September 17 is designated as Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO.
The drafting of the United States Constitution was a landmark event in the history of governments. Older nations were ruled by laws created by the reigning monarch, and representative and democratic government was practically nonexistent in the 18th century.
Rather than govern by the rule of a sovereign, the United States Constitution dictated rule by popular consent with laws drafted by the people’s representatives. It was an experiment of social, political, economic, and public opinion combined to create a new type of society governed by the rule of law.
The foundation was the Constitution, which resulted from months of debate between convention delegates. On September 17, 1787, the delegates signed the final version. The Constitution introduced novel governmental doctrine and practices such as checks and balances, separating powers between branches, and defining said powers. The amendment process also made the Constitution a living document that could be changed with enough support from the people and ratification by the states.
Coupled with its ways of delegating authority and allowing for representative government, a major legacy of the Constitution was its global impact on legal thinking and adaptation in emerging nations. Beginning in the mid-19th century, European colonies referenced the U.S. Constitution in developing their own freely elected governments, citing the rights of man and the separation of powers. President of Mexico Benito Juarez implemented practices like judicial review when introducing more liberal policies into the Mexican constitution. Juarez drew much of his legal inspiration from the United States because of its republican and democratic practices. A number of Latin American countries followed suit in the 19th and 20th centuries by developing similar constitutions and a federalist framework of government.
Nationalists such as Jose Rizal of the Philippines and Sun Yat-sen of China drew inspiration from the Constitution in their calls for political reform. Rizal advocated for reform from the Spanish government, calling for basic freedoms, reinstating the former representative parliament in the Philippines, and equality among Filipinos. Rizal cited the U.S. Constitution in pushing for Filipino representation in the Spanish Parliament—similar to calls for American representation in the British Parliament prior to the American Revolution. Sun Yat-sen was reportedly heavily influenced by the U.S. Constitution in forming a provisional Republican government in China in the early 20th century.
Global influence of the Constitution was at its peak at the turn of the 20th century as former European colonies began self-governance and formed federal and parliamentary models of government. Independence movements after World War II heavily referenced the U.S. Constitution. African self-rule in the 1950s and 1960s borrowed heavily from the British model of government, but they drew significant inspiration from the U.S. Constitution when creating courts, separating powers, and defining powers of the executive branch. The last two decades, however, have seen a decreasing reliance on the Constitution for ideas and model of government.
The worldwide influence of the U.S. Constitution has been profound, although not without its critics. However, its impact on the history of ideas and legal thinking has remained strong since September 17, 1787.
Learn more about the U.S. Constitution and Constitution Day in these posts: