The Influence of the United States Constitution and Its Origins

Updated on September 19, 2013

“We the people….” Is there anyone in the United States that does not know the document from which those words originate? They are the first three words in the Preamble of the United States Constitution, the supreme law of the land. Adopted on September 17, 1787, the Constitution has been the backbone of a country founded on a unique form of government, namely of the people, by the people, and for the people. It was called the Grand Experiment when it began, and now, 225 years later, it stands as a beacon for all those who believe in freedom.

The Constitution is known as a living document, meaning that it changes as the nation changes. Through a system of checks and balances, amendments, and Supreme Court rulings, the Constitution is not so much etched in stone as it is molded in the clays of time and circumstance. The Grand Experiment has, indeed, withstood the test of time.

But where did it come from? How was this concept developed over time? What philosophical and political theories helped shape this stalwart of legality? To find those answers we need to journey back in time; during our trip we will come to understand that the blood of freedom had been flowing quietly in the veins of civilization for quite some time prior to 1787.

The U.S. Constitution
The U.S. Constitution | Source
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes | Source
Montesquieu
Montesquieu | Source
Rousseau
Rousseau | Source

From Great Minds Come Great Ideas

All ancient civilizations had an established form of government, from the Sumerians to the Romans, Greeks and Babylonians, and each form of government was based on certain principles and laws. Just as assuredly, philosophers were right there to contemplate and debate the political theories of those times.

It was from the writings and teachings of many of those philosophers that the founders of the Constitution derived many of the articles that form the backbone of that great work.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau….Thomas Hobbes….John Locke….Voltaire….Montesquieu….giants in their time, forward thinkers of change…all influenced the collective work that we refer to as the Constitution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a Genevan philosopher and writer who greatly influenced the French Revolution. In his most important work, “The Social Contract,” he stated: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they."

He espoused a theory called “classical republicanism” where individuals dictated the form and direction of the government. He did not embrace the concept of a representative assembly, which we see in today’s Congress; rather, he believed in a city state assembly, where individual states (like Geneva at that time) met and decided governmental direction for the country.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher who is generally credited with developing the theories behind modern Western political philosophy. In his landmark book “Leviathan” he discusses the rights of individuals, the natural equality of all men, and the concept that all political power should be derived from the consent of the people.

John Locke (1632-1704) was also an English philosopher who is considered the Father of Classical Liberalism. He believed in the natural right to life, health, liberty and possessions, words that were the impetus to words in the Declaration of Independence. He also believed in a separation of powers in a government, and declared that revolution was not only a right but an obligation in special circumstances.

Voltaire (1694-1778) was a French writer and philosopher whose most notable work was his novella entitled “Candide” in which he states: It is up to us to cultivate our own garden,” meaning that government can no longer be trusted to do so for us. He was a strong believer in freedom of religion, freedom of expression, free trade and separation of church and state.

Montesquieu (1689-1755) was a French political thinker and commentator who believed strongly in a separation of powers that would include legislative, executive, and judicial branches. His most influential work was “On the Spirit of Laws,” in which he also stated that women could be effective heads of state.

A must read for any American

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Other Historical Events That Were Influential

The architects of the Constitution were great students of history. They had studied the historical events of the past, taken lessons from each of them, and used those as guidelines in shaping this new nation. Let’s take a look at some of those events and see what was derived from them.

Magna Carta (1215) was considered a landmark document regarding limiting the power of a ruler. It was a direct challenge to King John of England and declared that no freeman could be punished without use of the law of the land. Although many of its provisions were repealed within one hundred years of its signing, it still stands as revolutionary in its boldness and challenge of authority.

English Bill of Rights (1689) further limited the monarchy in England, this time at the cost of King James II. Unlike Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights is still in effect and is a cornerstone of law in the United Kingdom. It calls for freedom of speech, regular elections, the right to petition, the right to bear arms, no cruel or unusual punishment and calls for the consent of the people.

The Roman Republic and Empire (509 BC-476 AD) was considered by the writers of the Constitution to be the perfect example of wealth and its evils. The U.S. founding fathers were fascinated by Roman history and in particular the corruption that they considered a natural product of unbridled wealth.

Connecticut Fundamental Orders (1639) is considered the first written constitution in the Colonies, and it is most noteworthy because it contains a Declaration of Rights for individuals. Comparing this document with the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, one can see many similarities.

A quick guide to the Constitution

So Much More

The aforementioned is in no way a comprehensive list of the documents and philosophers that influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Rather, it is meant to be a highlighting of some, a limited vision to help the reader understand that history does not exist in a vacuum.

What should be understood is that the Constitution represented a culmination of all that came before it, and by itself represented a bold new approach to government. It was a declaration of intent, that this new country would go where none had ever gone before. It was a statement of independence and its undying legacy is built upon the principles of justice and liberty for all citizens.

Is it perfect? Perhaps, in principle, yes, but it is always in the implementation of theory that we base the final judgment. There are many who would claim that this document is in no way perfect, and perhaps that is as it should be. As a living document, the Constitution has the ability to address those imperfections, and after all, it was written by humans, so perfection is unattainable.

But change takes time! The winds of change blow slowly in a nation comprised of over 312 million people, and again, perhaps that’s as it should be. When freedom is at stake, is it not best that change be slowly considered, for a representative government must take into account all of its members and not just the chosen few.

This, of course, then asks the question of whether or not this is truly a representative government, or is it unfairly influenced by the privileged few? That question will have to wait until another day.

What cannot be debated or questioned is that this Grand Experiment is still going strong, 225 years after the first signing, and as long as it is based on the principles of freedom, there is hope for the citizens bound by its laws.

2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)



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      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        19 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Thank you Norlawrence! Oddly, this one has consistently done very well over the years, and I'm not sure why that is.

      • profile image

        norlawrence 

        19 months ago

        Thanks for this great article. You explained it so well and made everything very clear. I submitted an article on the Electoral College and one on Electors and Hub Pages but them on an Niche site but they have done terrible. Thanks again.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        22 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Jo, thank you for digging out this oldie! Compromise, I'm afraid, is a thing of the past in this country. I hope we learn how to do it again soon.

      • jo miller profile image

        Jo Miller 

        22 months ago from Tennessee

        What fascinates me about the Constitution is that they got it done. Those politicians. The establishment. And they disagreed, sometimes bitterly, but knew it was a task that needed doing and were willing to compromise. There were a few heroes there. Wish our Congress today would take a lesson from them because there's still some important work that needs doing in this country.

        Thanks for the good read. I love history.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Thanks J Phronesis. I appreciate your input.

      • profile image

        The J Phronesis 

        3 years ago

        I agree with you 100%, but i discovered that you omitted the bible. The bible and the founders religious beliefs also had something to do with the outcome of the constitution. I wrote a hub on it.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        You are very welcome, Shannon, and thank you.

      • profile image

        Shannon Fate 

        3 years ago

        Thank you so much for posting this article, it helped me out so much with my class discussion.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        3 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I'm glad to hear it, Max. Good luck with the school project, and thanks for reading this.

      • profile image

        max 

        3 years ago

        hi

        i appreciate this info it is for a school project :D

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        4 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Nathan, I'm glad to hear you found something new here. Thank you so much for stopping by.

      • Nathan Orf profile image

        Nathan Orf 

        4 years ago

        Half of this is stuff I didn't know before I read it. So much good information, in so concise an article, you really are a great writer. I find it sad how few people understand the Constitution or how important it is to their lives.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        4 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Well have fun, Bob, and I hope you learn something. :)

      • profile image

        Bob 

        4 years ago

        I'm in school

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        wba, thank you for the visit. This document has always been a living document, as it changes along with society. Nothing out of date about it.

      • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

        wba108@yahoo.com 

        5 years ago from upstate, NY

        Nice bit of writing and an informative history lesson! This is an interesting look at the origins of limited government, natural rights and the separation of powers. I cringe when I hear people whine about how the Constitution is out of date and no longer relevant!

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Beadreamer....the only way I know to fight this current trend is to raise awareness on an individual level...I am incapable of staying quiet. Thank you for your activist attitude.

      • beadreamer247 profile image

        beadreamer247 

        5 years ago from Zephyrhills, FL

        An interesting hub, though I fear for the future of the freedom they were talking about back then....People came to seek freedom, and here we are fighting for it in so many ways ...again....

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Lastheart, thank you so much! I don't remember seeing any hubs from you lately; I need to go check.

      • Lastheart profile image

        Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill 

        5 years ago from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord

        I will go to sleep now with the lesson I got from this interesting hub. Our Constitution and so many laws and ...things are based in United States. What I like most about your hubs is the fact that your last sentence hits me: "it is based on the principles of freedom, there is hope for the citizens bound by its laws."

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Toknowinfo, I can't argue with that for a second. Giants they all were, and now we have midgets. It is sad, but there is still hope because of the Constitution. Thank you my friend!

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Thank you Avian!

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 

        5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        A beautiful historical piece, Billy.!

      • toknowinfo profile image

        toknowinfo 

        5 years ago

        Your hub is fantastic. It shows how the framers of the Constitution learned from great men of the past. I admire all the men who put the Constitution together. It is one of my favorite times in history. It makes you wonder why the leaders of today, don't look to learn more from these men. If our politicians had even a small amount of their brain power and foresight I think our country and the times we are living in would be vastly improved.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Poetvix, when I taught middle school the kids would groan when they knew they had to take my Political Science course....and then they were fascinated once they got into it. Our history is incredibly interesting, but sadly most school don't even teach this in-depth. I love the evolution of the Constitution; it stands as one of the most important documents written in the history of the world and should be given its due in schools.

        Thank you my old friend (not old in age of course)....I have always felt a kinship with you, and you were one of the first to support me when I started almost eight months ago.

      • poetvix profile image

        poetvix 

        5 years ago from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country.

        As stated, it's amazing how many have no idea where your opening quote came from. I'm talking adults here, not just children. I hear people talking about how it's an outdated document, it's holding back change and all other manner of what I feel is rubbish. It's a document that to me is second only to the Bible.

        It allowed for freedom and success for a bunch of rejects and runaways from other countries who banded together and forged the country we enjoy, a level that had never been seen before and has never been equaled. That document is what allows us freedom. To me, it seems our most valuable national asset.

        I love the listing format used here and what an interesting evolution. I anticipate referring back to it many times. Thanks!

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Dianna, not a bad idea at all. :)

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        5 years ago

        Bill, maybe we will all have to pitch in and do hubs on it. Maybe take turns writing under the titles.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Honestly Dianna they are not teaching this. Bev's daughter, who is fourteen, had no idea what I was talking about....and of course I found that incredibly sad.

        Thank you....what are we going to do about the growing ignorance in this country?

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        5 years ago

        This was a great lesson in history and I have never been more interested. I agree that the constitution is the most memorable and significant in our nation's history. Hope they are teaching this in our grade schools today. It would really make a difference in our future leadership.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Glimmer, thank you! I happen to be a big fan of the Constitution, and I am of the belief that citizens should know about it. It is such a huge part of our history, and it affects us daily.

      • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

        Claudia Mitchell 

        5 years ago

        Very interesting hub and bringing back school memories. I especially enjoyed the section where you tied the architects of the constitution to past significant events. It really brought it all together for me and reinforces the idea of how important our Constitution is.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Graham, I actually agree on that point. I'm sure many want change immediately but I think that just fosters mistakes by the carload. Thank you Sir!

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Pamela, thank you; I wish more people felt as you do. I hope you are well and I'm sending you a smile.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Michelle, you would be amazed by the number of Americans who cannot comment on the Constitution. :) Thank you for reading it anyway; greatly appreciated.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Rosalinem, I loved that line; I am not surprised that you highlighted it. That is a powerful message. Thank you for returning for that comment.

      • old albion profile image

        Graham Lee 

        5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

        Hi Bill. Another cracking informative analytical hub! In this world of ours I think it is good that the winds of change blow slowly. First class.

        Voted up and all.

        Graham.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        5 years ago

        This is a good history lesson or review of history for all of us. It shows the pattern that led us to freedom and I believe the Constitution is just as important today as the day it was written. Voted up, awesome and interesting.

      • midget38 profile image

        Michelle Liew 

        5 years ago from Singapore

        Excellent history lesson, bill. I guess, on the questions posed in your hub, there can be no perfect law or constitution...nothing earthly can ever be free of flaw. I don't think I would be in the position to comment further on the American constitution, being Singaporean...but I do find your presentation of historical facts thorough and fascinating! Thanks for the evening read!

      • Rosalinem profile image

        Rosalinem 

        5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

        I had read your hub and not commented but there is this statement that you have included that deserves acknowledgement "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they." I always get something positive from your writing, very appreciated.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Very true Martin! Funny and yet incredibly disturbing. :) Thank you Sir!

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 

        5 years ago from San Francisco

        Excellent work! Here is a fun(ny) fact. Immigrants are more familiar with the Constitution than Americans. Why? - Because of the citizenship test. :))

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Yes we are, Michele, and that is indeed sad.

      • Michele Travis profile image

        Michele Travis 

        5 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

        bill I agree with you, but that is a very sad thing. We are going to lose connections with our past.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Michele, history isn't as important any longer now that standardized testing has taken over education. I fear there will be fewer and fewer in the generations to come who will learn this.

        Thank you my friend.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Thanks Julie! It's nice to know people still find social studies interesting.

      • Michele Travis profile image

        Michele Travis 

        5 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

        bill this is a very good hub, one of the problems is ( not the hub) is we are not taught much about this in school. That bothers me very much. When I went to school, there was so much focus on social studies. Why so little on history? I blame it on the hippies.

        I also agree with CloudExplorer. You know that is still going on all over the planet, and it should not! If only we could perfect the constitution.

        At any rate, thank you for writing this hub. There is a lot of information you have given to us.

        Voted up.

      • Julie DeNeen profile image

        Blurter of Indiscretions 

        5 years ago from Clinton CT

        This was very well done. I love American history, so I am enjoying these hubs you are cranking out!

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Paula, I would be willing to bet that 90% of the citizens do not understand what is in the Constitution other than the freedom of speech, religion and right to bear arms. I have always found it fascinating but then I'm weird like that.

        Glad you liked it; as for the page one on Google thing, I'm not holding out hopes. LOL Thanks my friend.

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 

        5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        WOW! Bill...you're on an extra big roll, Sir Teacher!! ANOTHER page One Google..hub!! For sure!

        Yes....I suppose we all know where, "We the people," comes from. beyond that how much do very many of us know...as in, can we quote it, know it's origin, understand the principles involved? HA! These are the questions, right? And actually, I'm a guilty party. It's so vital for us to have this knowledge. Thanks for this History lesson. Very interesting and eye-opening.... I hope it encourages many of US to study further on the Constitution!.UP++

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Mike, if I had the answers to your questions then you and I could change the world in a big way. I'm going to be doing a hub on this subject soon....the social ills in this nation and the source of them....and why we, as a country, are not addressing those problems. Every single one of your statements are valid and I agree with every one of them.

        The Constitution is an incredible document, but it is, unfortunately, not even close to being the guiding light it was meant to be. I can in part forgive the founding fathers because some of the social ills you mentioned, like slavery, were not seen by many to be wrong. Today, however, we have no excuses. Any intelligent human being can look at the social ills of today and know that they are wrong....so why isn't anyone changing them?

        You and I are going to have to do this by ourselves, buddy.

        Thank you as always.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Suzette, thank you! They were revolutionaries for sure, and like you, I hope we keep it that way.

      • suzettenaples profile image

        Suzette Walker 

        5 years ago from Taos, NM

        Good historical review, Bill. We forget where some of our consitutions ideas originated. The Founding Fathers were wise indeed and great thinkers when it came to the ideas of their day. There were smart to include these other men's ideas in our government. We have the best constitution in the world - I hope we can keep it that way!

      • CloudExplorer profile image

        Mike Pugh 

        5 years ago from New York City

        Bill this hub is a powerful resource of all that has been accurately accounted to that of the U.S. Constitutions crafting, oh yes indeed.

        One matter I tend to debate with inside of myself is, why is it that there was no mention of slave ownership back then in the constitution, the conquering over indigenous people, building of America's labor forces & much more using slavery, the widespread genocide, and relocation of the Native Americans, which lead to this country being so divided shortly thereafter when the U.S. Constitution was written back then, because none of it made sense if certain individuals were simply ignored, and blatantly left out of the whole equation back then.

        This is the true source of many of our more modern problems today in my honest opinion "The whole making of the Americas", and the very reason why this planet indeed has many of the unresolved issues it has today, mainly because this country was crafted under some pretty unrighteous means, let alone it be smitten by a false doctrine of sorts.

        I say this because human rights has always been the key to many of our issue's on this planet, and if such a document has been crafted at such a time when all the conditions were set for wrong doings to continue to take place, then in my book of life, I do believe it is false in itself, mainly because the founding fathers were mostly slave owners themselves pretty much, and when I say founding fathers I mean of The United States of America.

        No wonder why they were so attracted to that Roman concept as you stated here Bill, I just cannot swallow the red pill sort of speak like that without fully expressing my frustration with such a huge error in human history.

        As you also stated here, it was a doctrine conjured up for the fact of building upon the principles of injustice, I never understood why such a thing could come about when people had been suffering so intentionally underneath its complete and utter founding.

        All of this I wrote is not to take away from your article here Bill, it is things that have always surfaced in my mind, and mainly because I'm on the other side if the coin as you very well known, and needed to know why are certain things simply omitted from the history books, never spoken of when such so called Great things have occurred, when they were in fact something that any normal human could come up with.

        I just wonder my friend, pretty much.

        Very well thought out hub here, great format and positioning, very well written as you do on all of your hubs.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        HSchneider, thank you! It's a bit hard condensing it into 1500 words, but I'm very happy that you enjoyed it.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Thank you Carol! I loved teaching U.S. History; I think we have a fascinating legacy to pass on to the youth.

      • profile image

        Howard Schneider 

        5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

        Excellent history of the genesis of our Constitution. Bravo, Billybuc.

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        LaThing, I hope you do finish it...this is fascinating stuff, and our founding fathers were complicated men who did an unbelievable job. I look forward to your hub and thank you!

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Janine, you are a treasure! Thank you...no, I don't think the principles are dead, but I do think as citizens it is our responsibility to make sure they aren't pushed aside. :)

      • carol7777 profile image

        carol stanley 

        5 years ago from Arizona

        Most of this information I had not a clue..or forgot. I love reading about history especially have it condensed. I felt like I was back in school..except I paid more attention to your writings.

      • LaThing profile image

        LaThing 

        5 years ago from From a World Within, USA

        This is a wonderful article! I was just reading about it, and started an article on the 'Values of our Founding Fathers', don't know if I will ever finish it, lol....

        Enjoyed reading this well gathered information. Voting up and interesting!

      • Janine Huldie profile image

        Janine Huldie 

        5 years ago from New York, New York

        Bill, what a treat to be able to read two very wonderful articles by you today. That said I always was very fascinated by history and knew a great deal from my Social Studies classes when I was in school. I always loved learning about different times in history, especially as the old saying goes, "So as not repeat history!" Seriously, thank you for a bit of re-education and for giving us a bit of hope that the principles of freedom are not indeed dead. Have of course voted, shared and tweeted too!!

      • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill Holland 

        5 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Julie, it really is fascinating stuff! Take an idea here, take an idea there, and change the world. Thank you my friend; I was hoping you would see this one.

      • Jools99 profile image

        Jools99 

        5 years ago from North-East UK

        Bill, Excellent hub, very interesting ..Your country's constitution is evidence of the Enlightenment in Europe and shows that the USA understood the philosophical revolution taking place in Europe. Of course in France just 2 years later, those same ideas led in part to the revolution. France though still had a monarchy and an aristocracy bleeding the rest of the people dry. The USA were beyond that by then. Amazing to think of how powerful texts were becoming and how the ideas were embraced so many miles away.

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