The present constitution of the U.S.A., which was adopted at the Philadelphia Convention held in 1787, came into force in 1789 after its satisfaction by a requisite number of states.
It is the briefest constitution in the world and originally consisted of seven articles only. During a period of 174 years, the constitution has been amended twenty-three times.
Hence the constitution of the U.S.A. at present consists of 7 articles and 23 amendments. Despite its brevity, the constitution has been highly applauded by a variety of well-known thinkers.
"Yet, after all deductions, it ranks above every other written constitution for the intrinsic excellence of its scheme, its adaptation to the circumstances of the people, its simplicity and precision of language, its judicious mixture of definiteness in principle with clasticity in details."
— James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce
The Main Characteristics of the Constitution
"When the founding Fathers drafted a Constitution, they created a system of government based on existing institutions. In 1787, all Americans with any knowledge of politics were already familiar with Courts, legislatures, executive officers, and popular elections, since each of these had existed in the colonies. What was novel in the new Constitution was its allocation of authority among various agencies of government and its ordering of power between government and private citizen."
The following describes some of the main features of the American constitution which are clear contradictions of the British constitution:
- The constitution is in written form
- A rigid constitution
- An enacted constitution
- A federal constitution
- Presidential government
- Supremacy of the constitution
- Separation of powers
- Check and balance
- Bill of rights
- Judicial review
- Dual citizenship
- It is based on popular sovereignty
Marx Lerner has given a sum-up; "Here was the document into which the Founding Fathers had poured their wisdom as into a vessel; the fathers themselves grew ever larger in stature as they receded from view; the era in which they lived and fought became Golden Age; in that Age there had been a fresh dawn of the world, and its men were giants against the sky; what they had fought for was abstracted from its living context and became a set of "principles" eternally true and universally applicable."
Like other federal constitutions, the American constitution also is embodied in a document that consists of 7 articles. Twenty-three amendments constitute the addition to the constitution.
In fact, the fathers of the American constitution stated the constitution in a skeleton form though its details were to be worked up by the Acts of Congress. Conventions, judicial decisions and statutes of Congress have played a conspicuous role in developing the constitution of the U.S.A.
It is unlike Great Britain, where 3/4 of the constitution exists in an unwritten form and only 1/4 in written form. The British constitution has therefore been termed a 'child of wisdom and chance.'
The constitution of the U.S.A. is termed the most rigid constitution in the world, as its procedure of amendment is very cumbersome.
It is because of its rigidity that the constitution could be amended only twenty-three times during a period of 174 years. Ten out of twenty-three amendments were effected two years after the constitution came into force.
On the contrary, the British Constitution is the most flexible constitution in the world, as there is no difference between ordinary and constitutional law in Great Britain.
Majority in the Parliament is enough to amend the British constitution which does not exist in a regular document.
An Enacted Constitution
Unlike that the British constitution, which is known as an evolved constitution, the American constitution is an enacted constitution.
As was previously stated, it was embodied in a document at Philadelphia Convention held in 1787 and came into force in 1789.
The British constitution, on the other hand, is not derived from one source but several of them. It does not exist in one document but in thousands of them. In fact, it is a combination of statutes, charters, conventions, judicial decisions, and common law.
A Federal Constitution
Unlike that of Great Britain, which has opted for a unitary type of government, the American constitution is federal in character.
"The national government has power to rule over the people directly regarding different matters of domestic as well as foreign policy, and its authority comes from "the people" of the US, not from the individual state as separate political entities. On the other hand the states, while no longer sovereign as they were under the Articles of Confederation. As the Supreme Court noted after the civil war, the Constitution works as an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States."
Originally, it was a federation of 13 states, though now 50 states comprise the American federation. The powers have been divided between the centre and the states.
The constitution enumerates the federal subjects and leaves the residual subjects to the states. All powers not delegated to the centre are exercised by the states.
The constitution thus creates a weak centre. With the passage of time, however, due to the doctrine of ‘implied powers' propounded by the Supreme Court, the centre has become very powerful.
The constitution establishes a Presidential form of Government in the U.S.A. The President—who is the head of the state as well as the government—is elected through a specially constituted electoral college.
The President is not removable by Congress through a vote of no-confidence. A special procedure of impeachment is provided to remove the President from office. The President is not to sit in Congress and participate in its deliberation.
In the U.K., on the other hand, a parliamentary form of government exists. The Cabinet, which constitutes the real executive power, is responsible to the House of Commons. It sits in the House and pilots the bills through it.
There is therefore harmony between the executive and the legislature. The President is responsible for enforcing Congressional legislation and constitutional provisions and in so doing, he frequently is forced to provide his own interpretation of the meaning of the constitutional provisions.
Supremacy of the Constitution
In the U.S.A., the constitution is the supreme law of the land. Neither the centre nor the states can abrogate it.
The Supreme Court can declare any act passed by Congress or order issued by the executive unconstitutional if it is repugnant to the constitution.
In the U.K., it is the Parliament that enjoys this supremacy.
Separation of Powers
Montesquieu, a French judge and political philosopher, was an exponent of the theory of separation of powers—he is said to be the guiding angel of the American constitution.
The tree branches of government have been kept separate from each other:
- Congress makes laws,
- the President executes them
- and the judiciary branch interprets them.
The President does not sit in Congress and participate in its deliberations. Hence, Congress cannot oust him by a vote of no-confidence.
The President also cannot dissolve Congress. In fact, rigid separation of powers was neither contemplated by Montesquieu nor implemented in the U.S.A. right from the very beginning.
In the U.K., the cabinet is constituted out of Parliament and remains in power only if the majority of the House of Commons stands by it. Thus, the executive and the legislature are not repairable in the U.K.
But, latterly, the importance of this doctrine (the separation of powers) as a working principle of government under the constitution has been much diminished by the growth of Presidential leadership in Legislation, by the increasing resort of Congress to the practice of delegating what amounts to legislative power to the President and other administrative agencies, and by the emergence in the latter of all those powers of government, according to the earlier definition given.
Checks and Balances
As already said, Montesquieu was a source of inspiration for the fathers of the American constitution. Hence his theory of 'checks and balances' also was kept in mind by the framers of the American constitution.
This was done to avoid concentration of authority and secure liberty for the American people. The following are the results of the implementation of this concept:
- The President of the U.S.A. was vested with veto power to checkmate the despotic legislative authority of Congress.
- Similarly, Congress was empowered to impeach the President who might develop monarchical evolution if not fettered properly.
- The judiciary branch was to impose checks both on the legislature and the executive as the Federal Courts were vested with the power of judicial review.
The Senate's approval was thought indispensable for the appointment and treaties to be made by a President. Thus the ‘power is to halt the power’ principle of Montesquieu was embodied in the Constitution.
In the U.K., the checks and balances theory also does work as the House of Commons can oust the Cabinet and the Prime Minister can get the House dissolved. The opposition checks the government. But the theory does not work to the extent in the U.K. that it does in the U.S.A.
Bill of Rights
The original draft of the constitution did not make provisions for the rights of the people. These rights were incorporated into the constitution through a number of amendments effected after the promulgation of the constitution.
Thus the amended constitution guarantees fundamental rights of person, property, and liberty to the people. These rights are enforceable by the courts of law.
In the U.K., on the other hand, no rights have been emanating from different resources like judicial decisions, statutes, and common law. The courts thereto safeguard their right once established.
The federal judiciary has been empowered to exercise the power of judicial review over the legislative enactments and the executive orders. As such, the federal judiciary acts as the guardian of the constitution.
In fact, the Supreme Court has so interpreted the constitution that it has adopted to the changing needs of society. Critics term this power of judicial review the judicial veto. A few term the supreme court as the third chamber.
In the U.K., the judiciary branch does not play such an effective role. It cannot challenge the acts of the Parliament as unconstitutional.
The U.S.A. is a republic with the President as the elected head of the state. The constitution derives its authority from the people.
In the U.K., Constitutional Monarchy persists. The head of the state is a king who holds office on a hereditary basis. Thus the heads of both these countries are differently designed.
The U.S.A constitution makes a provision for dual citizenship for the people of the United States. An American is a citizen of the U.S.A. and the state to which he belongs.
In the U.K., on the contrary, single citizenship is provided. An English man may live in any part of the country, but he is deemed a citizen of the U.K.
The U.S.A. constitution provides for a bicameral legislature.
- The Lower House is termed the House of Representatives,
- whereas the Upper House is called the Senate.
The Senate, unlike the British House of Lords, is stronger than the House of Representatives. In fact, the Senate is the strongest upper chamber in the world whereas the house of lords is a mere glamorous chamber playing only a secondary role in the Parliament.
It Is Based on Popular Sovereignty
The American constitution is based on popular sovereignty. The preamble of the constitution stands with the words ‘We the people of the United States do ordain and establish the constitution for the United States of America.'
The doctrine of popular sovereignty attributes ultimate sovereignty to the people and substitutes a constitutional system of government for arbitrary authority.
Keeping in view the features of the constitutions as discussed, we can safely conclude, that 'the features of the U.S.A. constitution are nothing but mere contradiction of that of the British constitution.'
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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