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The flames kindled on the Fourth of July, 1776, have spread
over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821

The U.S. Constitution has the oldest written national framework of government in the world. At the end of the 20th century, there were about 159 other national constitutions in the world, and 101 had been adopted since 1970. While the United States has been governed by a single framework of government for over two centuries, France, in contrast, has had 10 separate and distinct constitutional orders (including five republics, two empires, a monarchy, and two dictatorships). The country of El Salvador has had 36 constitutions since 1824.

Nearly all of the national constitutions now in use bear the marks of the 55 men who met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to create the framework of the United States government. Like the U.S. constitution, they are written constitution. They also spell out human and civil rights similar to those contained in the U.S. document. A bill of Rights is particularly common. The principles of American constitutionalism--the separation of powers, the bill of rights, a bicameral legislature, and a presidential form of government--were followed by many nations. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 created a governmental framework that has not only lasted two centuries but has served as a model for freedom-loving people all over the world.

The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution, oil painting (reproduction) by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940
The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution, oil painting (reproduction)
by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940

In almost every way imaginable, the United States has been radically transformed over the past two centuries. Its population has soared from just 4 million to nearly 300 million. The federal budget has risen from $4 million in 1790 to over $1 trillion today. Yet the basic framework of government has remained unchanged.

At the end of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington said, "I do not expect the Constitution to last for more than 20 years." Today, the United States has oldest written constitution in the world. Why has the Constitution survived?

The framers of the Constitution established the broad structure of government but also left the system flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions. A document of less than 6,000 words, the Constitution is not overly detailed. Over the years, Congresses, presidents, and the courts have reinterpreted to document to meet the needs of the moment.

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