The Constitution’s Meaning

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So, as I was teaching class today, I realized something. I love to look at the definitions of words, especially in the context of government and law. Words and their meanings are really fundamental to understanding government institutions, particularly American government institutions since our founders were so careful with their words and names. (For instance, Senate means “old and wise”. Hence, the “older, wiser” make up of the Senate. Further, “to legislate” means, “to make law”. Hence, the legislature exists to make law. And I could keep going.)

But I realized today, that in all my definitions and the like, I’ve never taken the time to look up what the word “Constitution” actually means. And, frankly, that’s a shame, given how much I value and love the Constitution.

Today’s post is going to be rather simple. I’m going to explain what the word, “Constitution” means according to the 1828 Webster dictionary, the dictionary most closely tied to the original meanings of the words used at the founding.

Here goes.

One of the first definitions of the word, “constitution” is: “The state of being; that form of being or peculiar structure and connection of parts which makes or characterizes a system or body. Hence the particular frame or temperament of the human body is called its constitution We speak of a robust or feeble constitution; a cold, phlegmatic, sanguine or irritable constitution We speak of the constitution of the air, or other substance; the constitution of the solar system; the constitution of things.”

word define on spelling dictionary page

I include this definition because, while it doesn’t directly relate to government, there are some critical aspects to the definition that can be applied to government. Particularly, the constitution of something or someone is essentially that entity’s structure. It describes, not loosely, but specifically, how that entity is structured, built and is supposed to work.

This should sound familiar.

Ok, the next and more relevant definition gives us a very clear understanding of how the Americans viewed the Constitution at the time.

“The established form of government in a state, kingdom or country; a system of fundamental rules, principles and ordinances for the government of a state or nation. In free states, the constitution is paramount to the statutes or laws enacted by the legislature, limiting and controlling its power; and in the United States, the legislature is created, and its powers designated, by the constitution.”

Boy, I couldn’t have said it any more beautifully. Webster essentially stated everything I’ve been preaching for the past year. The Constitution sets up the fundamental structure, rules and ordinances, not for we the people but for the government. It is paramount to the laws that end up governing the people. Specifically, it limits and controls the power of government.

And, as I’ve said many times, in the U.S., all the power that the legislature has to create law comes from and is defined by the Constitution.

What could be more wonderful than that?

So, if you want a simple and strait-forward way to define the Constitution for someone, here it is.

The law governing government.

The Liberty Belle

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