In many ways, the United State pioneered the use of a written constitution to frame government. Before 1787, most governments followed unwritten, precedent-driven constitutions that might be supplemented by one or more documents. The British common law constitution is a good example of this kind of unwritten constitution of government.
All constitutions – whether written or unwritten – define who possesses the supreme sovereign power within government (whether king, parliament, or a democratic people). Whichever body wields that power, since it is supreme, can alter the framework of the constitution itself. Unwritten constitutions can therefore be very malleable (though they may well be very stable and remain faithful to tradition, as Britain’s constitution largely was). Having a written constitution establishes a legal form that is superior to all other laws, and that is superior even to those who make laws.
The first written constitution in American history was passed in 1638 in Connecticut (it constituted the towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield). The written state constitutions preceded the United States Constitution, and even the adoption of the Articles of Confederation. On May 10, 1776, the Continental Congress approved a resolution recommending that all of the colonies adopt new written constitutions. Between the years of 1776 to 1783, each of the thirteen former colonies would draft and approve its own state constitution; these would become the first written constitutions for free and independent states that the world had ever known. Abraham Lincoln would later contend that, since it was the dependent colonies that created the Union, and the Union’s actions created the independent states, the states therefore never had any legal status apart from the Union. This fact, he said, undermined the claim of some Southerners that states had a right to secede from the Union. (See his Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861.)
The status of the Constitution as fundamental law was reinforced by its method of ratification: it rested on the will of “We the People” rather than the dictates of any legislative body. Consequently, it is the Constitution – not anyone who wields power within the government – that is now considered supreme.
The Constitution has changed little since it was adopted. Only 27 amendments have been added since the Constitution’s adoption. Each amendment describes, explains, or alters the Constitution in some way. Together with the original seven articles, they create the Constitution that governs the United States today.
The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, were passed soon after the Republic was created. The Bill of Rights protects individual rights and limits the federal government’s scope through a reservation of powers to the states and the people.
The Constitution has continued to be amended as the United States has changed, expanding suffrage, changing procedures, and better protecting rights. On issues as varied as slavery and presidential succession, the Constitution has been explicitly altered and its meaning implicitly changed to create the document it is. However, most of the language of the Constitution remains as it was written in 1787.