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DavidV

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Reply with quote  #1 
Today, or rather yesterday (depending on where you are right now when I'm writing this!) on May 17, Norway celebrates its National Day commemorating its constitution enacted in 1814 and still in force today. While you may see the constitution as the product of its time, it can also be seen as a superb achievement for the era considering the world it was written in, after two decades of warfare ravaged Europe. Although it was not the only one, it is one of those from the period that has endured the test of time.

Are constitutions best written, or rather to be written about? What is a constitution? Is it simply a term to describe the system of government as it evolved, or a body of law defining the system of government? The term "unwritten constitution" often means that the system has evolved over time and is accepted as the constitution, as it is in Britain and several other countries. In reality, "unwritten" constitutions are often composed of bodies of law and customs which may render the term something of a misnomer. In any case, such constitutions are not one or more written documents, but rather they may be written about and spoken of as being the constitution.

Constitutional history goes back to at least ancient Greece and Rome. There the term was and is used in the above manner. In Greece, systems of government were termed democracy, oligarchy, monarchy and tyranny - the last term not being used to describe what it means in modern parlance, but to absolute rulers whose states lacked the democratic elements that ancient democracy, oligarchy and monarchy had. Greek monarchies like Sparta and Macedon could be described as being among the first constitutional monarchies (although Rome could also be a candidate) for they boasted a code of laws, an assembly and a council, and various checks on not only royal power but also defined powers of institutions. While the advocates of Athenian democracy believed their system's virtues lay in not allowing anyone to stay in power for long, this was simply not true - since generals of the army often assumed real power in Athens.

It is often assumed that modern constitutions, at least written, are simply a product of the Enlightenment and of the age of revolution, namely the American Revolution and the French Revolution. I contend that this is simply not the case on the weight of historical evidence. San Marino, the world's oldest and smallest independent republic, is governed under a constitution dating back to 1600 which in turn supplanted an older document creating the institutions that exist today. In Sweden, the first Instrument of Government in 1634 was written after the basic institutions of the Riksdag (which afforded representation to all social classes including peasants) and Privy Council had already been created, and further Instruments of Government reflected changes in the balance of power between the King and parliament. In Poland, the Sejm had assumed its bicameral form by the time Nihil novi was enacted in 1505, and the Henrician Articles of 1573, forming the basis of constitutional law until 1791.

Democracy on the North American continent did not begin in 1776, but in fact in 1619 when Virginia gained the first legislative assembly in the Western Hemisphere, the House of Burgesses. The various colonial charters were in fact written constitutions prescribing the basic institutions of state in the American colonies, granting them political participation undreamed of in other colonial empires. The colonies that would comprise Canada received their first assemblies later, but not in what is now Ontario and Quebec until the Constitutional Act of 1791.

The last King of Poland before partition, Stanislaw August Poniatowski spoke of the May Constitution of 1791 as "avoiding the faults and errors..." which referred to the Poles' examination of British and American constitutions, although undoubtedly drawing inspiration and paying homage to both. In fact, this may have initiated the whole idea that constitutional thought and constitutional monarchy is not a product of the Enlightenment and revolutionary ideals, but in fact a reaction against it. We can look at not only the Polish constitutions of 1791 and subsequently 1807 (Duchy of Warsaw) and 1815 (Congress Poland) but of the Kingdom of Corsica (1794), Spain, Sicily (both 1812), the Netherlands (1915) and of course Norway mentioned at the start (1814), and others that were drawn up at the close of the Napoleonic period and the Congress of Vienna. The constitutions of Baden, W├╝rttemberg, Bavaria and Saxony all lasted to 1918. I will even mention the French constitutions of 1814 (the Bourbon Restoration) and 1830 (the July Monarchy), the former affirming the restoration of a royal and Catholic France while also providing for a Bill of Rights.

It is true that most such constitutions were described as "liberal", yet they would be seen as conservative by today's standards. Even the US constitution, for instance, is sometimes described as being not quite as radical as it might have turned out, considering the idea of limited government took hold among people and still does among more conservative Americans today. The belief exists that the subversion of constitutions constitutes an attack on liberty and democracy. It is the case not merely in the US but in other countries as well. Constitutions have often assumed a kind of sacred status, inspiring veneration but not always obedience, which was certainly the case in Latin America. Constitutions were intended to provide restraints on the institutions of state and establish a certain liberty. The French Revolution, on the other hand, rejected all of that. Yet the lessons were there to be learned, and the framers of monarchical constitutions may have looked at the US constitution and said "nice try, but we'll do it better".

Monarchists have a treasure trove of arguments to use in terms of constitutionalism, the fact that monarchical constitutions were written as a reaction against the errors of the American Revolution and the evils and excesses of the French Revolution, rather than being seen as a sort of compromise. In essence, this is empiricism - one of the very fundamentals of conservative thought and of the conservative movement. They say people never learn, yet there is a whole body of work written and written of that people can learn from, through which they will make the same conclusions we have.
HRH_Jonathan

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Posts: 18
Reply with quote  #2 
I say that it is far better to write a constitution than to write about one.

It is an absolute necessity that limits be placed upon the power of a country and its rulers, or else someone will rapidly come along who will abuse his absolute control. Furthermore, the more explicitly stated these limits are, the better; implicit limits will be warped, abused, and ignored almost inevitably, as evinced by 16th century England, and 17th century France. In the end, the only way to have anything resembling stability in a nation is to state up front exactly what its powers and balances are. Thus, without an absolutely defining philosophy such as Chinese Confucianism, a constitution is required for a successful nation, even and especially a monarchy.

Indeed, I think that it can be a very rewarding exercise for monarchists to draft, study, and compare hypothetical constitutions of their own. The discussion of what goes into a country is always a very enlightening topic.

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