Do We Have a Living Constitution?

National Forum LXIV:4 (Fall 1984).


Now, almost 200 years later, one can read Hamilton’s words in Federalist No. 1 and conclude that, under some conditions, some “societies of men” are capable of “establishing good government,” but that most are not. This is not for lack of trying; on the contrary, constitutions are being written all the time – of some 164 countries in the world, all but a small handful (seven by the latest count) have written constitutions – but most of them are not long-lived.

In September 1983, the American Enterprise Institute sponsored an international conference on constitution writing at the Supreme Court of the United States; some twenty-odd countries were represented. With the exception of the Americans, the persons present had themselves played a role – in some cases a major role – in the writing of their countries’ constitutions, most of them written since 1970. Only the con­stitution of the French Fifth Republic predated 1970; and the Nigerian, so ably discussed and defended at the 1983 conference by one of its own Framers, had subsequently been subverted, much as the four previous French republican constitutions had been subverted. It would seem that many peoples are experienced in the writing of constitutions, but only a few of them – conspicuous among these the people of America – have an experience of stable constitutional govern­ment. In that sense, we surely have “a living Constitution.” That is not, however, the sense in which the term is ordinarily used in the literature of constitutional law as shall be explored herein.

In the language of many today, a “living Constitution” is not first of all one that is long-lived; rather, its longevity is a secondary or derivative quality which is attributed to its “flexibility” or better, its “adaptability.” It is this quality “adaptability” that allows it to be “kept in tune with the times,” as the members of this school of thought sometimes say. According to them, a living Constitution is first of all a protean constitution – one whose meaning is not fixed, but variable.

National Center for Constitutional Studies (excerpt)