10 Oldest Constitutions In The World

The world's oldest constitutions
The world's oldest constitutions

The fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed in the modern world are aggregated in a country’s constitution. And while most of the world citizens’ rights are guaranteed by their country’s main document, they do not always know its origins. Thus many sceptics believe most of the world’s constitutions to be somewhat outdated despite even the oldest constitutions being constantly changed and adopted to the realities of the modern world.

And it is no surprise, since the first constitution every written was compiled more than 300 years ago. Which one? We bet that most would be surprised by the country of its origin. So, let’s take a look at the list of oldest constitutions in the world.

10. Constitution of Canada

Constitution of Canada
Constitution Act of 1867

Originating from the Constitution Act of 1867 the Constitution of Canada establishes the country as one of the oldest constitutional democracies in the world.

First called the British North America Act the document outlined Canada’s system of government and established Canadian federalism as it is known today. It is also the primary document of Canadian Confederation which united the three North American British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the Dominion of Canada.

Technically, the UK could make changes to the Constitution of Canada all the way until 1982 (even though it has never interfered in the Canadian affairs). And only the Constitution Act of 1982 revoked that right. The document includes Aboriginal and treaty rights, as well ass reaffirms Canada as a bijural country – the one that has both common and civil law systems.

9. Constitution of Argentina

Written in 1853 by Constitutional Assembly in Santa Fe, the Constitution of Argentina is the oldest constitution in South America, and one of the oldest constitutions in the world. The basis of the Argentinian Constitution has been heavily influenced and even partially taken from the Constitution of the United States of America.

The original text of the constitution was drafted by Juan Bautista Alberdi and has caused the Province of Buenos Aires to leave the Argentine Confederation. Yet the first amendment to the Constitution was made only 7 years after the original text, changing the original name of the country to República Argentina and promising the exclusive rights guaranteed by the Treaty of San Nicolás to Buenos Aires, thus marking the return of Buenos Aires to Argentine Republic.

The Constitution of Argentina has seen undergone multiple major reforms, the latest being in 1994.

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8. Constitution of Denmark

Consitution of Denmark
Front page of the first constitution from 1849 | Public Domain

The Constitutional Act of the Realm of Denmark was originally adopted in 1849, preceding the modern version of the Constitutional Act of the Kingdom of Denmark adopted in 1953. It is equally applied no only in Denmark, but also in Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

The Kingdom of Denmark has a unique situation where the Constitution of Denmark forms only a part of the country’s laws. The other part is addressed in the second document – Royal Law. The Danish Constitution establishes Denmark as a constitutional monarchy ending the times in which Denmark was an absolute monarchy (from 1660 to 1848).

Unlike many other (even older) constitutions, the Constitution of Denmark has been amended only a few times during the last 160 years. And there are couple of reasons for that: first, and foremost, making an amendment is a very complex procedure in Denmark which requires both the Parliament and the citizens agree on it. The second being that the original language of the constitution is so general, that it can easily be applied to the reality of the modern world.

7. The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation

Swiss Constitution
Swiss First Federal Constitution | parlament.ch

The Swiss federal state has been established by the Constitution of 12 September 1848 which makes it seventh of the oldest constitutions in the world. It was heavily influenced by the Constitution of the United States, and, like on many other Constitutions of the region, the ideals of the French Revolution also had a major effect on its content.

The first major revision of the Constitution of Switzerland was in 1866 which gave more rights to the general public and electorate. Since then and until the 1990s twelve changes were made to the country’s main document (with an unbelivable break of 35 years between 1950–1980).

Yet in the 1990s, the Federal Constitution has been wholly revised and approved by popular and cantonal vote on 18 April 1999, providing a provision for nine fundamental rights. The Constitution also establishes Switzerland as a federal republic of 26 cantons (Swiss equivalent of states).

6. Constitution of Belgium

Written in 1831, the Constitution of Belgium established the country as a parliamentary monarchy. The document also applied the principles of individual ministerial responsibility and the separation of powers.

The Constitution has been written shortly after the Belgian Revolution and its secession from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Originally the Constitution established the newly created country as a centralised unitary state, and it has remained such all the way until 1970. Since then Belgium has gradually transformed into a federal state due the drastic state reforms, the most drastic of which was ratified in 1993.

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5. Constitution of the Netherlands

The Constitution for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 1848 Reform Vera de Kok / CC BY-SA

The Constitution for the Kingdom of the Netherlands was originally written in the year 1815 and constituted a constitutional monarchy. Yet it has been rather soon revised and by the year 1848 it instituted a system of parliamentary democracy. Such reforms were carried out under pressure from the Revolutions in the surrounding countries of the same year. And so, in order to not follow the path of such King William II agreed to strengthen The House of Representatives which was not directly elected until then.

Since then the Constitution of the Netherlands has been revised and rewritten multiple times. And yet still it is the third oldest constitution still in use in the world.

And yet, despite the Netherlands being one of the most advanced democracies in the world, rights for its citizens were not included into the country’s constitution until 1983. The final revision of the Constitution or the Kingdom of the Netherlands was in 2002 and it remained unchanged since.

4. Constitution of Norway

Constitution of Norway, Christiania 1814 printed by Jacob Lehmann

Adopted all the way back on 17 May 1814 Norwegian Constitution is not only the forth of the oldest constitutions in the world, but also happens to be the second oldest written Constitution still in full existence. It was signed by bythe Norwegian Constituent Assembly at Eidsvoll. It’s main pillars were and to the day are:

  • the sovereignty of the people
  • the separation of powers
  • human rights

The main source of inspiration back in 1814 was the US Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the US Constitution (which is also on the list). And of course it has experienced major changes throughout the years, especially during May 2014, when it was drastically revised.

3. Governance Act of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth

Written for the dual-monarchy of Poland and Lithuania the constitution implemented a constitutional monarchy and introduced the notion of absolute political equality between the of the Commonwealth. The Constitution was adopted by the Great Sejm of the Commonwealth on 3 May 1791 and is often called after the date of its adoption.

The Constitution has been in force for only 19 months. It was the first Constitution in the world to combine the monarchic republic with an absolute division of executive, legislative, and judiciary powers (although not the first to introduce such division).

2. We The People – Constitution of the United States of America

Constitution of the United States page 1 We the People
First sentences of the first page of the Constitution of the United States National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

The second constitution in the world was created on September 17, 1787. Despite the popular belief it is not the first constitution ever written, yet it is the oldest continuously-active codified constitution used to this day.

The Constitution originally comprised of seven articles. It delineates the national frame of government. And although it has been written in 1787 it did not come to force until 1789. The US Constitution includes a Bill of Rights and has been amended 27 times since the eighteenth century to be able to answer the challenges of the modern world.

We the People – the first three words of the US Constitution are known to the entire world and became a slogan of the people of the United States of America. According to the US Senate, they mean that “the government of the United States exists to serve its citizens”. The US Constitution has a special place in this list of the oldest constitutions of the world since it has been an inspiration and a role model of a legal document for many other nations both in the Americas and overseas.

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1. Agreements and Constitutions of Laws and Freedoms of the Zaporizian Host (Ukraine)

First sentence of the first page of the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk (in Latin)
First sentence of the first page of the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk (in Latin) Håkan Henriksson (Narking) / CC BY

Written by Pylyp Orlyk, hetman of the Zaporozhian Host (Ukraine) in 1710, this document is believed to be the first ever written constitution. It also is the very first legal document to establish the separation of powers in government between the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches in a modern “democratic” way in our understanding.

The Constitution was written after the joint forces of Charles XII of Sweden‘s and Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s of Ukraine’s armies’ defeat by Peter I of Russia during the Battle of Poltava and the forced retreat of the Cossacks to the city of Bendery (modern Moldova). And thus this constitution is sometimes referred to as Bendery Constitution.

Despite being a Hetman (ruler) of the Zaporozhian Host, Orlyk limited his own executive authority which was unprecedented at that time. Furthermore, he established a democratically elected Cossack parliament called the General Council.

The Constitution consisted of 16 articles and a preamble. It was written in both Ukrainian and Latin.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Check out the Cyrus Cylinder – British Museum – A declaration by Cyrus, King of the Persians, made shortly after he had taken over rule of Babylon, in 539BC.
    It contains, apart from other things, a basic statement of Human rights and duties for his Babylonian rule.
    A Constitution by another name.

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