The Basics of a Constitution
as learned from Thomas Paine
The following article is about the basics of a constitution. This applies to the US Constitution, all State Constitutions, and all city charters.
Lessons learned are from Thomas Paine
The following insights are from Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine wrote a lot about Constitutions. He not only understood constitutions in general, he also understood the US Constitution specifically.
One of the reasons we can trust the insights of Thomas Paine is that he was good friends with the leaders of the time. For example, Paine was good friends with Ben Franklin. Franklin helped create the US Constitution and the State Constitution of Pennsylvania. Therefore, Thomas Paine learned from Ben Franklin exactly what our Founders intended with our Constitution.
The basic points of "constitutions" (stated by Paine, summarized by me.)
All of these points come from Thomas Paine. I have merely tried to summarize his points the best I could.
1. The Constitution is first and foremost a contract.
2. The Constitution is an agreement between the people and themselves.
3. The Constitution is the creation of a new government.
4. The constitution describes the organizational structure of the government.
5. The Constitution limits the powers of the government, and protects the rights of the people.
The limits on government is written mostly via the checks and balances of the constitution. However, the constitution should also have an official statement of rights.
6. The people are the final authority on what is or is not Constitutional. By definition, "Constitutional" is whatever the majority of people say it is. When a specific proposal is put to a vote by the people, and the people approve, then that proposal is immediately and permanently Constitutional.
(Note that neither the state supreme courts nor the US Supreme Court can dictate what is Constitutional. Rather, the people, the citizens, are always the final authority on these matters.)
7. The Constitution is approved by the people. No matter what the particulars of the Constitution are, if the people approve, then the particulars of the Constitution are Constitutional.
8. A Constitution must have a method of being Amendment. The method of Amendment is not as important is the basic concept: only the people can approve an Amendment to the Constitution (not the legislators, the executive, and not the courts).
Amendments are voted on by the people. No matter what the particulars of an amendment might be, whatever the people vote into the Constitution, by definition, will now be Constitutional.
9. No body of the government can itself change a constitution. No legislator, no judge, no President, no Governor can change the Constitution. These people may propose changes to a constitution, but all changes must be put to a vote by the people in order to become Constitutional.
10. All constitutions should have a statement of rights.
11. All constitutions should also have a statement of responsibilities.
Thomas Pain quote regarding a Constitution - Introduction
This quote is one of the best single block quotes. It is his first description of a constitution.
I am breaking this quote into smaller chunks. I do this because he has so many good points in this one quote. Yet in his original work, this is one continuous quote.
Thomas Paine Quote, regarding the basics concepts of a Constitution:
"A constitution is not a thing in name only, but in fact. It has not an ideal, but a real existence; and wherever it cannot be produced, there is none."
"A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government, and a government is only the creature of the constitution."
"The constitution of a country is not the act of its government, but is the act of the people constituting a government."
"The constitution is the body of elements, to which you can refer, and quote article by article; and contains the principles on which the government shall be established, the form in which it shall be organized, the powers it shall have, the mode of elections, the duration of parliaments (or by whatever name such bodies may be called); the powers which the executive part of the government shall have; and, in detail, everything that relates to the complete organization of a civil government, and the principle on which it shall act, and by which it shall be bound."
"A constitution, therefore, is to a government what the laws made afterwards by that government are to a court. The court does not make laws, neither can it alter them; it only acts in conformity to the laws made; and the government is in like manner governed by the constitution."
Thomas Paine, "Rights of Man" 1792
Compiled by Mark Fennell