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I was reading Wikipedia today, specifically the Constitution of Medina article and it states:

This was the first written constitution in the history of the world.

With two book references (that I'm unable to access, unfortunately). This seemed a tad late to me (622 CE), so I found the History of Democracy article and the Constitution article, which lists several constitutions prior to this, written and unwritten.

I found this surprising, and was wondering if there is major dispute about which came first and which is considered by historians to have been the first?

  • What exactly do you mean by a constitution? Does the word itself have importance? Or is it any foundational legal text for a nation? San Marino's statutes of 1600 may very well qualify for one of the oldest ever, but if you allow the 'constitutions' of past non-extant civilizations, then the first constitution may be much older. – Αδριανός Mar 10 '16 at 23:13
  • @Αδριανός I'm just using the name given to the article. I see that it's probably not really applicable, but as the question below indicates, it's probably a case of adherents exaggerating its importance. That's interesting about the San Marino statutes, though, thanks, I'll look them up! – iain Mar 11 '16 at 3:41
  • San Marino's would be the oldest still in use, unless you believe Saudi Arabia's claim that their constitution is the Qu'ran. – WGroleau Sep 18 '16 at 0:05
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The use of this so-called "constitution of Medina" is purely modern and has no historical usage at all. Originally, the document referred to was called a "treaty". It was not even called a charter until the 20th century. It has never been called a "constitution" by any English-speaking historian ever so far as I am aware.

The first "constitution" was the Britannic Constitution created by the Coronation Oath Act in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution. The origin of the term can be found in the first paragraph of the act:

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In the wake of this deal between the English parliament and the Dutch stadtholder William, a number of English legal theorists devised a body of supposed law and "rights" which they termed the Britannic Constitution, which was essentially the creation of the idea of a "constitutional monarchy". When the American colonies of Britain revolted they devised their own articles of state which they likewise called a "Constitution" and subsequently also devised a "Bill of Rights" named after those articles which were already established by English parliamentary law and theory.

Since that time, innumerable countries have fashioned "constitutions" in imitation of that of the United States.

To call old bodies of laws like Hammurabi's Code "constitutions" would be anachronistic.

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    I have edited this to remove material that I think (a) strains our "be nice" policy and (b) is not germane to the question. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 9 '18 at 20:08
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    Please clarify the section on why the word "constitution" should not apply to Hammurabi's Code. – Aaron Brick Jun 9 '18 at 21:18
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The idea of a written Constitution dates back to Antiquity. Aristotle himself devoted an entire treatise to "The Constitution of Athens" and had also meticulously studied various written Constitutions throughout the Hellenic world, but also included other neighboring cultures, such as Carthage.

The Athenian Constitution's earliest origins may date to Solon-(circa 600 BC/BCE) and Sparta's Constitution dates to Lycurgus-(though I don't have the approximate date).

The Carthaginian Constitution may predate both the Athenian and Spartan Constitutions, though I don't have the exact date.

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I believe the Instrument of Government for Commonwealth of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland that established the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell is the first example of a document that relatively comprehensively sets forth the structure and powers of government for a Nation State. I'm willing to accept San Marino, although it's hard to consider it a nation state. And we should never forget the written Constitution of the Republic of Corsica, which is a clear forerunner to the US Constitution.

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    Good answer; sources/citations/links would make it a great answer. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 13 '16 at 20:37
  • For more information see Pre-modern constitutions – Peter Diehr Aug 13 '16 at 23:37
  • @PeterDiehr: By that article's definition, Aristotle identified several constitutions which of course must have existed prior to his writing about them. – WGroleau Sep 17 '16 at 23:50
  • Why "hard to consider"? San Marino has been an independent country since the fourth century. They claim to have been a democracy all along. Currently governed by a constitution from the 16th century. – WGroleau Sep 18 '16 at 0:03

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