Constitutions The rock upon which a democratic government rests is its constitution--the formal statement of its fundamental obligations, limitations, procedures, and institutions. The constitution of the country is the supreme law of the land, and all citizens, prime ministers to peasants alike, are subject to its provisions. At a minimum, the constitution, which is usually codified in a single written document, establishes the authority of the national government, provides guarantees for fundamental human rights, and sets forth the government's basic operating procedures.
Despite their enduring, monumental qualities, constitutions must be capable of change and adaptation if they are to be more than admirable fossils. The world's oldest written constitution, that of the United States, consists of seven brief articles and 27 amendments. This written document, however, is only the foundation for a vast structure of judicial decisions, statutes, presidential actions, and traditional practices that has been erected over the past 200 years--and kept the U.S. Constitution alive and relevant.
This pattern of constitutional evolution takes place in every democracy. In general, there are two schools of thought about the process of amending, or changing, a nation's constitution. One is to adopt a difficult procedure, requiring many steps and large majorities. As a result, the constitution is changed infrequently, and then only for compelling reasons that receive substantial public support. This is the model of the United States, whose Constitution is a brief statement of the general principles, powers, and limits of government, together with a more specific listing of duties, procedures, and, in the Bill of Rights, the fundamental rights of individual citizens.
A much simpler method of amendment, which many nations use, is to provide that any amendment may be adopted by approval of the legislature and passed by the voters at the next election. Constitutions able to be changed in this fashion can be quite lengthy, with specific provisions that differ little from the general body of legislation.
No constitution like America's, written in the 18th century, could have survived unchanged into the late 20th century. Similarly, no constitution in force today will survive into the next century without the capacity for change--while still holding fast to principles of individual rights, due process, and government through the consent of the governed.