especial purpose, have framed the existing Consti tutions ; and they change the same Con stitutions in the same way whenever the majority of the people, that is, when the sovereign, chooses to make such change.