To define the word constitution is a hard job. It becomes even harder when millions of people have preconceived ideas, flare up in anger when they hear of a concept that differs from their own, or a fact of history that topples over some cherished myth. Yet if we are to discuss the Constitution—the American Constitution—it is well to have a fair understanding of the word, an acceptable all-around definition, in order that we may know what we are considering.

The word constitution seems to mean, generally, how any given thing is constituted or set up. It means the set-up or frame of your government, your club, your business, the make-up of your body, and what not.

For instance, in our set-up, or frame, or constitution, we are prohibited from having a king, passing ex post facto laws, establishing a nobility and the like. We know, without any judge declaring it, that for the Congress to attempt anything specifically prohibited is against the set-up, is against the Constitution, is unconstitutional. In these plain matters, the national Congress would certainly need no court to tell it that such acts would be null and void. All citizens know that violations of specific provisions of the written Constitution are unconstitutional.

But before we start talking about what is unconstitutional, let us get back to finding out what a constitution is. The Political Dictionary, London, 1845, says as follows:

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 frequently mentioned are the English Constitution, the constitutions of the several States composing the North American union, the Federal constitution, by which these same States are bound together, and various constitutions of the European continent.

This dictionary proceeds for several pages to define the various constitutions enumerated, and ends up by proving what it said in the first place—the term is vague; it lacks precision.

Benjamin Franklin and other eighteenth-century American writers used the words constitution and government interchangeably and synonymously. But they always implied that there was something else besides a written constitution—a spirit of constitution which came from the people's way of life.

Many centuries ago, Aristotle said: "The Constitution is the State"; and Isocrates said: "The Constitution is the soul of the State. The constitutionalism of our forefathers was nothing new.

The difference between a written constitution and one that is unwritten, is difficult to explain. We are accustomed to say that the English Constitution is unwritten, and that ours is written; but that is not strictly true of either. Alexander Hamilton recognized that ours is not wholly written. When he was trying to explain why the new Constitution had no Bill of Rights (Federalist, 84), he frankly assured the American people that they did not need a Bill of Rights. He argued that since "they [the people] retain everything [meaning, of course, the inherited and ever-living constitution, whether written or not, now by Revolution separately possessed by the American people], they have no need of particular reservations." He maintained that the words of the preamble, in establishing liberty and union, were a better recognition of popular rights than many state constitutions which were more like lectures on ethics than a "constitution of government."

Surely, then, there is vastly more to our Constitution than what was written on parchment at Philadelphia in 1787. Here is a Founding Father saying so, and it would be true whether he had said it or not.

Whatever our conception of the Constitution, it is extrememly important that we do not make too much of a sacred cow of it. For if we do, it will be impossible for us ever to solve, or even start to solve, any serious problem involving government action. It is essential that we take a calm view of it, and divest it of the smoke screen of buncombe and solemn nonsense that often surrounds it.

The Century Dictionary of 1889 gives a general and sensible definition of the word:

1. The Act of constituting, establishing or appointing; formation.

2. The state of being constituted, composed, made up, or established; the assemblage and union of the essential elements and characteristic parts of a system or body, especially the human organism; the composition, make-up, or natural condition of anything: as the physical constitution of the sun, the constitution of a sanitary system, a weak or irritable constitution.

It proceeds to define a constitution as a system of fundamental principles, maxims, laws or rules embodied "in written documents or prescriptive usage" for government. The dictionary provides in addition definitions of the hundreds of different kinds of constitutions: business, governmental, social, and ecclesiastical. It says, for instance, the New Testament is the "moral constitution of modern society."

The actual word, of course, occurs in the very early Roman writings on government. Preceding these were various Greek constitutions, politeias, on which Aristotle and others wrote extensively and well. There are evidences of constitutions in various cultures and civilizations for thousands of years before that.

Early in American history the word constitution began to be used not merely with reference to the English Constitution, but also with reference to colonial governments. Dated July 21, 1621, we find "An Ordinance and Constitution of the treasurer, Council and Company in England, for the Council of State and General Assembly" for the Colony of Virginia. The word was used after that in various ways, as the idea of what it implied developed.

At the outset the idea was limited to a constitution for each colony in addition to the British Constitution, which belonged to all of the people. But very early in the history of the colonies there developed, vaguely at first, the idea of an American constitution which would apply to all Americans living on this continent.

After the adoption of the first written Constitution, which was known as the Articles of Confederation, the new states began to call the outgrowth of their royal charters "Constitutions." However, feeling that an explanation was necessary, they generally added "Or form of government."

We have, then, a fair idea of what constitution means. Or, at least, we know something of the various conceptions. The word is today rich in meaning and historical association. Before we finish this book, we will have become aware of the blood and struggle and spirit that have gone into the making of our charters and constitutions.

But think and read as we may, cram and choke ourselves with left-over wisdom as we will, Aristotle's words cannot be improved upon: "The aim of the constitution is the realization of the most desirable life, the life which is lived in accordance with virtue—virtue not of one kind only, but of all,—and with a full equipment of bodily and external goods."